19th Knesset’s dying wish: Drive Africans from Israel

One hour before the 19th Israeli Knesset, or parliament, dissolved forever on Dec. 8, its members made a last-ditch effort to save Holot, the “open” desert prison they created one year prior to detain undocumented Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants.

On the table was a fifth amendment to the half-century-old Anti-Infiltration Law — created to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel, but amended in recent years to govern the fate of 50,000 Africans who trekked to Israel’s southern border seeking work and asylum.

The latest amendment comes in response to a Supreme Court ruling in September that found Holot to be unconstitutional. Instead of closing it completely, Knesset members proposed that individual prison terms be limited to 20 months, and that prisoner check-ins be cut from three times per day to once each night.

After the final tally on the night of Dec. 8, the bill passed 41 to 29.

Members of the 19th Knesset, known for their high-drama plenum battles, used the vote to stage a final showdown of ideals.

“[We must] keep this country as the nation-state of the Jewish people and not invite a situation in which thousands of infiltrators come here to find work,” said right-wing Knesset member Miri Regev, a member of the prime minister’s Likud Party. “It’s a disgrace that parties who call themselves Zionist, like the Labor Party, opposed this bill.”

Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz, a former TV reporter belonging to the leftist Meretz Party, fired back. “It’s too bad Regev and the interior minister didn’t read the High Court’s first verdict overturning the law,” he said. “They would have understood that in a democratic state, it is impossible to imprison people without a trial. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Blacks from Africa, blonds from Sweden or people from Tel Aviv or Yeruham.”

Between 1,000 and 2,000 asylum seekers waited outside Ministry of Interior offices all day on Nov. 8, but none were admitted inside.

The goal of the new legislation, as stated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it was drafted on Nov. 30, is to continue driving undocumented Africans out of Israel.

“It fits the reality,” Netanyahu said of the law. “It also fits the rulings of the High Court of Justice. I remind you that Israel has achieved the extraordinary, which I’m very proud of, in blocking illegal migration across our borders — zero illegal migrants. Part of this entails repatriating illegal migrants. This year we repatriated over 6,000
illegal migrants. This legislation is designed to enable us to continue this trend.”

Tel Aviv University law professor Aeyal Gross pointed out that in the Supreme Court majority opinion, Justice Uzi Vogelman wrote that the legal question “isn’t solely quantitative — what is the maximum constitutional length of time for detention in custody — but whether it’s permissible to detain someone in custody for whom there is no effective deportation procedure. To this question I respond … absolutely not.”

Bashir Adam Abdalla, one Sudanese asylum seeker among approximately 2,500 prisoners currently living in rows of tightly packed containers on the remote Holot campus, already has served 10 months. He said another 10 feels like “forever.”

Abdalla said two of his fellow Holot prisoners — who are also his childhood friends from the Blue Nile region of Sudan — recently accepted Israel’s offer of $3,500 to return home. They are among the hundreds now thought to be jailed or disappeared by the Sudanese government after returning from Israel.

“They have a problem in their country, but Israel didn’t help them,” Abdalla said.

Neither Israel’s political left nor right seems very pleased in the wake of the vote. Pundits on both sides called the law a lesser evil that didn’t solve core issues — namely, reducing poverty and crime in South Tel Aviv, where the African immigrants are concentrated.

A 20-month prison term is “without any logic,” said Anat Ovadia, spokeswoman for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, one of the Israeli nongovernmental organizations that took the Knesset to court for creating Holot. When prisoners are released back into the Israeli public, she said, “They will be in worse shape than before. Before they go to prison, they build a life, a job, a community — and now they have to start all over again. It will make problems for everyone.”

Ministry of Interior security guards said they would not admit any asylum seekers into the Bnei Brak visa center until they formed a more organized line.

Hotline for Refugees and Migrants scored a separate legal victory in late November, when around 180 Holot prisoners were freed on the grounds that they’d already been jailed in Israel for two years without trial.

Last night, by comparison, was a disappointment. “I’m really frustrated, since I believed we could win this time,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at Hotline.

But the organization plans once again to fight the latest edition of the Anti-Infiltration Law at the Supreme Court level. “[We hope] the next Knesset will finally promote an appropriate solution to South Tel Aviv’s Israeli residents and asylum seekers alike, instead of more incitement and populism,” Hotline said in a statement.

The opposition isn’t much happier. Yonatan Jakubowicz, PR director for the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, an advocacy organization for Israelis living in South Tel Aviv, said that, in general, residents “expected a much stricter law — something more effective.” Especially, he said, after they saw that the law in its previous form, which allowed for indefinite detention at Holot, convinced more than 6,000 Africans to leave Israel.

“The new law is better than the worst evil,” he said. “But I’m skeptical that 20 months in Holot will get the effect we’re looking for, which is that economic migrants will go back to their home countries.”

However, Jakubowicz is hopeful that a less-publicized economic penalty included in the new amendment — one his organization has long been pushing for — will separate migrant workers from asylum seekers.

Under the law, undocumented Africans — thousands of whom have applied for asylum but either have been rejected or received no response — now will have to hand over 20 percent of their salaries to the Israeli government, money that will be returned to them only upon departure from Israel. Employers, too, will pay fines for keeping them on staff.

“Once we take away the option of working, they’ll go back to their countries,” Jakubowicz said.

This could have far-reaching implications for employers of Israel’s Sudanese and Eritrean workforce — a fixture in hotels and restaurants across the country.

The law “may turn them into very expensive employees, much more than an Israeli,” said Shabtai Shay, director of the Eilat Hotel Association in the resort city in the south.

The problem with this, he said, is that Eilat hotels haven’t been able to find Israeli citizens willing to do the job: “There was a plan to hire Israelis, but it failed,” he said. “Israelis didn’t want to come wash dishes and clean floors.”

According to Shay, it’s too soon to predict how employers will respond when the law goes into effect. “We are not fighting for the rights of the refugees,” he emphasized. “We try to employ them in a normal, regular way. But if we can’t, we need an alternative … or it will be reflected in hotel prices.”

Eritrean woman Okbit Demsas, right, said she had been waiting at the tucked-away Bnei Brak facility for almost a week. She showed the Journal a log of hundreds of names that she and other organizers had created to keep track of who was next in line.

Economic sanctions appear to be the new frontier of Israel’s African expulsion plan. The Knesset vote corresponded with a clear push by the Israeli Ministry of Interior to tighten the visa application process for Sudanese — and especially Eritrean — workers. 

In the weeks leading up to the vote, ministry officials closed all African processing centers in central and northern Israel — save for one makeshift office set up in Bnei Brak, a religious suburb on Tel Aviv’s northeastern edge. 

On Dec. 8, Roni Fisher, the employee manager at a popular Tel Aviv marriage hall, rode his motorcycle up to Bnei Brak. Visas for his three Eritrean staff members had expired days before, and the men couldn’t come back to work without proper papers. (Most visas issued to African asylum seekers are good for around two months before they need to be renewed.) Not understanding the holdup, Fisher headed to the ministry to vouch for them.

He was shocked by the scene he found there. “This is the first time it’s like this,” Fisher said.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 asylum seekers, among them dozens of pregnant women and parents toting small children, were crowded around a Ministry of Interior tent that had been erected in a slummy industrial area of Bnei Brak. Babies were crying. Pieces of cardboard littered an abandoned warehouse next door. Asylum seekers had been sleeping there overnight, afraid of losing their spot in line or getting caught by police without papers.  

Terminated or suspended from their jobs until their visas could be renewed, many had nowhere else to be. 

“I’ve been here since last Wednesday,” said 28-year-old Okbit Demsas, a young Eritrean mother. “There is no food, no water, no restrooms. It’s a terrible place.”

Okbit said she couldn’t return to her job as a janitor in Tel Aviv without a new visa. “If I can’t work, I can’t survive,” she said. “I will be kicked out of my apartment because I can’t pay the rent.”

Shielded from Bnei Brak’s looming Yes Planet mall complex by a few jumbo billboards and a highway overpass, the area surrounding the Ministry of Interior setup had become a temporary ghetto overflowing with African asylum seekers who had traveled from their apartments all over the country — Netanya, Herzliya, Tiberias — to secure legal status.

Asylum seekers in line told the Journal that only a handful of people had been admitted into the tent complex over the entire week prior.

Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabine Haddad would not provide the Journal with specific numbers of visa applications processed over this time period. Asked what caused the crisis in Bnei Brak, she said by phone on Dec. 9: “I know that yesterday, more than 2,500 people came there, and it’s a lot more than they can receive. But let me check that.” Later, she wrote in a text message: “We try our best to give good service.” Haddad did not respond to further requests for comment.

The situation outside Ministry of Interior offices changed considerably when, days into the crisis, a Jewish Journal reporter entered the premises.

Asked by the Journal why the line wasn’t moving, security guards said the Africans were acting too rowdy and impatient, and that it would be a security hazard to let them inside.

“They say they want order, but there are so many people here, there can never be order,” said Fisher, the Tel Aviv employer at the scene. (An elderly Bnei Brak resident walked by just then, looking bewildered. “What is all this?” she asked Fisher.)

Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party — whose votes critically swayed the new decision to keep Holot open — wrote on his Facebook page on Dec. 5 that Israel needed to separate Sudanese asylum seekers from Eritreans. The former, he said, should be treated “as Holocaust survivors. On the other hand, Eritrean labor migrants, who constitute the majority of those who infiltrated into the country, should be treated as illegal immigrants.”

(Lapid and others in his party, however, voted in favor of the Holot solution, which keeps hundreds of Sudanese asylum seekers jailed without trial and pressures others to return to Sudan.)

Eritreans in line at the Bnei Brak visa center rejected Lapid’s claim. Teclit Beyene, 24, described escaping from prison and fleeing Eritrea after he was jailed for giving a school presentation critical of the dictatorship. Another young man showed the Journal stripes of scar tissue running up his arms — left over from months of torture in the Sinai desert. He said he had been kidnapped from a Sudanese refugee camp by Bedouin traffickers and dumped at the Israeli border fence once his family paid a $30,000 ransom.

Okbit Demsas said she had also been tortured for weeks in the Sinai — all while her Bedouin captors held her small son in the room next door. 

In Israel, Demsas has been working as a janitor at the Channel 2 news studio in Tel Aviv. On Dec. 8, she contacted her employer about the situation. By the time Channel 2 news reporter Gilad Shalmor showed up in Bnei Brak the next morning, the Ministry of Interior office had begun handing out visas again at a slow trickle.

Ministry spokeswoman Haddad texted photos that security guards had snapped of Shalmor outside the Bnei Brak offices to the reporter’s own phone, asking if he needed her help with anything.

Said Channel 2’s Eritrean janitor, Demsas: “That’s why they hide us here. They don’t want anyone to see what they’re doing.”

Who’s afraid of the African asylum seekers of South Tel Aviv?

As a general rule in Tel Aviv, if your taxi driver is still gabbing about a national news event — more often than not, with a conservative slant — you can bet the topic is also trending citywide.

And of five taxi drivers this reporter has flagged down over the past week, four have complained about the ongoing nuisance that is the African migrant population of South Tel Aviv.

In a way, this enduring buzz is a sign of success for Israel’s 55,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that back them. The majority of the African asylum seekers are Christians and Muslims who fled to Israel by way of Egypt and the Sinai Desert over the last eight years, clustering mainly in South Tel Aviv. Their historic six-day strike, which lasted through Jan. 10 and allowed for daytime protests with turnouts over 20,000, may be finished for now, but the Africans’ fight to be recognized as refugees can still be felt throughout the city — most recently through a cultural appreciation event on Jan. 19.

On that Sunday, more than 50 restaurants and bars across Tel Aviv and neighboring Jaffa served traditional Eritrean and Sudanese dishes in place of their usual fare. Some also used the opportunity to throw a goodbye party for the African members of their kitchen staffs who have been summoned to the Holot detention facility in the Negev, Israel’s newest desert prison for illegal migrants.

At Ha’Tarnegol (“The Rooster”), an art cafe in Jaffa, well-known Darfuri chef Hassan Shakur — set to be imprisoned at Holot — whipped up platters of traditional porridge and sauces for a roomful of supporters.

The restaurant’s co-owner, Roee Avraham, said of Shakur: “For us, it’s a great honor to host him here, to learn from him and to help him as much as we can.”

Adil Adam, 28, another Sudanese volunteer lending a hand in the kitchen, said that, like Shakur, he must report to Holot by mid-February. Adam explained that he originally fled Darfur because he belonged to a group of activists at his university who opposed the government. Although some of his colleagues were murdered, Adam managed to escape. “What I expected to find in Israel was at least education,” he said. Instead, after three years working as a day laborer, he’s bracing himself for an indefinite term at Holot.

The night’s feel-good activities culminated at Levontin 7, a well-known hipster bar situated on the border of central and southern Tel Aviv. Three bands with members from various African countries took the stage — and the venue reached capacity within 15 minutes.

But the events seemed to attract a like-minded bunch. Members of local media outlets — the majority of which now openly side with the asylum seekers — squeezed into Ha’Tarnegol alongside NGO workers and other familiar faces from the protests. (“I think I will make a lot of friends tonight!” Adam said.) At one point, the kitchen was filled with more news cameras — from outlets like i24 News and the Jerusalem Post — than African cooks. 

International media coverage has, likewise, taken a cleanly pro-refugee approach. The New Yorker magazine, for instance, ran a lengthy piece after the Africans’ weeklong strike that argued strongly against Israeli policies.

These sympathies, though, are a world apart from the fear and resentment that still lingers in the more religious nooks of South Tel Aviv and in the hearts of conservatives across the city.

“The Israeli media will not mention this demonstration,” said Itai Sen, a resident of Tel Aviv’s tech suburb Ramat Gan, at a recent counter-protest to the African rallies. (And for the most part, he was correct.)

One handmade sign at the midcity protest read, in Hebrew: “Approximately every seven minutes, an Israeli is assaulted by an African!!!”

Although this demonstration was maybe one-fifth the size and intensity of the South Tel Aviv race riots of May 2012, it put a few hundred faces to anti-African sentiment that still smolders — mostly behind closed doors — and has largely driven government action.

“As a woman, I will tell you: I will never set foot in South Tel Aviv,” said Lizi Hameiri, a petite young brunette from North Tel Aviv who stopped by the protest. She said she had heard from a friend that “this week, [African migrants] raped a woman, and after they raped her, they smashed in her teeth.”

Another Israeli man who runs a fresh-juice bar along Menachem Begin Street — marking the upper border of South Tel Aviv — described an incident “about three or four months ago” in which he stabbed two African asylum seekers trying to rape a woman in an alley behind his house (located next to the juice bar). The man said he didn’t want his name published for fear that Tel Aviv cops would punish him for implying they weren’t doing their jobs. The tip of his thumb had apparently been sliced off — an injury he said he sustained in the stabbing.

A spokesman for the Israel Police said he had no “specific data” on African crime rates in the area. However, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants reported that police data from 2010 and 2011, presented at a government meeting, showed crime rates among Israelis to be more than double those of foreigners. 

Nevertheless, mistrust of the asylum seekers runs deep, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has aligned itself with those advocating expulsion.

Rather than arrest individual African asylum seekers who have committed street crimes and try them in court, the government is sending them to Holot en masse for the crime of infiltrating Israel’s border fence. (At press time, the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration had not responded to repeated requests for the number of migrants summoned to Holot. However, local NGOs are estimating that between 500 and 1,000 Africans have been summoned.)

In a Facebook statement on Jan. 5, Netanyahu made his end goal clear. “We completely stopped the infiltration into Israel,” he wrote of the country’s new fence with Egypt, “and now we are determined to send away the illegal migrant workers who [already] entered Israel.”

Danny, 46, an Indian-Israeli tile vendor who works a couple blocks from the Central Bus Station — and who did not wish to give his last name for fear of retribution — agreed with this approach. “The government has to worry about its own people first,” he said. 

Another Jewish woman working at a furniture store nearby, who would not give her first or last name, said that although she has never been robbed by an African in the neighborhood, “People are afraid to come to my business. And sometimes in the night, I am afraid, too.” She recommended that instead of sending African migrants to prison, the government should just “put them back in their own country.”

Israel has refrained from sending any Eritrean or Sudanese asylum seekers home against their will, in accordance with United Nations “non-refoulement” guidelines. But because Israeli officials have either denied or have yet to approve all requests for asylum filed by Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, the foreigners are stuck in limbo.

Mutasim Ali, 27, a Darfuri leader of the current refugee rights movement, said that his NGO, the African Refugee Development Center, has been distributing asylum request forms within the community — but that they’re not even sure where to turn them in.

Anyway, he said, “I’m not optimistic” that they’ll make any difference.

Due to the confusion surrounding the process, and its low success rate so far, the majority of Tel Aviv’s asylum seekers have not filled out the forms. Instead, they’re spending hours in long lines outside the Ministry of Interior, trying to renew their visas.

When they do finally reach the window, though, many are instead being handed mandatory invitations to report to Holot within 30 days.

One of the hundreds summoned to prison so far is Muhamad Musa, a 35-year-old asylum seeker from Darfur who came to Israel six years ago and now owns a watch and jewelry shop in the city’s half-abandoned Central Bus Station. On a recent Monday, Musa helped a steady stream of customers pick out pieces that suited them — including a young Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier in a kippah and an elderly Jewish woman, both of whom greeted him by name. 

“Everybody knows me here,” said Musa — including Tel Aviv police, who he said would know where to find him if he didn’t show up to Holot on Feb. 5.

A friend of Musa, who called himself only Khalifa, also stopped by the watch shop on Monday. Khalifa keeps his Holot letter inside a plastic sleeve tucked in his jacket pocket but pulled it out to show a visiting journalist. The form — printed in Hebrew, Arabic and the Eritrean language of Tigrinya — stated that Khalifa also had the option of accepting $3,500 to return to Darfur. 

But Musa and Khalifa both said they would rather do anything than return to Darfur, where they fear the worst.

Ali, head of the African Refugee Development Center, also has been summoned to Holot. “I’m not thinking about it yet, because I still have one long month,” Ali said over the phone, his normally calm voice on edge. “Right now, I’m thinking about those who go before me, in the next few days. We have a lot of work to do.”

As the countdown to Holot begins, Israeli authorities have shown no sign of slowing their plan to rid Tel Aviv of its African residents.

For some in the community, that’s a shame. “I live with them here, and I don’t think they’re dangerous,” Israeli real-estate agent Meir Landis said of the asylum seekers. After the strike, he said, “Now people understand — and the business owners know — how much we need them.”

A Jewish-Ethiopian liquor-store owner working across from the Central Bus Station, who has lived in Israel for almost 30 years — and who wished to remain anonymous, due to racial tension in the area — argued that racism is fueling government policies on Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.

“There is crime here [in South Tel Aviv], but no different than the rest of Israel,” he said. “I think many people are scared of them just because they’re black. If they were French, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

African asylum seekers battle fear in South Tel Aviv

Over the past two weeks, Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have staged the largest uprising in their eight-year history in Israel.

On Jan. 5, the first day of the protests, police estimate that more than 20,000 African asylum seekers — of the approximately 55,000 who have crossed Israel’s southern border since 2006 — refused to report for work and congregated on the Levinsky Park green, their main hangout and meeting spot in South Tel Aviv. They intended to stage a labor strike that would last until Israel agreed either to review their requests for asylum or turn the task over to the United Nations.

A few of the community’s emerging leaders took to the megaphone and rallied the crowd. Although the protesters come from different African nations and circumstances, they have lived through common hardships — years of compulsory, indefinite military service in Eritrea, ethnic cleansing and genocide in Sudan, rocky travel and torture by Bedouin gangs in the Sinai desert. Now, all of them face poverty and uncertainty in Tel Aviv, or in Israel’s desert prison camp for “illegal infiltrators” down south.

Protesters were warned they would be under intense scrutiny in the coming days. “Nobody do violence,” one speaker said. “If you meet racist people … respect them. It is very important to get our rights in a peaceful way.”

Ignited by unprecedented unity and hope, the group marched 20 minutes to the more upscale north side of Tel Aviv, filling Rabin Square to its brim and forcing cafe-goers to witness their fight. “We have been treated as criminals,” Sumaya Nedey, the movement’s head female activist, told protesters at the square. But with the strike, she said, “We will show the people of Israel that we are a strong part of the economy and the community in Tel Aviv.”

Yet, by the third day of protests, as the crowd’s energy peaked outside the front gates of the Knesset building in Jerusalem — and as Israeli employers began to hurt from the workers’ absence in the country’s hotels and kitchens — government officials shut down the historic protests with the ease of flipping a switch.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein denied eight leaders of the refugee movement the opportunity to speak with Israeli politicians. He did not allow them even to enter the building, citing “the backdrop of the tension and general public atmosphere, as well the fear that granting the infiltrators access will cause provocations in the parliament.”

Israel’s conservative Channel 7 painted the protests in a similar light, saying they raised “fears of violence, especially as the infiltrators have brought rampant crime to Israel and, in particular, to southern Tel Aviv.”

Mutasim Ali, a 26-year-old asylum seeker from Darfur whose strong, gentle speaking voice and excellent Hebrew have propelled him to the front of the movement, later wrote in an op-ed for left-wing daily Haaretz: “They want to portray us as violent and dangerous, but we explained to them and to the whole world that we’re non-violent people, that we respect law and order.”

Police confirmed that the week’s demonstrations had been extraordinarily low-key. “There were no injuries, no disturbances, no incidents whatsoever” over three days of mass protest, said Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police. (At one point during the Jerusalem rally, this reporter witnessed one protester chide another for climbing into a tree.)

Many of the strikers had no choice but to return to work this week, no longer able to pay for their basic needs. And as a consequence of the strike, some have been turned away by their former employers.

Still, small yet undeniable shifts in the public consciousness may prove the efforts were not entirely in vain.

Over days of protest, Israelis in central and northern Tel Aviv who normally avoid the south part of the city like a toxic waste dump have now glimpsed Israel’s mysterious “infiltrators” up close, as something more than a shadow people waiting to mug them and dilute the Jewish state.

And while during the marches, some onlookers yelled, “Go home!” and “Back to Africa!” as asylum seekers flooded city streets and sidewalks, others, non-Africans, jeered back at the hecklers. Still others yelled or whistled in support of the protesters, or honked their car horns longer and louder than usual. 

On Jan. 10, after a roller-coaster week of protests, Channel 2 aired a topical skit set in South Tel Aviv.

In it, Dr. Yogev Shafir, a fictional host for the Israeli comedy show “Eretz Nehederet,” ventures into Tel Aviv’s low-income Levinsky Park neighborhood, dressed in dorky cargo khakis and a safari hat, to meet some real live Africans on the mean streets of South Tel Aviv.

Before helping serve lunch to asylum seekers at the Levinsky Soup Kitchen, Shafir takes care to tether his bike to a lamppost with a mess of chains, barbed wire and a “Beware of Tiger” sign. He then tries to spruce up the refugees’ diet by serving them some organic alfalfa salad.

And for the show’s awkward finale, Shafir visits three Sudanese men in their cramped Levinsky-area apartment, mosquito net in tow. After some small talk, he halts the meet-and-greet to point out that his iPhone is missing; one dramatic storm of accusations later, the audience sees the phone light up in his own cargo pocket.

So the joke is on him — this armchair liberal who politely pitied the asylum seekers from afar, but, in the end, knew nothing about them, stereotypes aside. 

The skit aired a very real prejudice and fear inside many Israelis who find themselves traveling (briskly) through South Tel Aviv at night: They cling more tightly to their purses, burrow their wallets deeper into their pockets and keep their heads down.

But the skit also indicated the mainstreaming of this self-awareness. “Eretz Nehederet“ was once labeled by CNN “the country‘s single most popular and influential television comedy,” and it is viewed by millions each season. If the funnymen of Channel 2 think Tel Aviv’s asylum seekers deserve a second chance, the Israeli public may not be far behind.

In the wake of the uprising, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, too, has changed his tone, seeking in an official statement to be more inclusive. Huldai, part of the center-left Labor Party, said: “The protests of the migrant workers that we have seen are just the beginning of a process. … The Israeli government must determine a governmental policy and a professional work plan while allocating budgets and resources to take care of the latitude of problems including immigration policy, education, welfare, personal security and employment.”

The South Tel Aviv neighborhood in which the asylum seekers live has earned a nationwide reputation as an African crime pot. Anecdotes about theft and assault in the area, while very real and unshakable for their victims, often become larger than life. Two rapes by African migrants in early 2012 — of thousands in the country each year — riled such fury within the Jewish community that fiery race riots broke out on the streets of South Tel Aviv that May. Dozens of Africans were reportedly injured by the rioters.

Just this month, Bat-El Asher, a young Israeli woman, described on her Facebook page being violently mugged by a Sudanese man. “Until yesterday, I was their No. 1 defense attorney,” she wrote of the migrants. “The romantic view I lived with until yesterday … [that] everyone deserves a chance for a stable and better life … even refugees … died yesterday at 20:30.”

Asher’s story was shared more than 500 times on Facebook. “A liberal is simply a conservative who has yet to be mugged,” one commenter wrote.

But asylum seekers have grown equally afraid of being attacked in Tel Aviv’s neglected south. Two days after Asher was mugged, an Israeli man stabbed an Eritrean baby in the head with a pair of scissors as the baby’s mother walked out of the Central Bus Station. The infant reportedly suffered brain damage from the attack; her 50-year-old assailant has since been arrested and hospitalized at Israel’s central mental institution. 

A MarketWatch poll from last summer found that 60 percent of Israelis believed the asylum seekers posed a danger to Israeli society.

Crime statistics from 2010, however — presented at a Knesset meeting and reported by the Hotline for Migrant Workers — showed that, overall, the crime rate among Israel’s general population was more than double the crime rate among foreigners. “The level of security, or the level of crime, in the southern part of Tel Aviv is not higher on a national level than other places in the country,” police spokesman Rosenfeld told the Journal.

Further turning the Israeli public against asylum seekers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians on the right have declared the Africans — almost a quarter of whom are Muslim and speak Arabic — a major threat to the state’s Jewishness. 

To date, no Eritrean or Sudanese nationals have been granted asylum by the Israeli government. Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, in charge of approving asylum requests, recently told Israel Hayom: “As far as Jewish identity and the desire to blur it are concerned, whether or not that is the intention of those who support the foreigners, that will be the result. The state will change its character if it gives up and allows illegal entry into its territory. This is not a passing wave. If we allow those who are already here to stay and work, that will be a clear statement to anyone who is looking for a destination, and it will have immediate repercussions.”

A new, nearly $400 million border fence has cut off the influx of Africans almost entirely, yet the fear that more will come has pushed many locals into the “Go home!” camp — especially those who have never met any of their Eritrean or Sudanese neighbors.

“The government continues to lie to the public and tell them we are not refugees and we are making trouble,” Mulgeta Tumuzgi, an Eritrean who has lived in Israel for six years, said at a press conference at the height of the strike. “The Israeli government wants the people to fear us. If you are afraid of someone, you want them to get away. We want to say to the Israeli people: ‘Don’t be afraid of us. We are not coming here to harm you. We are not your enemy. We only ask that you can give us shelter until we can go back to our home.’ ”

For better or worse, Eritrean and Sudanese families today are an inextricable part of the city’s culture. The scent of their traditional stews and flatbreads mix with shawarma grease in the air; high-energy African songs and dialects stream from dozens of migrant-run businesses clustered around Tel Aviv’s hulking Central Bus Station; African children run to school in braids and backpacks to learn Hebrew alongside the locals. So, in addition to protests, local NGOs have been organizing events, such as African cooking workshops and concerts, to show Tel Aviv that — just like in the rest of the world’s great cities — diversity can be a blessing.

As Haaretz financial editor Sami Peretz recently wrote of his own personal, yet very universal dilemma: “We Israelis always love to see ourselves dealing with a disaster that has taken place in some distant land (for example, in Haiti or the Philippines). … 

“It is much harder,” he wrote, “to see ourselves as cruel racists when we deal with the African migrants who are filling Tel Aviv’s streets or are sent to prison in southern Israel, and who bring out all the poison and fears inside us.”

Letter to Michael Oren regarding Eritrean deportations


A letter of an Eritrean Asylum Seeker Jailed for a Year in Saharonim:


“To achieve a solution or die”

A letter dated July 2nd written by an Eritrean asylum seeker who was forced to stop the hunger strike:

“I appreciate your caring in advance.

There were about 176 Eritrean in ward three.  We went on a hunger strike on Sunday 23-06-2013 in the morning and continued until 30-06-2013. On that period, many of us lost their conscious, or became dehydrated. No medical help was offered to all those people, except for few of us who were affected very badly. Speaking on my behalf, due to previous health problems, I was very badly affected by the hunger strike. I was almost in a critical stage. On Monday, 24-06-2013, we were visited by some officers from the immigration authority. Some courageous Eritreans told them:

“We were prosecuted and victimized in our country and we didn’t have democracy. We were not able to live in peace. Many among us were tortured and raped in Sinai. When we reached this democratic state of ISRAEL, we didn’t expect such harsh punishment in prison and we still don’t know which crime it is that makes us suffer for such a long time in this prison. We lost all hope and became frustrated by this situation so that we ask you to either provide us with a solution or send us to our country, no matter what will happen to us, even if we have to endure death penalty by the Eritrean regime”.

The immigration officer tried to calm us down and advised us to be patient. They asked us to eat food but we decided to continue the hunger strike till death, for eight days. 

On Sunday (30-06-2013) in the morning, while some of us were on beds, exhausted, and others went out to be counted, police officers tied their hand with plastic robber and took them away. We didn’t know where they took them, but we heard later, that 24 of them were taken to the Seventh Ward. The rest of us were taken to Ktsiyot prison. There we were told to go to the office one by one and we were forced to eat by threats to be taken to isolation cells.

Finally I want tell you the hunger strike was very difficult and dangerous for our life. I am a witness that everybody lost any hope and patience. Therefore we chose this difficult decision: to achieve a solution or die.

NGO: Eritrean asylum seekers pressured to leave Israel

Israel attempted to deport 25 Eritrean asylum seekers in violation of international conventions, according to an Israeli NGO supporting the rights of migrants.

A group of some 25 Eritrean refugees were pressured by Israeli immigration officials to sign a declaration saying they would agree to be deported to Uganda and then discovered that they were scheduled to fly to Eritrea, the Hotline for Migrant Workers charged. The Eritreans refused to get on the plane.

A spokeswoman for the Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority, Sabine Haddad, told JTA that she did not know about a group of Eritreans facing possible return, but did say that hundreds of north Sudanese have agreed to be repatriated in recent months, as well as a small number of Eritreans.

Haddad added that her office is checking this particular incident, and said that in no case does Israel deport migrants against their will.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers told Haaretz that the asylum seekers were told they either can be repatriated to Eritrea or remain in prison in Israel for at least three years.

As a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel cannot deport asylum seekers. Israel grants Eritreans protection, but does not recognize them as refugees.

Eritreans make up more than 60 percent of the more than 60,000 illegal African migrants are who are believed to be in Israel, according to Haaretz.

Asylum seekers who return to Eritrea are in danger of persecution or even death at the hands of the Eritrean regime, rights groups say.

OPINION: Not in my name

Yesterday, someone shared a picture of an Israeli woman wearing a shirt that read “Death to the Sudanese” on my Facebook wall. The woman was a Tel Aviv resident taking part in a protest on Tuesday night to encourage the Israeli government to deport African asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Asylum seekers were violently attacked and their car and grocery store windows were shattered. According to Haaretz newspaper, the protest was organized by Knesset member Michael Ben Ari, and Miri Regev, another Knesset member, called the Sudanese “a cancer in our body.”The Jerusalem Post recently reported on the Molotov cocktails thrown into a Nigerian woman’s open day care and an Eritrean family’s private apartment in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood. Violence against the African asylum seekers in Israel has been exponentially rising. These incidents reminded me of all the violence and hatred ensuing in Israeli society toward African asylum seekers. This is not the first case of violence against African asylum seekers. There have been many hate crimes perpetrated against Eritrean, Sudanese and other asylum seekers of African descent for the past few years. Whether it’s the government, the media or Israeli society influencing or perpetrating these abominable acts, this racial violence and prejudice must be stopped.

Israel, let us recall, was one of the founding signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, implemented by the United Nations in response to the abundance of refugees in Europe after the Holocaust. Israel, however, never ratified the convention, and Netanyahu’s government has made the daily life of asylum seekers today as challenging as possible in an effort to get people to leave without actually kicking them out.

Since 2005, asylum seekers from Africa have entered Israel’s borders through the Sinai desert in Egypt. Eritrea’s brutal dictatorship, the genocide in Darfur and the longest-running African civil war (South Sudan) have led to the flight of these people from their homelands. I am often asked why Israel is the destination country for most of these migrants. The answer is: It isn’t. There are millions of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in other countries, most of them in other African countries or in Egypt, Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. The 50,000 people who have made their way to Israel are a tiny minority of this entire population of refugees. Without anywhere to go, many asylum seekers started making their way to Israel, seeking out Bedouin-organized smugglers who know the vast Sinai terrain to help them.

While I do fault Egypt for allowing Bedouin criminal organizations to conduct systematic rape, torture and organ trafficking within its borders, I feel that it is also our responsibility, as Jews in Israel and abroad, to assist those who have suffered such abominations and now reside in our country — one that prides itself on existing in the Jewish name and on implementing Jewish values. We pride ourselves on being advocates against another Holocaust taking place, and we have been instrumental in the fight to end the genocide in Darfur, but when it has come to Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers, we look the other way. It is true that Israel is a tiny country trying to maintain its Jewish majority, but no moral person could accept this rationale as an acceptable excuse for the ongoing strain of misbehavior toward Africans, especially not when the racial undertones to these policies are so obvious.

There have been numerous claims that the asylum seekers are raping and burglarizing the Israelis, but the statistics of the police department prove otherwise. The crime rates among the African asylum seekers are much lower than that of the general Israeli population. While I do not excuse or condone any crime whatsoever, I do believe that it is unacceptable to exaggerate and make erroneous claims about an entire population of people. 

Israel’s lack of policy on refugees is going to explode in our faces sooner than we think. The government provides no services whatsoever to the African asylum seekers and goes so far as to print visas denying permission to work. Netanyahu’s solution to the “problem” is to build a gigantic detention facility isolated in the Negev Desert, where 10,000 “infiltrators,” as the government calls the asylum seekers, will be housed. The facility is designed after the notorious Australian detention facilities, which have proven to lead to high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, and suicide attempts in both adult and child occupants. Israel’s facility is currently under construction, and the Israel Prison Service will run it. Those detained will be kept in the facility for indefinite periods of time, as they are incapable of applying for refugee status in Israel. Even though it is illegal under international law to treat asylum seekers as criminals, the government’s recent passing of the Anti-Infiltration Law makes it apparent that this is exactly what is happening: “Infiltrators” may now be kept in detention (prison) for up to three years without trial and without due process.

I believe that we, the Jewish people, all of us refugees at some point in our histories, know better. I urge Israel to implement a transparent and just procedure for asylum seekers to gain refugee status and rights, as we requested in the Refugee Convention and as every other Western democratic country in this world has implemented, so that those who are suffering from today’s genocides, dictatorships and atrocities can live in dignity. As Rabbi Hillel stated so pointedly, “In a place where there is no person to make a difference, strive to be that person.”

As a New Israel Fund Social Justice Fellow working for ASSAF, Maya Paley published two reports on the livelihoods and communities of the Sudanese and Eritrean populations in Israel, pointing out the effects of Israel’s policies on their psychological and physical wellbeing.