Sudanese man tries to kill Israeli on Ethiopian Air flight


A Sudanese man has been arrested for attempting to murder a Israeli passenger on an Ethiopian Airlines flight.

Ethiopian authorities arrested the man, who assaulted the Israeli on a flight from Chad to Ethiopia on Oct. 29, Ynet reported Tuesday.

The 54-year-old victim, who Ynet identified only by his first name, Arik, works for an Israeli company that operates in Africa.

“About 20 minutes before the plane started its descent, the passenger sitting behind me identified me as Israeli and Jewish,” Arik told Ynet. “He came up behind my seat and started to choke me with a lot of force, and at first I couldn’t get my voice out and call for help.

“He hit me over the head with a metal tray and shouted ‘Allah akbar’ [God is great] and ‘I will slaughter the Jew.’ Only after a few seconds, just before I was about to lose consciousness, did I manage to call out and a flight attendant who saw what was happening summoned her colleagues.”

Arik said that a Lebanese man was one of the few passengers to defend him. He also said that his attacker tried to convince the other passengers to lynch him.

“After we landed the Lebanese guy told me that I’d been saved twice, because after they’d overpowered my attacker he said to everyone, ‘Let’s finish him off,’” Arik said.

In a statement released in response to the incident, Ethiopian Airlines said, “The attacker, who has been identified as Ahmed Mohamed, showed no signs of violence as he was boarding the flight.

“He attacked not only the Israeli but also other passengers and members of the flight crew. He is still in detention and is due to appear in court on Wednesday.”

The airline said that Arik was taken to a medical clinic in the airport and released shortly afterward, and that he was able to continue on to Tel Aviv as planned.

“We are sorry for the incident and will do everything we can in order to prevent further such attacks on our Israeli customers,” the statement said.

Report: Israel hit Sudan site housing missiles for Gaza


Israel bombed a warehouse in Sudan housing long-range missiles heading for Hamas in Gaza, an Arabic newspaper reported.

The London-based Al-Arab quoted unnamed sources in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, as saying that Israel struck an ammunition warehouse on Friday located north of the capital. Sudanese officials had claimed the explosion was caused by a fire, according to reports.

Israel’s military has not responded to the allegations.

In 2009, Israel carried out three airstrikes in western Sudan on a convoy reportedly carrying weapons to Gaza. Israel was blamed as well for a 2012 explosion in a weapons plant in Khartoum that reportedly was building weapons for Hamas.

Arab rifts may complicate search for Gaza truce


The push for a Gaza ceasefire risks becoming mired in a regional tussle for influence between conservative Arab states and Islamist-friendly governments, with rival powers competing to take credit for a truce, analysts and some officials say.

The main protagonists are Arab heavyweight Egypt and the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, on opposite sides of a regional standoff over Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, and its ideological patron the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both camps suggest the other is motivated as much by a desire to polish diplomatic prestige and crush political adversaries as by the humanitarian goal of protecting Palestinian lives from the Israeli military.

“Gaza has turned very suddenly into the theater in which this new alignment within the Arab world is being expressed,” said UK-based analyst Ghanem Nusseibeh.

“Gaza is the first test for these new alliances, and this has affected the possibility of reaching a ceasefire there.”

He was referring to Qatar, Turkey, Sudan and non-Arab Iran, the main members of a loose grouping of states which believe Islamists represent the future of Middle East politics.

That camp stands in increasingly overt competition with a conservative, pro-Western group led by Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, most of whom are intent on crushing the Brotherhood and see it as a threat.

That cleavage is now apparent in the diplomacy over Gaza.

CEASEFIRE PLAN

Qatar bankrolled the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who was overthrown by the military a year ago. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since poured in money to support strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the takeover and has since been elected president after outlawing and suppressing the Brotherhood.

Under his rule, Egypt has tightened its stranglehold on the southern end of the Gaza Strip, closing tunnels to try to block supplies of weapons and prevent militants crossing.

Egyptian officials suspect Qatar encouraged Hamas to reject a ceasefire plan Cairo put forward last week to try to end an Israeli assault that has now killed more than 500 Palestinians as well as 18 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians.

Palestinian officials said the proposal contained little more than Israeli and U.S. terms for a truce. Hamas has its own demands for stopping rocket fire into Israel, including the release of prisoners and the lifting of an economic blockade.

With Egypt's initiative sidelined, all eyes turned to Doha, where visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in the Qatari capital, a senior Qatari source told Reuters.

An official in Cairo said the Gaza battle “is part of a regional conflict between Qatar, Egypt and Turkey.

“Hamas … ran to Qatar, which Egypt hates most, to ask it for intervention, and at the end we are sure Hamas will eventually settle with an agreement that is so similar to a proposal that Egypt had offered, but with Doha's signature.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, due in Cairo late on Monday, is likely to have to mediate between Egypt and Qatar in a bid to end the fighting in Gaza.

“The dilemma is now to get Egypt and Qatar to agree. It is obvious that Hamas had delegated Qatar to be its spokesman in the talks,” said an Egyptian diplomat. “Kerry is here to try to mediate between Qatar and Egypt to agree on a deal that Hamas would approve.”

Another foreign ministry source said: “Egypt will be asked by Kerry to add in Hamas' conditions and then Kerry will go to Qatar and ask it to ask Hamas to approve the amended deal.”

For reasons of history and geography, Egypt has always seen itself as the most effective mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in neighboring Gaza.

But critics say Egypt's strongly anti-Islamist government is trying to pressure Hamas into accepting a truce offering few concessions for the group. Its aim, they say, is to weaken the movement and allied Islamist forces in Egypt.

Hamas leaders said they were not consulted on the Egyptian move, and it did not address their demands.

With peace efforts delicately poised, Gaza now appears to be a test of strength in a regional struggle for power.

INTERFERENCE

Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said Gaza mediation had seen “a lot of political interference”.

“Qatar was unhappy with the Egyptian ceasefire (plan). They are very uncomfortable that it came from Egypt. The Qataris are trying to undermine Egypt politically, and the victim is the ceasefire that Egypt has proposed.

“The terms of the problem is — who will present the ceasefire? Who will win the first political match between those two new camps within the Arab world?” Abdulla said.

At the root of the rift are opposing attitudes to the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped sweep Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt in 2011 only to be ousted itself last year.

Its ideology challenges the principle of conservative dynastic rule long dominant in the Gulf: Some of its leading members are based in Qatar and broadcast their views via the country's media, angering other Gulf Arab states

Qatar is accused of using its alliance with Hamas to elbow its way into efforts to mediate between the movement and Israel.

Critics suspect Qatar wants to repair an international image clouded by months of allegations of poor labor rights, alleged corruption over the 2022 World Cup and political tensions with its Gulf Arab neighbors.

But Western governments see Qatar, maverick though it be, as a potentially significant regional mediator because of its links to Islamist movements in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

Qatar denies any ulterior motive and notes that Washington has openly asked it to talk to Hamas. Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said on Sunday Qatar’s role was just to facilitate communication.

“BLOODSHED NEEDS TO STOP”

A source familiar with the matter said Qatar will not press Hamas to change or reduce its demands.

In Saudi Arabia, where suspicion of Hamas is particularly strong, as an ally of the Brotherhood and of Iran, Riyadh's main regional adversaries, newspapers have abandoned a tradition of blaming Israel alone to also attack the Palestinian group.

“The Hamas leadership, from Egyptian blood to Palestinian blood,” was the headline of an opinion article by Fadi Ibrahim al-Dhahabi in the daily al-Jazeera newspaper on Sunday.

He argued that Hamas was stoking the war in Gaza not for the sake of Palestinian liberation, but as part of a wider Muslim Brotherhood campaign against Egypt's government and to win favour with Iran.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, part of a recently formed national unity government intended to overcome rivalry between Hamas and the more secular Fatah nationalist movement, told Reuters he had seen no tug-of-war among Arab states.

“This is not the case. There is no competition between Arab countries, they all want to stop the bloodshed,” he said.

“All Arab countries want to bring an end to this fountain of blood in Gaza, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt are all in agreement. And the leaders of these country's have put their differences aside and all agree that the bloodshed needs to stop”.

Leaving Israel, Africans face detention, possibly death


“When the conflict started in the Darfur region and we came to Israel, all the people knew why,” said Yeman Adam, a 30-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker who fled to Israel in 2008. “The media was making comparisons between the Holocaust and Darfur genocide, and the Israeli government accepted us.”

As he spoke, Adam sat in the underground headquarters for the group he founded, the Dakaraw Termenan Organization: a freshly painted white room in South Tel Aviv lined in shut-down computers and fringed in royal-blue curtains. The room was empty except for Adam and two friends. They all come from the Masalit tribe, one of various Darfuri tribes targeted by the Sudanese government.

“We used to have hundreds of people in this office. You couldn’t find a chair to sit here,” Adam continued. But now, thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers are being pushed out of Tel Aviv — some returning to Africa, and others moving to the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, the new prison complex constructed near the border with the Sinai desert.

Adam and the handful of Masalit tribe members still living in Tel Aviv have been trying to get in touch with seven men in their tribe, all of whom departed Israel for Sudan’s Khartoum International Airport within the last few weeks.

They’ve all gone missing.

Those seven missing Masalit are part of a growing crisis. Since the exodus began in December, almost 3,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, of approximately 55,000 who had settled in Israel and are now facing prison, have chosen instead to depart to either Sudan, Eritrea or a third African country — namely, Uganda or Rwanda.

From left: Feisel Adam, Hassan Rahima and Yeman Adam, Sudanese community organizers, met at their office in South Tel Aviv.

Abdulmalik Abdalla, a dimply 30-year-old who worked at hotels across Israel for the last few years, is on the Masalit tribe’s disappearance list. On Feb. 18, the day before he left for Sudan, he and his friends shared a bottle of whiskey and a giant platter of chicken wings in a closet-sized apartment in the run-down Neve Sha’anan neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. A cloth hanging over the room’s small window fluttered on an unusually warm winter breeze. Abdalla’s eyes watered some as he talked about how excited he was to see his family, from which he had been separated for more than a decade.

Abdalla still hasn’t gotten that chance. Sudanese security officials told a friend who came to meet Abdalla at the airport that Abdalla had been taken into custody.

No one has heard from Abdalla since he departed Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Feb. 19.

“We’re hearing about hundreds of people being arrested” upon arrival to Sudan, said Rami Gudovitch, a longtime advocate for African refugees in Israel who also teaches philosophy at Haifa University and the Interdisciplinary Center. Gudovitch has been compiling data based on testimony from his hundreds of contacts in the refugee community; he estimates that a minimum of 500 asylum seekers who returned to Sudan from Israel are behind bars.

Seven of those Sudanese men, he said, are believed to be dead.

Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.

This botched African exodus from Israel is the result of a plan revealed by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar last August. According to Israeli news site Ynet.com, Sa’ar said in a government meeting that “a wide-scale deportation campaign will begin following the coming holidays,” starting with a period of “willing deportation” and ending with the mass cancellation of visas and forced expulsion.

Come December 2013, as promised, the plan entered its first stage, and the Ministry of Interior began offering $3,500 to any asylum seeker who agreed to relocate.

In accordance with United Nations guidelines, Israel is not forcibly deporting any Eritrean or Sudanese nationals back to their volatile home countries. At a press conference on March 4, Sa’ar stressed that “everyone who leaves, whether to his country of origin or a third country, leaves of his own free will.”

But according to dozens of asylum seekers who spoke to the Jewish Journal, the decision to depart to Sudan and Eritrea, as well as Uganda and Rwanda, is made under intense pressure.

“The fact that they’re taking the money and going back does not make them less of refugees,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel’s oldest nonprofit assisting the Africans. “It only means that the life here is so horrible that they will take the risk with the hope of finding another country that will protect them.”

Sudanese and Eritrean nationals staying in Israel face two options: indefinite detention at Holot, the remote desert prison, or life under constant fear of losing their visas (and therefore their livelihood). Thousands are turning in applications for asylum, but the Ministry of Interior has only reported three approvals. As reporter Michael Omer-Man pointed out in Israel’s liberal +972 Magazine, government authorities have provided asylum seekers “the most basic protection — against deportation to their home countries — but in all other ways treated them like infiltrators.”

Filmon Ghide, 20, was forced to sleep in South Tel Aviv's central Levinsky Park when the Ministry of Interior wouldn't renew his visa so he could work.

Since the Holot detention facility was unveiled in early December, around 3,500 asylum seekers, seemingly the ones who’ve been in Israel the longest, have been summoned to the prison without trial for the crime of illegally crossing the border.

Food and medicine at the prison are severely lacking, as evidenced by cellphone photos snapped by prisoners inside. “If we complain, [prison staffers] tell us, 'Then why don't you go home?’ ” Muhamad Musa, formerly a jewelry shop owner in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, told the Journal. Other prisoners said jail officials constantly pressure them to accept the government’s offer of $3,500 and a flight out.

Life isn’t much easier for those who remain in the city. On a recent Tuesday, what looked to be about 800 Africans, including women and children, crowded around the gates to a newly opened Ministry of Interior building especially for African migrants. The offices, tucked between warehouses and office buildings on a hidden alley in North Tel Aviv, opened just last week — an alternative to the much more visible Ministry of Interior building nearby, situated at a major intersection across from the Azrieli Center mall.

“Why did they change places? Because there are 700 people in line, and everybody will pass by and see the problem,” said Eritrean asylum seeker Filmon Ghide. (The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.)

“They are kicking me like a soccer ball from office to office,” he said.

Approximately 1,000 asylum seekers protested outside the Holot detention facility for “illegal infiltrators” in the Israeli desert on Feb. 17.

On that Tuesday, a cluster of asylum seekers quickly formed around a reporter who had come to check out the new location. “Every day I come here [to the Ministry of Interior]. I am not yet sleeping here, but some are,” said Fitsum Tesfasilase, 36, who has been attempting — unsuccessfully — to renew his visa for more than a month. “We can’t make our rent. We can’t feed ourselves. Before, I worked cleaning the streets — black work. But now I can’t support my wife and my child.” Because Tesfasilase escaped forced, indefinite military service in Eritrea after 13 years as a soldier, he said he would likely face life in prison, or worse, if he returned to Eritrea.

Semere Abraham, 24, another Eritrean waiting in the line-turned-mob, said that a close friend of his named Merhawe had accepted Israel’s offer to fly to Uganda about two weeks ago. However, he said, the plan went terribly wrong: Merhawe was detained at the Uganda airport, flown to Egypt, detained again, and then sent against his wishes to Eritrea. “I was calling to his house [in Eritrea], and his mother was crying,” Abraham said. “He’s in the prison now.”

Last summer, Israeli officials announced that Uganda had agreed to accept some of Israel’s unwanted Africans. Ugandan officials, however, quickly denied the deal — and have denied it ever since. Musa Ecweru, who heads refugee affairs at Uganda’s Ministry for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, told the Journal: “I have not been formally informed of this. I just heard in the news.”

Ecweru added: “I don’t know why they would even want to come here and not relocate to Eritrea.”

And Yolande Makolo, a spokeswoman in Rwanda’s Office of the President, said: “That’s really interesting. This is the first I’m hearing of this. Let me get back to you.” Makolo did not respond to multiple attempts to follow up.

Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has become equally tight-lipped. “The only thing we can confirm is that there are some of them who are flying to another country and not their homeland,” a spokeswoman said via e-mail.

A waiting room on the seventh floor of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority building in South Tel Aviv is plastered with dozens of signs that say “No Exit Through Window.”

However, according to multiple Eritrean and Sudanese men who have been trying to renew their visas at the Israeli Ministry of Interior, government staffers are telling them that they have the option to be relocated not only to Uganda but also to next-door Rwanda.

This is incredibly distressing, said Dismas Nkunda of the International Refugee Rights Initiative — not to mention, he said, “absolutely illegal by both Israel” and the other countries.

Uganda and Rwanda are still dealing with their own refugee crises, and without a formal relocation overseen by the United Nations, according to Nkunda and other human-rights experts, there is no guarantee that Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers will receive the protection they need.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has yet to intervene. However, a UNHCR spokesman issued a statement to the Journal demanding that any state, including Israel, “refrain from any future measure that could directly or indirectly lead to the return of a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.”

In a series of interviews, Eritrean asylum seeker Ghide, 20, said five of his friends received $3,500 each from the Israeli government to board a plane to Rwanda in the past three weeks. Over the phone from Rwanda, his friends now tell him that around 30 asylum seekers from Israel are in the Central African country; in addition, according to Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a plane carrying more of them to Rwanda departed Tuesday night.

Ghide said he would never accept the deal. His own father has been imprisoned for years under the current dictator, Isaias Afewerki, for worshipping and preaching as a Protestant Christian, and he’s afraid that Eritrean government would kidnap him from Uganda or Rwanda and shut him, too, in an underground jail. Nevertheless, the young Eritrean said, he understands his friends’ decision.

“Jail in your own country can be better than living in another country as a prisoner,” he said, “because maybe you will find a guard or something to send a message to your mother or father. And after six or seven years, maybe they will release you.”

Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.

Ghide said his friends in Rwanda also told him by phone that an anonymous official met them at the airport and gave them money to stay at a hotel for a couple of nights. But now they’re panicking, he said, because “they cannot get work and nobody is helping them. They are so worried about it.”

Another group of seven asylum seekers from Sudan spoke to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz from Uganda after leaving Israel in mid-February.

NGOs are having trouble keeping up with this chaotic scattering of Israel’s asylum seekers across Africa. Rozen at Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said she received information from the UNHCR that one Eritrean man whom Israel tried to relocate to Rwanda was immediately put on a plane to Eritrea by Rwandan authorities.

“There are a lot of weird stories — there’s one story about a group that ended up finding themselves in Chad,” said Gudovitch. The Israeli activist is scrambling to compile a comprehensive list of the departed by early April, when the Supreme Court of Israel is set to review a petition against the law allowing indefinite detention at Holot.

According to those tracking the departures, Eritrea has seen the fewest voluntary returns. Although the nation is not as globally infamous as, say, Darfur, asylum seekers say life under authoritarian rule has become intolerable. In December 2010, the U.S. ambassador to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital city, wrote in a leaked embassy cable: “Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea's prisons are overflowing, and the country's unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.” Every year since 2007, Eritrea has placed dead last on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index; the organization writes that “the few journalists who dare to criticize the regime are thrown in prison.” Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos has called it “the North Korea of Africa.”

Meanwhile, Israeli government officials have boasted about the thousands of 2014 departures without acknowledging the dangers facing refugees. “Every week now, there are fewer infiltrators in Israel,” Sa’ar announced at his March 4 press conference.

Filmon Ghide, far right, helped translate for fellow Eritrean asylum seeker Fitsum Tesfasilase outside Tel Aviv's new visa office. “I was forced to serve in the military for 13 years as a slave, and I ran away in the night,” Tesfasilase said in his native language of Tegrinyia.

Massive asylum-seeker rallies against Sa’ar’s policies in January and February have dwindled in recent weeks. “The government of Israel has done a tremendous job convincing the Israeli public that all these people are work infiltrators, and that we should keep them away as quickly as possible,” said Rozen with Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “This is actually our main problem.”

A skit staged by three asylum seekers in Holot’s front parking lot on March 8, with two busloads of Tel Aviv visitors as audience, poked fun at Israel’s deportation tactics. One Sudanese actor, pretending to be an Israeli government worker, whispered temptations into community leader Anwar Suliman’s ear — telling him how peaceful Sudan had become and how great it would be to see his family. After a few minutes of these sweet lies, to wild laughter, Suliman scribbled his signature onto the voluntary return form and threw his hands up in defeat.

In reality, Sudan is still incredibly dangerous, said 38-year-old Hassan Rahima, a widely respected community leader and head of the Organization of Sudanese Refugees in Israel, an umbrella organization for various tribal groups. “I cannot go back. I lost before my whole family: I was in my area in the Nuba Mountains, and my mother, my brother and my sister were all killed in front of my eyes. I was in jail for three months. Then the boss of the jail took me to where he lived and kept me as his slave for three years. I was cleaning the house and washing the clothes. I brought water to the house from the river on my back. All the time, they sent me to get water.”

The government that would meet him at the Khartoum International Airport, Rahima said, “is the same government who committed these crimes in the Nuba Mountains.”

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.”

Report: Israel secretly repatriated 1,000 Sudanese citizens


Israel secretly repatriated at least 1,000 Sudanese citizens via a third country, an Israeli newspaper reported.

The repatriation was done without the knowledge of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Haaretz reported Tuesday.

Sudan is an enemy country which has vowed to punish any of its citizens for entering Israel.

The U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees prohibits Israel from returning asylum seekers to Sudan since by entering an enemy country they are at risk of death if they are returned.

Asylum seekers can be jailed in Israel for years without trial.

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority, a department of the Interior Ministry, told Haaretz that “the government's policy of not deporting north Sudanese has not changed.”

Israel claims the repatriation was voluntary, according to Haaretz. Israel paid for the plane tickets, according to the newspaper.

Haaretz reported that it knows the name of the third country but is not releasing it in order to protect those repatriated.

Iranian warships dock in Sudan, report says


Two Iranian warships docked in Sudan on Monday, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported, less than a week after Khartoum accused Israel of attacking an arms factory in the Sudanese capital.

Two people were killed after fire broke out late on Tuesday at the Yarmouk arms factory in the south of Khartoum. Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman said four military planes attacked the Yarmouk plant and Israel was behind it.

Asked by Israel's Channel Two News about Sudan's accusations, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said: “There is nothing I can say about this subject.”

IRNA said the helicopter carrier Khark and the destroyer Shahid Naqdi were carrying: “the message of peace and friendship to neighbouring countries and were ensuring security for shipping lanes against marine terrorism and piracy”.

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said that the vessels docked in Port Sudan on the Red Sea and the fleet's commanders were scheduled to meet Sudanese navy commanders.

Sudan, with close ties to Iran and Sunni jihadis, has long been seen by Israel as a conduit for weapons smuggled to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, via the Egyptian Sinai desert.

In May, Sudan's government said one person had been killed after a car exploded in the eastern city of Port Sudan. It said that explosion resembled a blast last year it had blamed on an Israeli missile strike.

Israel declined to comment on the May incident or the 2011 blast, which killed two people. It also neither admitted nor denied involvement in a similar incident in eastern Sudan in 2009.

Iran said in June it had plans to build more warships and increase its presence in international waters, particularly to protect its cargo ships around the world.

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden in January hijacked an Iranian ship carrying 30,000 tonnes of petrochemical products to a North African country.

Report: Israel hit Sudan twice in two months


The Israeli army has declined to comment on a report that it had launched two air strikes in Sudan over the past two months.

Israel Radio reported that the IDF spokesperson would not respond to its query regarding a Reuters asserting that Israeli aircraft struck targets in Sudan in September and then again Oct. 23.

The September strike, according to unspecified “foreign intelligence sources” quoted Thursday by Reuters, was conducted by a drone and targeted a weapons convoy south of Khartoum. The strike destroyed 200 tuns of munitions, including Gaza-bound rockets, the report said.

On Tuesday, a “huge explosion” ripped through a weapons factory near the Sudanese capital Khartoum, killing two people, Reuters reported. Sudan, the report added, swiftly accused Israel of sending four military planes to take out the complex.

The speaker of the Sudanese parliament, Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Tahir, declared that the “Israeli attack on the Al-Yarmook arms factory will not deter Sudan from continuing its support to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas,” according to the Sudan Tribune, an online news site.

Sudan accused Israel of attacking a weapons convoy traveling from Sudan to the Gaza Strip last December and of a similar attack in 2009, as well as targeting a car carrying a high-ranking Hamas official last spring and carrying out other targeted attacks on vehicles.

Israeli prosecutor: Yishai’s plan to deport migrants not approved


Israel's state prosecutor, saying the government has not approved a plan to arrest Sudanese asylum seekers, rejected a petition by Israeli human rights organizations to prevent its implementation.

“So far, no order has been issued to detain the infiltrators from Sudan,” the State Prosecutor's Office said Thursday in replying to the petition regarding the plan by Interior Minister Eli Yishai. “If such an order is issued in the future, it will be officially released by the (Immigration and Population) Authority 30 days before it takes effect.”

Six human rights groups had filed a petition in Jerusalem District Court against the plan announced Aug. 28 by Yishai that all Sudanese asylum seekers would be arrested and detained if they did not leave Israel by until Oct. 15. This month, the court issued an injunction against the plan until a hearing scheduled for the end of October.

Sudan threatens to ‘strike back’ at Israel


A Sudanese government minister threatened to strike Israel, and the country called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn Israel, over the bombing of a weapons factory in Khartoum.

Sudan “reserves the right to strike back at Israel,” Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman said Wednesday, hours after the attack on the arms factory which left two dead.

Osman told reporters that the four military planes that attacked the plant belonged to Israel, and were seen entering the country's airspace from the east.

He said that the factory made “traditional weapons.”

Sudan on Wednesday asked the Security Council to condemn Israel.

“We reject such aggression and expect your esteemed council to condemn this attack because it is a blatant violation of the concept of peace and security,” Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, the Sudanese envoy to the U.N. reportedly said. .

Sudan accused Israel of attacking a weapons convoy traveling from Sudan to the Gaza Strip last December and of a similar attack in 2009, as well as targeting a car carrying a high-ranking Hamas official last spring and other targeted attacks on vehicles.

Sudan reportedly is a transit spot for weapons smuggling, particularly to Gaza through Egypt, and a center for al-Qaida terrorists.

Israeli officials on Wednesday and Thursday would neither confirm nor deny involvement in the attack.

Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over film


Fury about a film that insults the Prophet Mohammad tore across the Middle East after weekly prayers on Friday with protesters attacking U.S. embassies and burning American flags as the Pentagon rushed to bolster security at its missions.

The obscure California-made film triggered an attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya's city of Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on Tuesday, the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

In Tunis, at least three people were killed and more than two dozen wounded, state television said after police gunfire near the U.S. embassy in the city that was the cradle of last year's Arab Spring uprisings for democracy. At least one person died in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, a doctor said, after some of thousands of protesters had leaped into the U.S. embassy.

As U.S. military drones faced Islamist anti-aircraft fire over Benghazi, about 50 marines landed in Yemen a day after the U.S. embassy there was stormed. For a second day in the capital Sanaa, police battled hundreds of young men around the mission.

In Khartoum, wider anger at Western attitudes to Islam also saw the German embassy overrun, with police doing little to stop demonstrators who raised a black Islamist flag. Violence at the U.S. embassy followed protests against both Washington and the Sudanese government, which is broadly at odds with the West.

The wave of indignation and rage over the film, which portrays Mohammad as a womanizer and a fool, coincided with Pope Benedict's arrival in Lebanon for a three-day visit.

The protests present U.S. President Barack Obama with a new foreign policy crisis less than two months before seeking re-election and tests Washington's relations with democratic governments it helped to power across the Arab world.

He was at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington to greet a flight bringing home remains of the four dead from Benghazi.

It also emerged that Libya had closed its airspace over the second city's airport for a time because of heavy anti-aircraft fire by Islamists aiming at U.S. reconnaissance drones flying over the city; Obama vowed to bring the ambassador's killers to justice.

The closure of the airport prompted speculation that the United States was deploying special forces in preparation for an attack against the militants who were involved in the attack.

A Libyan official said the spy planes flew over the embassy compound and the city, taking photos and inspecting locations of radical militant groups who are believed to have planned and staged the attack on the U.S. consulate.

There were protests in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

MARINES TO YEMEN

The Pentagon said it had sent a “fast” platoon of Marines to Yemen to bolster U.S. embassy security after clashes in Sanaa.

U.S. embassies were the main target of anger and protest but most embassy staff were not at work because Friday is the Muslim weekend across the Arab World.

The frenzy erupted after traditional Muslim Friday prayers. Fury over the film has been stoked by Internet video footage, social networks, preachers and word-of-mouth.

Protesters clashed with police near the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Two Islamist preachers in Egypt told worshippers that those who made the movie deserved to die under Islamic law but they urged protesters not to take their anger out on diplomats.

In the restive Sinai peninsula, militants opened fire on an international observer base near El Gorah, close to the borders of Israel and the Gaza Strip, and burned tires blocking a road to the camp, a witness and a security source reported. The source said two members of the force were wounded.

The Sudanese who broke into the German embassy in Khartoum and hoisted an Islamic flag, while one person was killed in protests in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Police in the Sudanese capital had fired tear gas to try to disperse 5,000 protesters who had ringed the German embassy and nearby British mission. A Reuters witness said police stood by as a crowd forced its way into Germany's mission.

Demonstrators hoisted a black Islamic flag saying in white letters “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet”. They smashed windows, cameras and furniture in the building and then started a fire.

Staff at Germany's embassy were safe “for the moment”, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin. He also told Khartoum's envoy to Berlin that Sudan must protect diplomatic missions on its soil.

Sudan's Foreign Ministry had criticized Germany for allowing a protest last month by right-wing activists carrying caricatures of the Prophet and for Chancellor Angela Merkel giving an award in 2010 to a Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet in 2005 triggering protests across the Islamic world.


Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Ulf Laessing and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Gareth Jones in Berlin, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Benghazi, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Libya, Sami Aboudi in Dubai, Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi, Aref Mohammed in Basra, Iraq, Siva Sithraputhran in Kuala Lumpur, Anis Ahmed in Bangladesh, Regan Doherty in Doha, Roberto Landucci in Italy and Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Millership and Alastair Macdonald

Israel’s refugee crisis: How about a Jewish response?


What shall be done about the large number of non-citizens who dwell in Israel?  This question is no longer merely vexing; it is urgent, inflammatory, sometimes violent, often vulgar.

The ger has a long and detailed history in Jewish texts and thought.  Its conventional translation is “stranger” but you don’t have to search hard to find alternatives: sojourner, foreigner, alien. 

Who are today’s aliens? There are some 14,000 migrant workers who entered the country legally but whose visas have expired or otherwise become void.  There are a number of Palestinians and Jordanians who work in Israel, some illegally.  There are more from other population groups.  And there’s the heart of the current matter, nearly 60,000 irregular immigrants, defined by the Ministry of the Interior as “infiltrators.”  They have arrived in Israel from Eritrea (60%), Sudan (25%), the balance from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries; they come via Sinai, where many experience brutality from Bedouin gangs who guide them to the Israeli border.  Once in Israel, if identified as Sudanese or Eritrean, they are detained for a few weeks and then given a document that is, in effect, a deferred deportation order that must be periodically renewed and that explicitly states that it is not a work permit, plus a one-way bus ticket to Tel Aviv, where they are dropped at a park near the Central Bus Station.  And it is typically in that same neighborhood that they find shelter, work, and some social and medical services provided by volunteers.

These days, they also find rampant hostility from others in the neighborhood, hostility that has lately been marked by violence and by unambiguously racist slogans, hostility that has been encouraged by a number of Israeli politicians, most notably Eli Yishai, Minister of the Interior.  It is Yishai’s ministry that has formal responsibility for handling immigration issues, and the currently operative policy includes a law that was passed last January, holding that a camp shall be built near Saharonim, in the Negev, for these “illegals” (including their children), with buildings to house 13,600 of them and tents for the others.  The law provides that they may be detained there for three years or more.

The plan bumps head-on into two bodies of law.  First, there is the clear and repeated Biblical statement: “You shall not oppress a stranger, because you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt [Exodus 23:9]”  More proactively, in Deuteronomy [10:19]: “You are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”  And still more: “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you [Exodus 12:49]”.  It is difficult, to say the least, to square current Israeli policy with these precepts.

Still, the practical utility of such precepts is arguable.  Less arguable are the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951 with Israel’s intense involvement and enthusiastic endorsement.  (Back then, the urgent problem was Europe’s displaced persons.) 

Who is a refugee?  The Convention, amended in a 1967 Protocol, defines the word: “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” 

No one reasonably argues that according to that language, the 60,000 irregular immigrants in Israel are not refugees.  But: Since 1948, Israel has awarded refugee status to exactly 166 people.  In recent years, Israel has categorically denied Eritreans and Sudanese access to refugee status determination, which leaves them in a legal limbo. And therein lies the outrage as also the plain violation of international law. 

The Convention also forbids the arbitrary detention of illegal immigrants – i.e., in this context, people who have entered Israel via Egypt.  Hence the plans for a massive detention center are also a violation of Israel’s legal obligations.

The Forward reports (June 17) growing recognition of these issues by Israel’s leadership.  Whereas Prime Minister Netanyahu said on May 29, in the immediate aftermath of the anti-immigrant rioting, “My policy on the matter of the illegal foreign workers is clear: First, stop their entry through the fence, while at the same time, expel all infiltrators from Israel,” by June 4 he admitted that Israel cannot consider deporting the vast majority of African immigrants, due to the poor political or humanitarian situation in their countries.  “It’s clear that we cannot return Sudanese and Eritreans to their countries,” Netanyahu said.

Presumably, that means that Israel now intends to finish the fence under construction along the Sinai border and to proceed with the development of the detention center near Saharonim. 

The truth is that any alternative policy is enormously complicated.  Making asylum a reality and enabling refugees to live in dignity raises endless problems.  But here’s another truth: We who were slaves – strangers, aliens – unto Pharaoh in Egypt, we who therefore know the heart of the stranger – ought we not insist that plausible claims for asylum be processed?  Or: If we expect others to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state, is it wrong to expect that it will behave as one?

South Sudan officials to help coordinate deportation


Officials from South Sudan are set to arrive in Israel to help coordinate the deportation of up to 1,500 of its citizens.

At least 300 South Sudanese migrants reportedly have signed voluntary departure forms indicating their willingness to be repatriated to their home country, according to Israeli media reports.

More than 100 illegal migrants from South Sudan have been rounded up in immigration control sweeps this week.

Some 200 South Sudanese migrants are scheduled to fly out of Israel on Sunday, as well as another planeload in July after the families’ children have finished school.

Editorial Cartoon: ‘Brothers’ in the fight against terrorism


Israel rounds up African migrants for deportation


Israel said on Monday it had started rounding up African migrants in the first stage of a controversial “emergency plan” to intern and deport thousands deemed a threat to the Jewish character of the state.

Israel Radio reported that dozens of Africans, mainly from South Sudan, had already been detained in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, including mothers and children.

“This is only a small group of the infiltrators,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai said. “I’m not acting out of hatred of strangers but love of my people and to rescue the homeland.”

The goal is to repatriate all the estimated 60,000 African migrants, whose growing numbers are seen by many Israelis as a law and order issue and even a threat to the long-term viability of the Jewish state.

Illegal migration, and the pool of cheap labor it provides, is a common headache for developed economies. Israel is grappling with its own special ghosts as it tackles the problem.

For some in Israel, built by immigrants and refugees, internment and deportation are bad solutions that may damage the international image of the country needlessly.

They say rounding up members of a different racial group and holding them in camps for deportation may invite allusions to the Nazi Holocaust, however unfair such comparisons may be, and betrays Jewish values.

NOT CRIMINALS

About 500 Sudanese men held an orderly protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday against expulsion, the solution chosen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after two months of heated debate over how to handle the flow of migrants.

“We are refugees, not criminals,” the Sudanese chanted, in a retort to allegations that Africans prey on Israeli citizens, following high-profile rape allegations.

Many Sudanese, including hundreds who escaped from conflict and humanitarian disaster in Darfur, have been in Israel for several years, living in legal limbo without formal refugee status, but peaceably, they say.

Now they are caught up in a wave of hostility towards blacks in general, focused on a poor area of south Tel Aviv where they congregate.

“We’re being called a cancer and an AIDS virus on the Israeli people, by politicians in the Knesset,” said protest organizer Jacob Berri. He accused government right-wingers of racist incitement and inflammatory language.

The number of migrants crossing into Israel over the Sinai desert border has accelerated since 2006. It ballooned last year when revolution distracted Egypt’s attention from policing Bedouin people-smugglers operating in the Sinai peninsula.

Israel has now built a high fence along the frontier.

“My policy with regard to the illegal infiltrators seeking work is clear,” Netanyahu said in a May 29 speech. “First of all, to stop their entry with the fence and at the same time to deport the infiltrators who are in Israel.”

He warns of Africans “flooding” and “swamping” Israel, threatening “the character of the country”. Emergency measures to reverse the influx will include “detention facilities with thousands of units”, Netanyahu said last week.

Berri said the South Sudanese number about 700. They know when they are not wanted and will leave, he said. But their refugee status must first be assured by the United Nations, and third-country resettlement programs established.

TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Israeli human rights and activist groups back the Africans. But right-wing and religious parties say that if they are not stopped today’s 60,000 will become 600,000 in a few years, in a population of 7.8 million.

Poor south Tel Aviv residents say affluent north Tel Aviv Jews can afford to be liberal, because the Africans are not in their back yard. An opinion poll last week showed 52 percent of Israelis agree that the Africans are “a cancer”.

“They’ve come here to rape and steal,” one Israeli woman shouted at a small but ugly anti-migrant demonstration earlier this month in south Tel Aviv. “We should burn them out, put poison in their food,” said an elderly man.

Netanyahu urges restraint. “We are a moral people and we will act accordingly. We denounce violence; we denounce invective. We respect human rights,” he said, but added: “Israel cannot accept “infiltrators from an entire continent”.

The term “infiltrators” is also used by authorities to describe armed Palestinian militants.

Voluntary deportees will get financial assistance.

“Whoever comes forward will get his grant … from the moment you come to immigration authorities and say you will pack up, from that moment you will be given an opportunity to pack up, and the grant of 1,000 euros,” Yishai said.

The first planeload is expected to leave Israel next week.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams and Crispian Balmer; editing by Andrew Roche

Jerusalem court clears way for S. Sudanese migrants’ deportation


A Jerusalem court ruled that Israel could deport South Sudanese migrants who entered the country illegally.

Thursday’s decision in Jerusalem District Court was in response to an appeal by NGOs representing African migrants. The appeal was filed after Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai issued a decision to return the migrants.

Israel recognized South Sudan a day after it officially announced its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, and initiated formal ties three weeks later.

The decision paves the way for the deportation of about 1,500 South Sudanese who entered Israel illegally. Yishai said that he hoped the decision would be a precedent to allow the deportation of African nationals from other countries.

“This is not a war against infiltrators,” Yishai said, according to the Jerusalem Post. “This is a war for the preservation of the Zionist and Jewish dream in the land of Israel.”

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said last month that South Sudanese could be repatriated to their country now that it has achieved independence and is deemed safe by the foreign ministry. Each asylum application must be considered individually, he added.

The Jerusalem court said that the deportations could commence since the case had not proven that those South Sudanese to be deported would face “risk to life or exposure to serious damage.”

It is not known when the South Sudanese migrants will be deported.

Flame computer bug may have been released by Israel, minister says


A computer virus attacking computers in Iran and the West Bank may have been created with Israeli involvement, a government minister hinted.

Israeli vice prime minister Moshe Ya’alon said in an interview Tuesday on Israel Radio that “Anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat would be likely to take various steps, including these, to harm it.”

“Israel was blessed as being a country rich with high-tech, these tools that we take pride in open up all kinds of opportunities for us,” Ya’alon also said.

The discovery of the Flame virus was announced Monday by the Kaspersky Lab in Russia. It was discovered in high concentrations in Iranian computers and also in the West Bank, Syria and Sudan.

The virus was created to collect data, and may have lain dormant for several years and is controlled by a remote computer, which can turn it on and off at will. It is being called “the most sophisticated virus of all times,”

It reportedly shares some characteristics with the Stuxnet virus, which damaged Iranian nuclear centrifuges before it was discovered in 2010.

Experts believe that it took a sophisticated programming team and state resources to create the program.

Car blast in E. Sudan, Khartoum points to Israel


One person was killed when a car exploded in the eastern Sudanese city of Port Sudan on Tuesday in what the government said resembled a blast last year that it blamed on an Israeli missile strike.

An Israeli government spokesman declined to comment on the explosion in Sudan’s east, which analysts say is used as an arms smuggling route to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip via neighboring Egypt.

Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told Reuters: “I’m not going to respond to generic allegations.”

A local journalist in the Red Sea port said he saw two small but deep holes near a gutted car and another hole beneath it. Photographs from the scene showed blood splashed on the road.

Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti, the highest level official yet to comment on the blast, stopped short of directly blaming Israel, but said the explosion looked similar to an April, 2011 attack Khartoum blamed on an Israeli missile strike.

“The style of the car explosion was similar to Israel’s attack on Red Sea state (in 2011),” he told the pro-government al-Shorooq television station, according to its website. A foreign ministry spokesman confirmed the remarks.

Israel, which Sudan considers an enemy state, declined to comment on the 2011 blast that killed two people, and neither admitted nor denied a similar attack in eastern Sudan in 2009.

A local security source in Port Sudan said the car’s driver was a prominent member of the Ababda tribe known for smuggling weapons and goods. Port Sudan is the country’s main port.

State news agency SUNA said a team of experts would be sent to investigate the explosion, and identified the dead driver as trader Nasser Awadallah Ahmed Said, 65.

Spokesmen for Sudan’s police and armed forces were not immediately available for comment.

Sudan denies allowing illegal weapon shipments across its territory, but analysts say smugglers bring in weapons through the country’s east, then route them through Egypt’s Sinai desert and into the Gaza Strip.

Reporting by Ulf Laessing, Alexander Dziadosz and El-Tayeb Siddig in Khartoum and by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Editing by Michael Roddy

South Sudan, world’s youngest nation, develops unlikely friendship with Israel


This city in the world’s newest country is not your typical Arabic-speaking capital.

For one thing, most of the city’s inhabitants are Christian. For another, the Israeli flag is ubiquitous here.

Miniature Israeli flags hang from car windshields and flutter at roadside stalls, and at the Juba souk in the city’s downtown, you can buy lapel pins with the Israeli flag alongside its black, red and green South Sudanese counterpart.

“I love Israel,” said Joseph Lago, who sells pens, chewing gum and phone cards at a small wooden stall decorated with Israeli and South Sudanese flags. “They are people of God.”

Many South Sudanese are not just pro-Israel but proudly and openly so. There’s a Juba neighborhood called Jerusalem. A hotel near the airport is called the Shalom.

Perhaps most notable, South Sudan’s fondness for Israel extends to the diplomatic arena, where the two countries have been building strategic ties in a relationship that long preceded the founding of South Sudan last July.

“They see in us kind of a role model in how a small nation surrounded by enemies can survive and prosper, and they would like to imitate that,” Haim Koren, the incoming Israeli ambassador to South Sudan, told JTA.

South Sudan was created last year when its residents voted to secede from Sudan, a country with a Muslim majority and without diplomatic ties to Israel. The government in Khartoum accepted the secession, but in recent weeks a long-simmering dispute over oil revenues and borders has brought the two Sudans to the brink of all-out war.

With Sudan having often served as a safe haven for enemies of Israel and the West, the South Sudanese and Israel have had a common adversary.

In the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden found shelter in Sudan. In 1995, Sudanese intelligence agents participated in an attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an ally of Israel and the West. Khartoum signed a military cooperation agreement with Iran in 2008, and in 2009, Israeli warplanes reportedly bombed a 23-truck weapons convoy in Sudan bound for the Gaza Strip.

The first contact between militants from southern Sudan and the Israeli government was in 1967, when a commander with the Anyana Sudanese rebel movement wrote to then-Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. The officer explained that his militants were fighting on Sudan’s southern flank, and that with some help, the Anyana could keep Israel’s enemies bogged down and distracted.

According to James Mulla, the director of Voices of Sudan, a coalition of U.S.-based Sudanese-interest organizations, Israel’s support proved pivotal to the Anyana’s success during the first Sudanese civil war, which ended in 1972.

“Israel was the only country that helped the rebels in South Sudan,” Mulla told JTA. “They provided advisers to the Anyana, which is one reason why the government of Sudan wanted to sign a peace agreement. They wanted to finish the Anyana movement just shortly before they got training and advice.”

Over the years, there have been reports of the Israelis continuing to aid South Sudanese rebels during Sudan’s second civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2005 and resulted in an estimated 1.5 million to 2.5 million deaths.

Angelos Agok, a U.S.-based activist and a 13-year veteran in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, recalls that the SPLM’s ties to Israel were kept discrete.

“It was an intricate case, where South Sudan was still part of Sudan, which is an Arab country,” Agok said. “We didn’t want to offend them, and we had to be very careful diplomatically.”

Agok said SPLA leaders traveled to Israel for training. The Israeli government declined to comment on the subject.

Koren says the relationship with South Sudan is consistent with Israel’s strategic interests in East Africa, where state failure and political extremism have provided terrorist groups with potential bases of operation.

“In the long run, we’re expecting that friendly countries like South Sudan could be an ally like other states that are built in a non-extreme way,” he said.

Agriculture is another reason for the alliance. South Sudan’s economic future likely depends on large-scale farming. There was little commercial development in the region during the war years, and the country still imports much of its food from Uganda, despite sitting on some of Africa’s richest potential farmland.

It’s an area in which Israel has deep expertise, and it shares that expertise in ongoing cooperative projects with numerous developing countries.

“We have the initiative and we have the abilities to contribute and to help,” Koren said of South Sudan’s agricultural potential.

Israel already has a small presence in the country in the form of IsraAid, an Israeli NGO coalition. In March, an IsraAid delegation helped South Sudan set up its Ministry of Social Development, which will provide social work-related services for a population traumatized by decades of war.

“Whenever you say you’re from Israel, they’ll open you the door,” said Ophelie Namiech, the head of the Israeli delegation. “When we say we’re Israeli, the trust has already been built.”

Eliseo Neuman, who is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Africa Institute and traveled to Juba with the SPLM when South Sudan was still under Khartoum’s control, says the close ties between Israel and South Sudan could complicate both countries’ relationships with the Arab world.

“The north was blamed by the Arab League generally for fumbling the secession, and some allege that now they have the Zionists on their southern frontier—meaning the South Sudanese,” Neuman said. “Any very overt strengthening of the relationship might be an irritant.”

The relationship faces another potential pitfall: the future of the estimated 3,000 South Sudanese living in Israel who fled to Israel via Egypt during the long civil war.

Israel has struggled with how to handle the migrants and differentiating between those who came seeking refuge from violence and those who came in search of economic opportunity.

Israel “takes its obligations as a signatory to the Refugee Convention very seriously, given the history of the Jewish people and the history of many people who ended up coming to Israel,” said Mark Hetfield, an official at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society who in two weeks will become its interim president and CEO. “But at the same time, they need to send a signal to people coming for economic reasons that they can’t sneak into the country under the guise of being asylum seekers.”

In February, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced plans to begin deporting South Sudanese who would not accept government financial incentives to leave the country voluntarily.

Hetfield, who is now senior vice president at HIAS for policy and programs, helped oversee a program in Israel that taught job skills to South Sudanese who planned on returning home, but the program was suspended when the threat of deportation loomed.

Hetfield says the group would like the Israeli government to grant South Sudanese a “temporary protected status” that would prevent them from being deported to their unstable homeland.

Mulla does not think that the Israeli refugee issue will have an impact on the broader strategic alliance between South Sudan and Israel. However, he said he has raised the issue of the possible deportations with the South Sudanese ambassador in Washington, and hopes that something can be done to halt the process.

“If Israel decides to deport them, of course it’s going to be devastating,” Mulla said.

Advocates for the Africans are appealing to Israel’s Supreme Court in an attempt to stall or halt the deportations.

Sudanese media accuses Israel of attacking convoy


Israel’s Air Force allegedly attacked weapons convoys traveling from Sudan to the Gaza Strip, Sudanese media reported.

The two convoys reportedly were smuggling Iranian weapons to Gaza earlier this month when they were hit by war planes. At least two people were killed and several wounded in the strikes, according to the reports.

Israel has not responded to the reports, which have been denied by the Sudanese army.

Sudan’s foreign minister in April blamed Israel for a bombing attack on a car near the country’s port city that killed two. Israel also was accused in 2009 of a deadly strike on a convoy of trucks in eastern Sudan suspected of being arms smugglers transporting weapons bound for Gaza.

South Sudan president makes lightening visit to Israel


The president of the new country of South Sudan arrived in Israel for a short working visit during which the possibility of repatriating Sudanese infiltrators to the country set to be discussed.

Salva Kiir met Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered to send a government delegation to South Sudan to assess how Israel can help the new country, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Kiir also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, and visited Yad Vashem.His visit lasted less than 24 hours.

“I am very moved to be in Israel and to walk on the soil of the Promised Land, and with me are all South Sudanese people,” Kiir told Peres, according to a statement from the president’s office. “Israel has always supported the South Sudanese people. Without you, we would not have arisen. You struggled alongside us in order to allow the establishment of South Sudan and we are interested in learning from your experience. As a nation that rose from dust, and as the few who fought the many, you have established a flourishing country that offers a future and economic prosperity to its children. I have come to see your success. Both Israel and South Sudan champion coexistence and peace. We have shared values. We have waged similar struggles and we will go hand-in-hand with Israel in order to strengthen and enhance bilateral strategic relations.”

“Israel has supported, and will continue to support, your country in all areas in order to strengthen and develop it. We know that you courageously and wisely struggled against all odds to establish your country and for us, the birth of South Sudan is a milestone in the history of the Middle East and in advancing the values of equality, freedom and striving for peace and good neighborly relations,” Peres told Kiir. He also presented Kiir with an antique menorah, in honor of the start of Chanukah.

Sudan blames Israel for deadly airstrike


Sudan’s foreign minister blamed Israel for a bombing attack on a car near the country’s port city that killed two.

“This is absolutely an Israeli attack,” Ali Karti told reporters Wednesday in the capital of Khartoum, Reuters reported.

The day before, an unidentified plane reportedly flew into Sudanese airspace from the Red Sea and bombed the car, killing its two passengers, before flying back the way it came. The plane evaded several missiles fired by the Sudanese army.

Karti said one of the car’s dead passengers was a Sudanese citizen with no government or Islamist ties.

Israel carried out the attack, he said, to prevent Sudan from being removed from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sudan is under consideration to be removed from the list.

Neither Israel’s foreign minister nor its military has commented on the attack.

Israel was accused in 2009 of a deadly strike on a convoy of trucks in eastern Sudan suspected of being arms smugglers transporting weapons bound for the Gaza Strip.

Call for Jews to shun China Olympics stirs opposition


A large group of rabbis spanning Judaism’s religious movements says it has an answer to the vexing question of how to send China an Olympic-sized message without harming the interests of athletes or Israel.

In an appeal issued April 30 and timed for the commemoration of Yom HaShoah, 185 Jewish leaders — mostly clergy — appealed to Jews not to attend the Beijing Olympics this summer as tourists.

The next day, the Anti-Defamation League rejected the boycott call and said comparisons the clergy statement made to the 1936 Berlin Olympics were inappropriate. Three Orthodox groups — the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and the National Council of Young Israel — also in recent days rejected the boycott idea.

Representatives of the three Orthodox groups said they felt obliged to issue statements so the public would not construe the boycott call as reflecting the entirety of Jewish opinion.

China is the principal power propping up the regime in Sudan, where government-allied militias have murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians in the civil war in the Darfur region. It is also cracking down harshly on independence movements in Tibet.

Jewish groups have played a disproportionate and lead role in drawing Western attention to the Darfur killings. Yet deciding whether to confront China, which enjoys thriving trade with Israel, presents a more complicated set of issues than attempting to isolate Sudan, a poor country that does not want relations with the Jewish state.

Also complicating matters is that the United States and Israel have scored modest successes recently in getting China to join the effort to isolate Iran until it ends its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The appeal is cast narrowly, organizers said, as a way around such dilemmas that other groups and nations have faced in determining how to confront the Chinese over human rights abuses, while not harming athletes and national interests.

“There’s a difference between doing business, which is a necessity, and spending discretionary income on sports, which gives a country legitimacy that’s doing a number of very bad things that Jews should be sensitive to,” said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, head of Manhattan’s Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue, who was a coordinator of the statement.

Lookstein and another Orthodox organizer of the petition, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, saw an opportunity when they learned that China was preparing a kosher kitchen for the Olympics. The outreach to Jewish religious needs struck a chord.

“Beijing’s authorization of the creation of a kosher kitchen at the Olympics Village is apparently intended to help attract Jewish tourists to the games, as part of its broader strategy of improving its image and deflecting attention from its complicity in severe human rights abuses at home and abroad,” the statement said. “Jews should not be party to the whitewashing of such a regime, kosher kitchen or no kosher kitchen. Regimes that practice or enable oppression, terrorism or genocide are not kosher.”

The Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which took part in preparing the statement, noted that Germany used the 1936 Olympics to help create the false impression of secure Jewish communities and thereby diminish American awareness of the impending Nazi threat.

“Having endured the bitter experience of abandonment by our presumed allies during the Holocaust, we feel a particular obligation to speak out against injustice and persecution today,” the statement said. “We remember all too well that the road to Nazi genocide began in the 1930s with Hitler’s efforts to improve the public image of his evil regime. Nazi Germany sought to attract visitors to the 1936 Olympics in order to distract attention from its persecution of the Jews.”

The ADL statement rejected such parallels.

“We believe that these comparisons are inappropriate,” its statement said. “China is a complicated society that is changing and opening up in many ways, and one simply cannot equate the Beijing Olympics with those games in Nazi Germany on the eve of the Holocaust.”

Greenberg said the offensive aspect of preparing the kosher kitchen was in using the appeal as a means to subvert opposition to China’s human rights abuses.

“They’re trying to use providing kosher food as a way of building up the Olympics,” he said.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the rabbis’ statement is “an appeal to individuals, not an appeal to the government of Israel.”

Yoffie noted that Israel is a small nation that has had to balance geopolitical realities with compelling moral matters.

“This is a moral appeal to Jewish individuals around the world,” he said.

Greenberg said individuals were less susceptible to the pressures of maintaining alliances and promoting trade.

“There are counterforces for countries and organizations, but not for laypeople,” he said.

Organizers said they also did not want to harm athletes. The wholesale U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics is now considered a failure that hampered athletic careers more than it moved the Soviet Union to change its Afghanistan policies.

Appealing to rabbis to sign as individuals circumvented the difficult questions that would arise if Jewish organizations were involved. The organizers did not approach Jewish groups, although they hoped that some would sign on. The American Jewish Congress has signed.

The ADL in rejecting the boycott call said, “While there is no doubt that China has an extremely poor human rights record and that its actions in Tibet and Sudan are to be condemned, we believe that asking the Jewish community to engage in a boycott of the games could be counterproductive and would not produce any tangible result.”

Greenberg and Lookstein lined up other Orthodox notables to sign on, including Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University; Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical school in New York City; and David Bernstein, dean of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Israel.

They were joined by the leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, as well as dozens of rabbis across the United States and Canada.

Israel’s Darfur refugees require worthy action


I was in Jerusalem in early July when a news story about Sudanese refuges demonstrating in front of the Knesset caught my eye. From the press accounts, it was difficult to fully understand who these refugees were or under what circumstances they had arrived in Israel. Some seemed to be refugees from the genocide in Darfur, but clearly, not all of them were.

It was not even entirely clear what they were hoping the Israeli government would now do for them or what the government had — or had not — done up to this point. But the story seemed to nonetheless vibrate with moral and Jewish historical significance, and I set out to understand it.

One phone contact led me to another until I finally reached Eytan Schwartz, a semicelebrity in Israel who won an Israeli reality TV show a few years ago. Schwartz is today the head of CARD (the Committee for Advancement of Refugees of Darfur) and has emerged as the chief advocate for the Sudanese refugees in Israel.

Schwartz invited me to meet him at a shopping mall in Herzilia, from where we would go to meet two men who had made the journey from Darfur to Israel. I could never have guessed how familiar their stories were going to sound.

We arrived at a dusty, off-the-beaten-track moshav just before sundown. We pulled off the moshav’s dirt road at a random-seeming spot, parked and were greeted by Abdel and Ayman.

They escorted us to a small open area hemmed in by farm equipment. We sat with them at a small, round plastic table, and they poured us some juice. Just beyond the table was what looked like a large shipping crate, containing two beds, a fridge, a small stove and a satellite dish on the roof.

The following is Abdel’s story: He was born and reared in Darfur, a son of a well-to-do family that owned 400 head of livestock. His older brother tended to the family’s livelihood and Abdel became a teacher (I presume of the Quran), holding classes for the residents of the village.

In early 2004, he was accused by the Sudanese government of teaching anti-government propaganda, charges that he flatly denies. Soon thereafter, he was abducted at gunpoint, blindfolded and driven several hours away from his village. He found himself in a remote area with other abductees from other villages around Darfur.

Abdel quickly realized that each morning, several of the prisoners were sent out to collect wood, and that upon their return, they were burned at the stake with the very wood they had collected. On the morning that Abdel was to meet the same fate, he proposed to one of the others in his group that they try to escape.

“If they catch us, they will shoot us,” he said. “But this is better than being burned.” When the whistle was blown, signaling that it was time to return, they hid. And aided by a heavy rain that began to fall, they then began to run.

After hours of running, Abdel and his friend arrived at a village at which they were clothed and fed. It was there that he learned that the Janjaweed had come to his village, killed his older brother and taken all the livestock. Abdel immediately returned to the village to be with his family, and it was while he was there that the entire village was set ablaze.

On the run again, Abdel sought shelter in various locations within Sudan, but realizing that no place in Sudan would be safe, in December of 2004, he crossed the border into Egypt and made his way to Cairo. There he found hundreds of others who had fled Darfur just as he had.

Cairo was not hospitable to the refugees, as they encountered virulent anti-Sudanese prejudice and hostility there. But like others who had arrived from Darfur, he was given a “yellow card” by the U.N. office in charge of refugees, which guaranteed him some degree of protection for a period of six months.

While awaiting further processing of his case, Abdel met and married a fellow Darfur refugee who had also fled to Cairo. Many months passed, and the U.N. refugee office in Cairo had still not addressed the refugees’ cases in any meaningful way.

They were stuck in legal limbo, facing a rising level of hostility on the Egyptian street. In December of 2005, frustrated and fearful, Abdel and his new wife joined 1,500 other Sudanese refugees gathered in front of the U.N. headquarters in Cairo to hold a demonstration.

The Egyptian army moved in and violently broke up the demonstration, killing 27, wounding many others and forcing the remainder onto buses that would remove them from the demonstration site. As he was being loaded onto a bus, Abdel saw his wife, apparently hurt, being taken away in a police car.

For days afterward, he searched every hospital, inquiring after her whereabouts. Everywhere he was denied entry or information. After several days, he discovered that she was dead. She had been two months pregnant.

With Egypt clearly providing no future, he began to contemplate where to run next. He decided to try Israel.

“Why Israel?” I asked him. While there were probably several reasons, the ones he gave me were these: “Because I knew from reading the Bible that Jews were commanded to be kind to the stranger. And also, I knew about the Holocaust” (Abdel had read about World War II growing up in Darfur.)

And so he set off to wander in the Sinai Desert in the cold of winter, relying for navigation only on occasional Bedouin assistance and prayers to God. After several days of walking and almost despairing, he finally crossed what was clearly a border. But a border with what?

He thought he might have been in Gaza, Jordan or Israel. When the sun rose, he saw several army Jeeps in pursuit.

The wrong Zionist response to refugees


It’s hard to escape the impression that the Olmert government is being humane to the refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region for appearance’s sake only. I say this because the government is being amazingly cruel to the refugees from southern Sudan, who are far more numerous than the Darfurians, and who escaped a genocide that took many, many more lives than the one going on in Darfur.

The genocide in Darfur is just better known. The genocide in Darfur has also been taken up as a cause by American Jewish organizations. If Israel expelled the few hundred refugees here from Darfur, it would be a public relations catastrophe. But if Israel expels the 1,000 or so refugees here from southern Sudan, who cares?

Like the Darfurians, the refugees from southern Sudan saw their villages burned and their families slaughtered by Arab terrorosts. Like the Darfurians, they escaped north to Egypt, where they endured years of anti-black racism, brutality and feudal exploitation before crossing Sinai and straggling over the border into Israel.

Some don’t make it; they get shot to death by Egyptian soldiers in Sinai or, if they give themselves up, get beaten viciously.

The refugees began arriving here in 2004 and, until now, the government has refrained from sending them back to Egypt because Egypt didn’t want them, and because Egypt might deport them back to Sudan, where they faced death at the hands of the government or its genocidal marauders.

But now everything’s changed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has agreed to take back the Sudanese refugees and pledged not to deport them back home. So the Israeli government is going to take Mubarak up on his offer.

“For the first few days, the Egyptians will give us a big welcome, and then, when no one’s paying attention anymore, the security forces will do whatever they want to us and no one will know. We’ll either be killed or put in jail for the rest of our lives,” says “George,” a young southern Sudanese survivor who spent nearly a year in Israeli prisons before being allowed to work in the Eilat hotels.

There are hundreds of Sudanese refugees working there with him, all technically under house arrest.

“Everybody is really worried,” he says.

Egypt treats black Africans like garbage, like slaves, and shoots them when they try to escape. Now Egypt is considered by Israel a fit destination for these black Africans, all of whom have been through a holocaust of their own.

I’m waiting for the Israel lobby in the United States to tell Olmert he can’t do this. I’m also waiting for the pro-Israel evangelical Christian organizations to pressure Olmert to change his mind. Of the nearly 1,200 Sudanese refugees here, about 700 are Christians, according to Sigal Rozen, head of Hotline for Migrant Workers, the main Israeli NGO helping these people.

All, or virtually all, of the 700 Christians — “George” being one of them — are from southern Sudan, not Darfur, so they’re on the list of deportees. Israel, which gets the most extraordinary support from the multiracial world of evangelical Christianity, is now going to send 700 Christians back to a Muslim country that persecuted them because they’re black, and that might even send them back to another Muslim country that committed genocide against them because they’re black and Christian.

There’s no debate that something has to be done to stop the increasing flow of refugees, Sudanese and others, crossing the border into Israel. We obviously can’t have an “open door” policy — there are millions of Sudanese refugees living miserably in Egypt.

But the question is: Can we afford to take in more than the estimated 200-400 who originate in Darfur, and I think the answer is yes. I think we can afford to take in at least a few-thousand Sudanese refugees – southerners and Darfurians, Christians and Muslims. The Israeli hotel operators in Eilat say they’re the finest people, hard-working and extremely eager to improve their education, which was stunted by the genocide(s) in their homeland. These people risked their lives to come to this country, they’re grateful as can be to Israel for taking them in, and in the Israeli-Arab conflict, they’re about as pro-Israel (and anti-Arab) as anyone anywhere.

But I know I’m in a very small minority on this issue. Israelis think this country should only be for Jews, that Israel should worry about Jewish refugees only, except for maybe a few Vietnamese boat people and Darfurians. Otherwise, the overwhelming consensus is that there are too many non-Jews in this country already, the demographic bogeyman is going to get us, and besides, these Sudanese will never be more than the wretched of the Israeli earth, they’ll never be accepted, they’re better off somewhere else.

This is a distortion of Zionism, this is turning the ideology of a Jewish state into the ideology of a Jewish separatist state. The Law of Return says any Jew can become an Israeli citizen, but Israelis think it also says that no non-Jew can become an Israeli citizen, and the Law of Return says no such thing. If the Sudanese could never hope to be accepted in Israel, never allowed to become more than menial laborers on the furthest margins of society, whose fault is that — theirs or ours? Instead of “protecting” them from our xenophobia, why don’t we just become less xenophobic?

If Israel goes ahead and sends 1,000 southern Sudanese refugees back to live under the Pharaoh, after what they went through in Sudan, then once and for all we Jews ought to get off our high horse about how “the world stood silent” when we needed help.

Israel Policy of Imprisoning Refugees Being Challenged


Israeli activists and lawmakers are challenging in court the current policy of incarcerating Sudanese refugees who illegally enter the country under a law dealing with “enemy nationals” that allows them to be detained indefinitely.

The majority of the refugees made the trek across the Sinai Desert after Egyptian police violently broke up a demonstration outside the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or (UNHCR), in Cairo at the end of 2005.

A year ago at Passover, activists petitioned the Israeli courts, claiming that it was illegal to incarcerate the Sudanese refugees under what is known as the “infiltration law,” because it does not allow for individual judicial review.

As a result of that challenge, the government appointed a special investigator, Eldad Azar, to interview the prisoners and make recommendations to the minister of defense on the status of each one.

Of the dozens of cases Azar has reviewed, he hasn’t found one that represents a security threat, said Anat Ben Dor of Tel Aviv University, who has been instrumental in challenging the legality of the detentions.

Azar did not return phone calls, and the Ministry of Defense did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

But in Defense Ministry documents of the cases obtained by JTA, Azar routinely concludes that “the prisoner is eligible under the U.N. refugee convention,” meaning the prisoner is a legitimate refugee and not a security threat or terrorist. In the documents, Azar often points out that the prisoner is “held without a proper arrest document” and frequently recommends that the prisoner “should be freed for humanitarian reasons.”

Among the cases is UNHCR Case Isr114, a father of three who fled Darfur after being arrested and detained for 10 days, was arrested again in Khartoum, then again in Cairo before fleeing to Israel on April 25, 2006.

Azar concludes: “From the minute he arrived in Israel, there is no returning the prisoner to Sudan, because of the danger that is expected from the authorities if they are alerted that he was in Israel.”

In 1985 a coup d’etat brought control of Sudan into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists and Omar al-Bashir, who had fought in the Egyptian army during the Yom Kippur War against Israel.

Based on the documents, a significant number of cases involve sloppy paperwork or lack of due process, Dor said. She has sued for damages on behalf of some of the prisoners and is a principal in the petition before Israel’s High Court, which is challenging the legalities of the detentions.

“There have been serious, systemic violations of the basic right to liberty,” Dor said.

Her goal, she said, is to free the prisoners and enable future asylum seekers to be able to go directly to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and skip prison.

According to an Israeli Interior Ministry official, “On the one hand, Israel is obligated not to return refugees to a place where their lives are likely to be endangered. On the other hand, the matter raises security-related and diplomatic issues.”

Dor has some new, unlikely allies in her efforts to keep the refugees out of prison.

On Jan. 10, two Sudanese slipped under the Egyptian-Israeli border fence and, like hundreds before them, gave themselves up to the Israel Defense Forces. But in what is believed to be a first, the Border Police refused to take them. Reportedly they were fed up with imprisoning Sudanese refugees.

The IDF had intelligence officials check out the two Sudanese and concluded “their intentions are not national [security] and therefore they do not require the services of the Prison Authority,” according to a confidential IDF document obtained by JTA.

The Sudanese were dropped off at the Beersheva central bus station by a sympathetic IDF officer, who told them to go directly to the UNHCR office in Jerusalem.

Since then, IDF or Border Police have circumvented the prison services four more times, interviewed the Sudanese themselves, determined they were not a threat and brought them to Beersheva. Individual soldiers gave them bus money to make their way to the UNHCR offices for an interview.

Some involved in the issue say Israel has made it more difficult for the refugees to be resettled to third countries because they were imprisoned in Israel.

Michael Bavli, the UNHCR representative in Israel, said no third country is willing to take the Sudanese refugees, because each country will follow the security lead set by Israel. The thinking would be, he said, that they are imprisoned in Israel, which knows what it is doing security-wise, so they must be a security risk.

Bavli said it was concerns over future resettlement for the Sudanese that spurred those involved in the issue to seek alternative detention, placing the refugees on kibbutzim.

“Within six months on a kibbutz, we’ll find them an alternative country, because suddenly they are not criminals who are sitting in Israeli prisons,” he said.

Bavli and UNHCR have approached Australia and the United States, among other countries.

Eytan Schwartz of the Committee for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur, a coalition of groups involved in the issue, said, “The ideal solution” would be twofold: first, to speed up the release of the refugees detained in prison to a kibbutz or a moshav, then grant asylum to at least some of the refugees, while stressing that the move is a one-time deal.

“This would demonstrate Israel’s willingness to help a community in distress and comply with the country’s moral and international obligations,” Schwartz said. “At the same time, Israel should make it clear that the Sudanese refugee problem should be dealt with by the international community and cannot become an Israeli problem.”

Schwartz said it is important for the Israeli government “to recognize some of them as refugees, because we believe that unless Israel accepts at least some of them, no other Western nation would be prepared to take the rest of them in.”

A U.S. State Department official confirmed that Israel has asked for assistance in resettling the refugees. Despite the quiet fact that 55 “enemy nationals” — mostly Iraqis — have been resettled from Israel to third countries, the Israelis “don’t want to encourage the arrival of more refugees.”

From Darfur to Israel: A Family’s Perilous Exodus


“We left Sudan, took a boat on the Nile to Aswan and went to Cairo to seek protection at the United Nations office,” said Ahmed, sitting in Ketziot, a maximum-security Israeli prison near the Egyptian border.

Some 150 miles away, sitting in the office of a women’s crisis center in the western Galilee, Ahmed’s wife, Fatima, learns of her husband’s whereabouts from this reporter. They had not seen each other since Dec. 29, when they sneaked into Israel with their three children.

“My husband was arrested in Darfur and then in Khartoum,” said Fatima, her head wrapped in a blue scarf, with her children beside her. “We had to leave.”

Knesset members and the Israeli media have been barred from Ketziot, where dozens of Sudanese are being detained. But JTA was granted an exclusive interview and entrance to the Negev prison.

Together, the husband and wife pieced together their story.

From Darfur, where he was imprisoned and tortured, Ahmed and his family made their way to Khartoum, where he was similarly arrested. Seeing that the Sudanese capital was not safe, they went to Egypt.

Even as he sits in an Israeli prison, Ahmed’s fate and the fate of his fellow refugees could still be determined by Egypt. Both the government of Israel and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would prefer to see the deportation of the refugees in Israel back to Egypt, if they were guaranteed not be to be deported back to Sudan.

Ahmed’s family was among the tens of thousands of Sudanese who have sought safe haven in Cairo, with the hopes of being recognized as refugees by the United Nations and therefore eligible for asylum in a third country.

Egypt’s handling of the current Sudanese refugee crisis can be traced to a 1996 assassination attempt, in which extremist Egyptians had been plotting for months in Sudan to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Although the assassination attempt failed to kill the Egyptian leader, it did lead to a change in policy for Sudanese entering Egypt. For half a century, some 2 million Sudanese had entered Egypt without a visa and had unrestricted access to employment, education and health care.

According to UNHCR’s Cairo office, between 1994 and 2005, 58,535 Sudanese nationals sought safe haven in Egypt, with two-thirds coming from either the Darfur region, where some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million displaced, or the south, where an estimated 1.5 million Sudanese, mostly Christians, were killed in a 21-year civil war.

By the end of 2005, 31,990 Sudanese were granted refugee status in Cairo and obtained the coveted U.N. blue card that certifies their refugee status and qualifies them as candidates for resettlement to third countries, mostly the United States, Canada and Australia. About half of those were actually resettled, but another 13,327 were still in limbo, and they were becoming increasingly frustrated.

“I went to the U.N. office,” and was told “to come back in six months for an interview,” Ahmed said. “He went back six months later, and they said they had to wait another six months,” Fatima said.

On Sept. 29, 2005, at the start of Ramadan, Sudanese refugees moved into Mustafa Mahmoud Park, put up protest banners and received the protection of the Egyptian police.

“We lived in the park with the other families, across from the United Nations office for three months,” Fatima said. “It was very hard to find work, to feed my family,” recalled Ahmed, who has been transferred to an Israeli prison near Ramle. “I joined the demonstrations.”

The demonstrators wanted UNHCR to resume processing applications for asylum, which had been suspended for all Sudanese since June 2004, when a cease-fire was announced in southern Sudan.

At 1 a.m. on Dec. 30, 2005, 4,000 Egyptian security force members surrounded 2,000 Sudanese protesters. First came the water canons, Ahmed and Fatima recalled. They clubbed Fatima, then three months pregnant, in the stomach. Ahmed saw five people, including two children, killed. Fatima’s aunt was shot point-blank. The official death toll in front of UNHCR’s Cairo headquarters was 27.

“They took us all to jail, each one to a different lockup,” Fatima recalled. “There, they tortured me, gave me no food and I learned that they did the same to my husband. Only later did I learn from my children that each of them was alone.

“Only when my 2 1/2-year-old began crying did the police take him around to other jails to see if anyone could identify him. My 8-year-old daughter identified him and told the police that he was her brother. They were allowed to be together, but they weren’t given food for long periods.

“After five days, they released me, and I began looking for my children. I went from jail to jail until I found them.”

Ahmed said he was freed a week after his wife.

They threatened “that we would be deported to Sudan.” That is when “I decided we are going to leave Egypt and go to Israel to seek protection. We were not safe in Egypt.”

The UNHCR office in Cairo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ahmed said he kept his departure plan secret from everyone, including Fatima. Visiting an Internet cafe in Cairo, he was able to find friends from Darfur who were resettled in the United States and Canada. With earphones on, sitting next to the computer, the Darfurian with a seventh-grade education used a computer voice communications program to plead with his friends to send him money, but he didn’t say what it was for.

When the money arrived, he told Fatima of his plans to escape with the family to Israel, arranged for the Bedouin smugglers and set out to cross the Sinai Desert.

“The Bedouins said that I was going to be taken to prison, and that Fatima would be taken to a shelter in the north,” Ahmed said. “But at least we would be safe.”

Yosef Israel Abramowitz is an award-winning journalist and founder of socialaction.com. Abramowitz, who moved with his family last year to Israel, blogs daily at peoplehood.org. JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Israel contributed to this piece. The names of the refugees have been changed to protect them from reprisals against family members in Arab countries.

Sudanese Discover Parallels in Visit to Yad Vashem


A group of refugees from Darfur on a visit to Yad Vashem lingered next to a model of the crematorium at Auschwitz, taking in the ghastly sight of bodies carried on cots and pushed into ovens.

They walked through the museum in silence, listening to the words of the guide and trying to understand that the photographs of young boys in sailor suits and girls with silk ribbons in their hair were the same children whose names appeared on the list of those transported to concentration camps and among those killed.

“It’s such a sad history, tears fell from my eyes,” said G, 25, whose parents and two siblings were killed by Arab militiamen when they raided his home village. “It made me remember things that happened in my own past.”

His visit to Israel’s Holocaust memorial was the first time he ever set foot in a museum, and he left hoping that one day the victims of the Darfur genocide might build a similar memorial.

“I hope there will be such a place in the future, but I don’t know when,” he said. “Maybe in another generation far from our own.”

G, who asked that his name not be used, said he escaped on foot from his village the day of the attack. He does not remember how or even where he first ran before he began the long journey through Sudan and Egypt to Israel, where he is seeking asylum.

He spent 15 months in an Israeli jail because of his status as an enemy alien before being released to Kibbutz Yotvata in southern Israel, where he works in the date fields.

Yad Vashem Chair Avner Shalev addressed the group of 11 refugees, saying they might take inspiration from the museum to one day record and document their stories and the story of their people. Although the bloodshed continues in Darfur, Shalev urged them to think about commemoration even now.

“It is important that you already begin to think about ways to remember the events and memorialize the victims,” he said.

“As Jews, who have the memory of the Shoah embedded within us, we cannot stand by as refugees from genocide in Darfur are knocking on our doors,” Shalev said. “The memory of the past and the Jewish values that underpin our existence command us to humanitarian solidarity with the persecuted.”

He reached out to shake hands with the refugees, most of them recently released from prison.

Yad Vashem has been among the more outspoken elements in Israeli society, advocating for a swift and humane response to some 300 Sudanese who have crossed into Israel in recent years via the Egyptian desert. About a third of the migrants are from Darfur; others include Christians who claim they also are victims of persecution. Since Sudan technically is at war with Israel, most of the refugees were put in prison.

Some are being released to kibbutzim and moshavim while they await word on which country might give them political asylum. Israel has yet to officially make such an offer.

The Yad Vashem tour was initiated by the Committee for the Advancement of Refugees From Darfur, which works to assist the Sudanese refugees in Israel.

Robert Rozett, director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, led the group on its tour, explaining the ideology of the Nazis and how they executed their plan to murder the Jews. The Sudanese leaned in to each other, occasionally putting a hand on each other’s shoulders for comfort. Some could be seen wiping away tears.

Some images seemed to hit home especially hard: a blurry photograph of an SS soldier aiming his rifle at a mother who had wrapped her body protectively around her young child, and a portrait of a young woman with sad, empty eyes gazing at a globe and wondering if she would ever find refuge.

The Sudanese, too, live with uncertainty over what country might take them in, and with the memories of relatives and friends killed before their eyes.

The parallels told in the museum felt cruel, including the story of the St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees from Europe that sailed to Cuba in 1939 only to be refused entry. After sailing to the United States and Canada, where it also was refused entry, the ship returned to Germany. Most of its passengers were killed in the Holocaust.

The Sudanese refugees also speak of no one wanting them and of their fears of being deported back to their home country. In Egypt, where many said they were abused and harassed by the authorities, some said they were threatened with being sent back to Sudan.

As Rozett guided the group into a section of the museum documenting roundups from the ghettos to concentration camps, he also talked to them about commemoration.

“You have photographs, you have documents maybe, you have your stories,” he said. “It’s important to know, so people in 50 years will also know” what’s happening.

At the Hall of Names, the repository for Yad Vashem’s collection of “Pages of Testimony” — short biographies of each Holocaust victim — the group gathered in a semicircle and looked up at the photographs of some victims. As they peered up at the faces, Rozett reminded them, “They don’t have a cemetery, but they do have a page.”

“It was very hard; I was shocked,” said M, 24, from Darfur. “It reminded me of my own people, seeing the killings, the shootings. I want to say that I am sorry that this happened to the Jews.”

G said it will take him a long time to digest what he saw at Yad Vashem.

“People were supposed to learn from history,” he said. “But still it happens now. In 1994 in Rwanda and now in Darfur. I thought the world was supposed to learn.”

A Troubled Exodus


With two miles of bare footprints behind them, Ahmed and Fatima and their three children approached the border with Israel in the middle of a cold winter night. Snow was falling in the Sinai.

Avoid the Egyptian military patrols, they were warned by their Bedouin smugglers, whom they paid with money borrowed from Sudanese friends.

“If they catch you, you could be shot or deported back to Sudan,” the Bedouins said.

The 12-hour trip from Cairo was the last leg of a multiyear journey stretching from the violence of Darfur to Sudan’s dangerous capital of Khartoum to the teeming streets of Cairo. Ahmed had been imprisoned in each city.

Israel was their last hope for what Fatima calls “a normal life” without the “fear of being sent back to Sudan.”

Two hours after dusting the sand off their dark clothing, dirtied while crawling under two security fences, their 5-month-old baby’s cry pierced the silence of the frigid Negev air. The response was an Israeli military spotlight.

“Do you know where you are?” the soldiers called out in Arabic.

“Yes,” they answered.

“Why are you here?”

“Because we were mistreated in Egypt.”

“Who are you?”

“We are Sudanese.”

Ahmed lowered his 2-year-old son from his shoulders and held up his Sudanese passport, as well as the worn yellow card given to asylum seekers by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The card had been obtained in Cairo and saved them from being deported back to Sudan, as the Egyptian police had threatened.

The Israeli soldiers gave the children their green military coats.

“We were afraid of the Egyptian army, not of the Israeli army,” Ahmed recalled later.

In an often-reluctant ritual that has been repeated almost weekly for two years, involving Sudanese sneaking into Israel, Israel Defense Forces patrols gathered up the tired refugee family, placed them in an ambulance and handed them over to the Border Police. The Border Police sent Ahmed to Ketziot Prison for violating the Infiltration Law, a 1954 statute enacted against enemy combatants.

If the experience of others before him is any precedent, Ahmed could remain incarcerated for at least a year, until Israel figures out what to do with him and the more than 120 other imprisoned Sudanese.

Fatima and the children were sent to a battered women’s shelter in the western Galilee that has largely been taken over by Sudanese refugees whose husbands are in prison.

The failure of the United Nations to cope with the doubling of refugee applications in the past decade or to intervene to prevent the genocide in Darfur has had ripple effects throughout the world. That now includes Israel and the Jewish world.

Faced with genocidal threats from Iran and terrorist groups, a legacy of the Holocaust and even echoes of the Exodus 3,700 years ago, Israel is torn between its commitment to universal humanitarian concerns and its own security interests.

A four-month investigation into the plight of the refugees and the Israeli government’s handling of the situation found a system that even the top Israeli official adjudicating each of the cases has said often violates Israeli and international law.

After two years of legal challenges and growing Israeli media attention, the issue now is coming to a critical juncture.

The practice of arresting and indefinitely detaining Sudanese asylum seekers on security grounds is being tested in the courts, even as Israeli Border Police are showing signs of resisting the orders to arrest and detain the refugees crossing the borders.

Major international human rights figures have embraced the cause, and a handful of Knesset members and activists in Israel are pressing for a resolution of the crisis. Some of these activists, in turn, have strong ties to the American Jewish community, which has embraced the cause of Darfur as a top humanitarian priority. Some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Another 2.5 million have been displaced.

Israel’s quandary is a difficult one.

“Sudanese refugees are right now considered enemy nationals since Sudan is an Islamic fundamentalist country,” explained Anat Ben Dor, Israel’s leading refugee rights lawyer, who has emerged as a top advocate for the Sudanese refugees. “Yet Israel is a signatory to the International Convention on Refugees, which guarantees humane treatment and a safe haven from genocide.”

Ben Dor, 40, who directs the Tel Aviv University Law School Refugee Rights Clinic, in late February filed suit against the government for its alleged treatment of three refugees.

Israel helped author the convention in the aftermath of World War II. Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany were routinely refused safe haven because they, like the current Sudanese, were classified as enemy nationals.

Activists enjoyed a small victory on March 21, when Israel’s Supreme Court gave the state 45 days to determine whether the detainees were getting a fair and proper judicial review.

“Bringing justice is the issue here,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, who is presiding over a three-judge panel hearing the case.

“This is very significant,” said Ben Dor, who together with the Hotline for Migrant Workers, filed the appeal to the court, arguing that those Sudanese arrested and put in jail for illegally entering the country should not be charged as infiltrators of an enemy state.

The petition against Israel’s defense and interior ministers argues that even though 150 Sudanese have been released into alternative detention, the lack of formal judicial review makes the detention illegal.

Under Israeli law, other nationals who sneak through the Sinai Desert into Israel are charged with the Law of Entry. In those cases, the government must review their cases every 30 days and justify their imprisonment. But since Sudanese are considered “enemy nationals,” they are charged under the harsher Infiltration Law, which has no official review mechanism and by which detainees can be held indefinitely.

Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former minister of justice and human rights attorney for such well-known dissidents as Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela, has joined with the Israel Bar Association in filing supporting documents on behalf of the Sudanese with the Israeli High Court.