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.”

‘You’ll be free. Welcome!’: Seeking asylum


Daniel Angosom was just 18 when he escaped a lifetime of compulsory army service in Eritrea, fleeing to Sudan through his country’s northern border. It was in Sudan, while working as a cattle herder, that Angosom — like thousands of African asylum seekers before him — was kidnapped and sold to Bedouin gangs in the Sinai desert.

“They covered my eyes with a cloth and burned my head and neck with metal rods,” Angosom, now a lanky 21-year-old with a shadow of a mustache, remembered of his time as a Bedouin captive.

After months of torture and near-starvation, his family back in Eritrea was able to scrape together $35,000 for his ransom: “My mother sold her gold, and we sold all our cattle,” he said. So his captors dumped him at the Israeli border fence, where he expected to be taken in as a refugee. (About three-quarters of Eritreans and Sudanese who apply for asylum in countries that signed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, like Israel, are approved.)

Instead, Angosom was jailed for entering the country illegally. He is now being held at the Holot detention facility, the newest jail within Israel’s expanding desert prison compound for “illegal infiltrators.” He spoke to the Journal while sitting at a freshly painted red picnic bench just outside prison grounds; the desert stretched for miles in every direction, cold and silent.

“When I first entered inside Israel, I was very happy because it’s a democratic country,” said Filmon Mengstab, 27, Angosom’s closest friend at Holot. Long, spindly scars mark his arms and legs where bandits branded him with red-hot iron and extinguished their cigarettes into his flesh. Mengstab said his Bedouin captors also forced him to have sex with other prisoners and raped Eritrean women in front of him.

When he got to Israel, Mengstab said, “The army told me, ‘You will be free. Welcome.’ ”

Yet, Mengstab and Angosom have been behind bars in Israel’s desolate south for over a year now, alongside thousands of their peers. First, they were held at Saharonim, a closed jail with a capacity of about 3,000 prisoners, including women and children. But under a new Israeli law passed in December, male prisoners are now transferred to Holot after a year of good behavior at Saharonim — and can be held there indefinitely.

The Israel Prison Service has labeled Holot an “open facility” because prisoners can walk freely in- and outside the barbed prison fence. They can’t go far, though, because they must check in with guards three times per day.

“I don’t do anything — I just eat and sleep,” said Haspel Karim Youssef, 22, of Darfur. He’s been in prison for 15 months. “Every day, every hour, the same.”

Migrants living in Tel Aviv can also be sent to the prison complex, without trial, after any run-in with the cops. Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police, said that if, during questioning, police find out that an African migrant has no residency papers or refugee status, he will be arrested and “transferred down south to Holot.”

Darfuri theater troupe actor and barbershop worker Babi Ibrahim, for example, was reportedly arrested in July when he couldn’t provide a receipt for a bicycle parked outside his shop. And according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, another woman was detained when she reported being raped.

Since December, some 500 to 1,000 asylum seekers living in Israel have been summoned to Holot while trying to reapply for visas, a spokeswoman for the Hotline said. (The Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration did not respond to multiple requests for confirmation of this statistic.)

“Israeli authorities have detained and invited our husbands, fathers and sons to go to Holot,” Sudanese activist Sumaya Nedey said at a recent protest. “They put us in detention in order to break our minds.”

Afraid of running into immigration police, she said, “We fear to go to work and meet with friends. Fear has taken the streets of Tel Aviv.”

The majority of African asylum seekers in Israel come from Eritrea. “Eritrea is known as the North Korea of Africa,” Sweden-based Eritrean activist and journalist Meron Estefanos said. “Every kid knows that you are the property of the state. By the time you’re 17, you know you’re going to go to the military camp … and you will be stuck doing national service for the rest of your life. The only way to get out is by leaving the country.” Temesghen Haile, 34, another prisoner at Holot, confirmed this, saying he served more than 10 years as a guard along the Ethiopian border before escaping Eritrea. Haile was under orders to shoot any Ethiopian on sight.

After helping a group of Eritrean captives round up ransom money to pay their Bedouin kidnappers in 2011, Estefanos became the go-to contact for desperate victims and their families; to this day, she fields innumerable panicked phone calls.

“The torture gets worse and worse and worse,” she said. “[The captors] sit all day and night trying to think what’s the worst thing they could do. They’re sadistic.”

Eritrean asylum seekers in captivity have phoned Estefanos with stories of being chained together in a puddle of cold water, then electrocuted until they pass out. “They will rape you to make you feel ashamed, and force you to rape each other,” she said. “They will call your parents and make them listen while they are burning you. They will hang you and make everyone eat for three or four days with your dead body hanging next to them.”

Estefanos added that if escapees are sent back to Eritrea, they are sure to be imprisoned for life. So even though Israeli authorities have offered $3,500 to any African who returns to his country voluntarily, prisoners at Holot said they would rather remain, holding out hope that Israel will change its mind or the U.N. will intervene.

Now, Estefanos is also taking calls from Eritreans stuck at Israel’s Holot and Saharonim detention centers.

“In Eritrea, it’s a dictatorship, so it’s expected. There’s no way out,” Estefanos said. But, in Israel, “You have convinced yourself that you’re in a democratic country where you have rights. Not knowing [your fate] is what’s worst.”

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.”

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 Sudanese migrants in Israel get reprieve


South Sudanese migrants will not be forced to leave Israel by the end of the month as planned.

On Thursday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry recommended that the refugees be permitted to remain in Israel for another six months after the Jerusalem District Court issued an injunction preventing their deportation before April 15. The court’s order was in response to a petition by aid organizations against the Interior Ministry’s deadline of March 31 as the last day that the migrants could remain in Israel.

The Foreign Ministry said the conditions were not yet right for the migrants to return to South Sudan, according to Haaretz.

Tens of thousands of migrants from Africa—asylum seekers and those seeking to better themselves economically—have entered Israel illegally though Egypt in recent years. Up to 3,000 of the migrants are reported to be from South Sudan, according to Israel’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority.

Since South Sudan became an independent nation in July, refugees from the area no longer require protected status in Israel, the Interior Ministry ruled two months ago.

Blogging under African skies


Saturday, Oct. 13, three leaders of Jewish World Watch flew from Los Angeles to Africa for a two-week trip, with their ultimate destination the Sudanese eastern border refugee camps, Iridimi and Touloum in Chad.

Jewish World Watch’s Solar Cooker Project, led by Board President Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug and project leader Rachel Andres, has raised $850,000 to date, to provide self-sufficient and easy-to-use cookers to women in the camps so they don’t have to put themselves in grave danger of rape or murder when they leave the camps to collect firewood.

Kamenir-Reznik, Schwartz-Getzug and Andres’ trip to the camps will allow them to bear witness to the conditions there, to see the cookers being used and to assess future needs. Because of the danger in the region, they are traveling with United Nations escorts and will not be able to stay overnight in the camps.

The Jewish Journal invited the three travelers to record diaries while on their journey, the first entry of which, written by Kamenir-Reznik, an attorney, longtime activist and Jewish leader, we reprint here. It was written four days before departure.

After the trip is concluded, The Journal will publish extensive excerpts from the diaries.


How can I go to Bloomingdales?

Man’s inhumanity to man is limited only by the creativity of his cruelty.

Today we cried. We have sat with small and large groups of Darfuri refugees for the last several days and talked about solar cooking, with the details of the horrors that brought us together silently hanging in the air. Today, however, we looked into the sad dark eyes of our refugee sisters and listened to their tales of horror.

Zanuba is 25 years old. She is a beautiful young woman with three small children who has aspirations to come to America. She has been living in the Touloum refugee camp for two years. When her village was attacked by aerial bombing and then by the Janjaweed militia, they ran. Many were able to get to the nearby wadi (a dry riverbed), but many more were killed, including a woman who had gone into labor with twins and could not run. The men were primary targets, so they tried to hide by wrapping themselves in scarves like the women – but the Janjaweed forced everyone to remove their head coverings and killed the men on the spot. Many young women were tied up and raped until they died. Other women were put into trees that were lit on fire until they divulged the whereabouts of their men. And in one of the most gruesome stories I have ever heard, the Janjaweed decapitated several people and used the heads to form a “three stone fire.”

As Zanuba shared her painful story and the stories of the other women in the room, tears streamed down our faces. I was overwhelmed, not only by their suffering and loss, but by the ability of human beings to use their superior abilities to inflict unspeakable and evil acts on one another.

As we spent our last night in Iriba thinking about all we had seen and heard, one of our UNHCR colleagues asked me if I felt this experience had “changed me.” I’m quite convinced that the personal impact of this visit will continue to unfold in the weeks and months to come, but my initial response is OF COURSE. How can I go back to my life, my hectic, wonderful life without hearing the voice of Zanuba in my head? How can I go to Bloomingdales (I feel ridiculous even writing the word sitting here in Chad!) without remembering the pathetic “marketplace” in the middle of the Touloum refugee camp? I know it won’t stop me from buying a new, but probably unnecessary pair of shoes, but I hope that it will give me a new context in which to think about my everyday life and renewed energy towards this work and the work by done by others who are helping those in need.

I also wonder how I can possibly share, in a meaningful way, these lessons with my children? Do they translate? Do you have to “see it to believe it?” And is such extreme trauma comprehensible for a child? Probably not. G-d willing I will have many years ahead to absorb and share these important lessons.

— Tzivia October 21


Photos from Touloumsewing bag
zanuba
touloum teen
Madame-President
jww's she-speak
Marie-Rose
SCP-Founder
Sunday in Touloum
Janice, Rachel
–Touloum Camp, Chad, Sunday 10/21/2007

I was yet again overwhelmed by the boundless capacity of human beings

Today we had the most intense experience we have had to date. We went to the Touloum refugee camp to see the expansion of the Solar Cooker Project. We were escorted by a truckload of armed police to Touloum. As we approached the outskirts of the camp we saw a caravan of donkeys and refugees leaving to collect firewood. Within the camp we saw many people carrying wood as well-much more so than we did at the Iridimi camp. Since the Solar Cooker Project is so new to the Touloum camp, this did not surprise any of us. In fact we were far more surprised at seeing solar cookers operating in many of the houses!! But, that was not what made the day so emotionally intense.

We had asked to meet with a group of women who would be willing to sit with us and talk to us for a while. Either Derk or Marie-Rose arranged for us to meet with the “artisans”, the women who work in the solar cooker “atelier”. Around 10 refugee women joined us at the “atelier;” Marie-Rose, Patillet, Justin, Naomi and Derk from Tchad Solaire (SCP) were also there.

The conversation started with them telling us how much they love solar cooking and how they feel that solar cooking has contributed to their safety and security. We then told them that we were there representing thousands of Jewish people. They did not really know about the Jewish people, but they seemed to know about the people of Israel and the seemed to have some inkling about the suffering of the people of Israel. We then asked them if they would be willing to share their own personal stories of how they came to be at the Touloum refugee camp. At first they said that they couldn’t share these stories in public and they declined to speak about it. But then, not more than one minute later, a young 25 year old mother of 3, Zinuba, began to tell us the most heart wrenching and gruesome stories of the horrendous treatment of the Darfurian women at the hands of the Janjaweed. The crimes committed against the women with whom we were meeting and against their now deceased daughters, sisters and mothers were unspeakable. And yet, they were being spoken to us. Now. Here.

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.

Jewish World Watch Eyes National Stage


Janice Kamenir-Reznik wasn’t sure where Darfur was on the map when she heard a Rosh Hashanah sermon at Valley Beth Shalom some 18 months ago.

During his sermon, Rabbi Harold Schulweis told the congregation that “Never Again” applies not only to the Holocaust but requires Jews to speak out and act against genocides anywhere, especially in Darfur, and urged formation of a new organization, Jewish World Watch.

Characteristically, Schulweis immediately followed preaching with action and asked Kamenir-Reznik to serve in a volunteer capacity as co-founder, president and CEO of the nascent organization.

The 54-year-old Encino lawyer, mother of three and veteran problem solver, has since learned much about Darfur, and she has shared her knowledge to help mobilize a vital segment of the Jewish community, especially young students, to transform awareness into tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

As of now, the 3-year-old Darfur genocide is no longer unknown, but its horrors continue. Currently spreading from the Sudan to neighboring Chad, it has claimed 400,000 civilian dead and 4 million refugees, accompanied by mass rapes of women and starvation among children.

The problems are staggering, but adopting the biblical injunction, “Do Not Stand Idly By,” Jewish World Watch has mobilized synagogues and schools, launched an effective divestment from Sudan campaign, and is now starting to ship solar cookers to a refugee camp.

The solar cooker concept is an elegantly simple response to a terrifying fact of life facing 20,000 people, almost all women and young girls, in the Iridimi refugee camp in eastern Chad.

While foraging for scarce firewood for basic cooking and water purification, the women and girls are at constant risk of gang rapes by roving bands of Arab militiamen. However, these dangerous excursions and the resultant atrocities can be circumvented through the use of simple, inexpensive sun-powered cookers made of cardboard and aluminum foil — donated by Jewish World Watch — that can be easily assembled by the refugees.

The cookers have proven their worth in other African countries, and Jewish World Watch, spearheading the Coalition to End Gang Rape in Darfur, aims to send 6,000 of the devices to families in the Iridimi camp.

Another front in Jewish World Watch’s three-pronged campaign of education, advocacy and financial support is to persuade public institutions to divest themselves of holdings in recalcitrant companies doing business with the Sudanese government.

Kamenir-Resnik, addressing the University of California regents before they approved such a divestment, said that in general the Jewish community opposed such a tactic, because of its misuse against Israel.

But in order to counter the Darfur genocide, she said, “The divestment tool is not only morally appropriate, but is, indeed, a moral imperative.”

Among the most persuasive advocates of this cause was a four-person delegation of 12-year olds from the Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, who testified last week before the Los Angeles City Council.

Their appearance was the culmination of a year-long project, inspired by Jewish World Watch, in which 16 sixth-graders studied the issues and raised nearly $900 through bake sales, washing cars and sale of green Jewish World Watch wristbands at a Purim carnival, said Orley Denman, their teacher.

Natan Reches, one of the four student reps, described his participation as “a life-changing experience,” and the L.A. City Council followed through by voting unanimously to divest funds held by the state employee and teacher retirement systems.

By now, 43 Los Angeles-area synagogues, ranging from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, and with a combined membership of nearly 200,000, are members of Jewish World Watch, with Temple Israel’s Rachel Andres as a main sparkplug. They have raised $500,000, mostly in small denominations, of which the bulk has gone toward the building of two medical clinics and construction of water wells.

Recently the local American Jewish Committee chapter, ignoring organizational turf, collected $7,500 at a luncheon for the Jewish World Watch effort.

Education was the first emphasis of the Jewish World Watch founders and remains a top priority. Some 50 volunteer speakers have fanned out to high schools, summer camps and synagogues, with impressive results.

For instance, at Calabasas High School, the Armenian Club raised more than $2,000 by selling self-designed T-shirts, and senior Samantha Finkelstein has spread the word by talking to large assemblies at 10 other high schools.

Although now focusing on Darfur, Jewish World Watch holds to its original mission statement: “To combat genocide and other egregious violations of human rights around the world.”

Jewish World Watch is now hiring its first executive director and is evaluating future directions: Whether to expand from its Los Angeles base and go nationwide, and whether to address itself to other genocides and human rights violations, without neglecting its Darfur mission.

Amid considerable acclaim for Jewish World Watch’s work, there have been some critical questions. Some come from “insular Jews,” as Kamenir-Reznik calls them, who ask why they should give to non-Jewish causes, and, in any case, “nobody helped us during the Holocaust.”

Since the main perpetrators in Darfur are Arab Muslims killing black African Muslims, some skeptics wonder whether there might be a political, pro-Israel subtext to Jewish World Watch’s concern, and whether the black survivors will be subsequently “grateful” for Jewish help.

Perhaps the best answer is given by Schulweis, who told a recent press conference about Jewish World Watch’s work: “I’ve been a rabbi for 50 years and have never seen such a response, especially among young students,” he said. “Some people say about the Darfur genocide that it’s an internal matter, that reports have been exaggerated. These are the same excuses we heard during the Holocaust.

“There is always an alternative to passive complicity. If we now turn aside, that would be our deepest humiliation,” he said.

For more information, call (818) 501-1836, e-mail info@jewishworldwatch.org, or visit www.jewishworldwatch.org.

 

Tracks of an Ethiopian Exodus


Until the late 1970s, very few Ethiopian Jews had ever wandered beyond the borders of their country and made it to Israel.

But in 1979, an insurgency in northern Ethiopia opened an exit route to Sudan, and thousands of Ethiopian Jews — who called themselves Beta Israel but were known to outsiders as Falasha — began fleeing the famine and war of northern Ethiopia on a journey they hoped would end in Jerusalem.

Along with thousands of other Ethiopians fleeing their country, which at the time was ruled by communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Jews settled in refugee camps in Sudan and waited for Mossad operatives to take them out.

For the first few years, those who were taken to Israel left in one of three ways. Some were given forged documents and put onto planes in Khartoum bound for Athens. Once in Europe, they then were quietly put onto planes to Israel. Others were moved from their Sudanese refugee camps at night to Port Sudan, where Israeli naval commandos put them onto clandestine naval vessels and then transferred them onto ships headed for Israel. A few were airlifted directly to Israel from the Sudanese desert on illicit flights.

A famine in Ethiopia in 1984 lent great urgency to the effort to rescue Ethiopia’s Jews, many of whom were dying of starvation and disease in refugee camps in Sudan while they waited to be taken to Israel.

In the covert maneuver Operation Moses, Israel began airlifting large numbers of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan’s desert beginning in November 1984. Leaks about the operation and growing risks forced its early end in January 1985, after more than 8,000 Jews had been brought to Israel in the space of just six weeks.

Thousands more remained stranded in communist Ethiopia.

For those left behind, life was harsh. During Mengistu’s 17-year reign, Ethiopian city streets were left riddled with corpses as a warning against opposing the government, bereaved parents were forced to pay for the bullets that killed their sons and suspected political opponents were imprisoned and tortured.

The Jews suffered no more than ordinary Ethiopians, but anyone who was suspected of trying to flee to Zion was tortured, imprisoned and often killed.

In the early 1990s, the tide turned in the war between the rebel Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the government, known as the Derg, and in May 1991 rebel forces surrounded the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Israel, which had clandestine ties with Mengistu’s regime, feared that the TPLF’s anti-Zionist rhetoric and hostility toward Mengistu could lead to massacres of the Jews when the rebels took Addis, and quickly put together a plan to rescue the country’s remaining Jews. Israel pressed the United States to persuade the rebels to hold their positions on the hilltops around Addis for 36 hours while Israel airlifted more than 14,000 Jews out of the country.

The fall of Addis came just hours after the completion of Operation Solomon, on May 24, 1991.

In the end, it turned out that Israel’s fears were unfounded: The new regime in Addis Ababa proved itself friendly toward the Jews and forged strong ties with Israel.

After Operation Solomon, the only Ethiopians with Jewish ties left behind in Ethiopia were the Falash Mura — Ethiopian Christians whose progenitors were Jews who had converted to Christianity. Many of them sought to return to Judaism in a bid to emigrate, but Israel’s then-prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, instructed his government not to accept them. Unlike those who had immigrated to Israel, Shamir noted, these Ethiopians were not identifiably Jewish and maintained Christian practices.

Israel’s policy gradually changed, however, and since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Falash Mura have moved to Israel — nearly as many as the Ethiopian Jews who made aliyah during and before 1991.

During these last 15 years, Ethiopia’s government has maintained a policy of open emigration, which is why no special operations have been necessary to bring the Falash Mura to Israel.

In the last decade and a half, led by rebel-turned-head-of-state Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s government has accelerated the pace of the country’s industrialization, improved its economy and so far prevented any repeats of the devastating 1984-85 famine that killed an estimated 1 million Ethiopians and struck hardest in Tigray.

And though the Ethiopian government remains a target of human rights advocates, including some in Israel, observers abroad say the Meles government’s excesses do not approach the scope of that of Mengistu’s Red Terror.

But since last May, when government forces shot to death dozens of people in Addis Ababa protesting disputed election results, there have been growing tensions between the Amhara elite who live in the center of the country, around the capital, and the Tigrean minority that runs the government.

There also has been increased international criticism of the Meles government, which had been a rare African darling of Western democracies.

Some American Jewish federation leaders visiting Ethiopia last week suggested that one reason for Israel to speed up the aliyah of the Falash Mura is political instability in the country. But recent political tensions notwithstanding, experts on Ethiopia say there is little danger of imminent collapse for the current regime.