Behind the scenes: African asylum seekers march from Israeli prison to Egyptian border

June 28, 2014

Hundreds of African asylum seekers who've been “>Innocent Boyss, as he marched. (Holot is an “open prison” where prisoners must sign in three times a day, and the Saharonim facility next door is completely closed.)

But after two hours slugging through the brutal afternoon heat, prisoners were blocked by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) a few hundred meters short of the border.

“>David Sheen, an independent journalist who caught the moment on tape.

“If I see one stone on my body, I'll kill you,” an IDF soldier told a protester in English. But the Africans never seemed to go on the offensive, instead focusing on not letting one another be pulled onto the bus.

I did see one prisoner take a few blows from a soldier after being tackled to the pavement. However, when I ran over to photograph the attack, an Israeli man in plainclothes — who I'd seen consulting with the soldiers earlier — grabbed my camera out of my hand, ran into the desert and “>Tweeted: “Israeli police threaten to arrest me if i don't leave right away (so i can't film them beating the Africans).”

It never came to that. Sharon soon began conversing with Eritrean and Sudanese organizers, as well, about what it would take for protesters to avoid arrest. “You're disturbing those settlements because you're taking the army away,” he said, pointing to some buildings in the distance. “Over there, you're making those children in danger, because you know, over there, those bad guys — you know because you come from Eritrea — they want to kill them. You understand that you're making a dangerous security problem, and still you stay.”


Sharon then pointed to a nearby eucalyptus grove. “You can be over there,” he said. “That is the line.”

So the prisoners retreated to the grove.

This was a big letdown for some among them, who didn't understand why the group hadn't continued pushing all the way past the border. When they had first set out from Holot around 2 p.m., various prisoners had told me they hoped to scale the Israeli fence, entering what they thought to be an international buffer zone between Israel and Egypt. There, they said, Israel would have no more control over them, and the United Nations would be forced to intervene. (Although a source knowledgable on the subject later said there is no such buffer zone.)

But others thought the end goal should be more about escaping their situation than going down at the hands of the IDF. “We don't want to fight with the Israeli army,” said Fitsum Kiflu, an Eritrean asylum seeker, of the decision to retreat.

“>reported that Physicians for Human Rights – Israel did show up to provide some medical care later in the day.)

The camp is also worried about hitting the 48-hour mark, because two days is the longest a prisoner can be gone from Holot without being arrested and sent to Saharonim. “>Their demands, with some edits for clarification:

• Immediate reform to medical services for prisoners, and treatment of our patients immediately.
• Immediate release of detainees who have been in prison for over two years, have been victims of torture in the Sinai and have legal status according to international standards.
• We ask the Israeli government to hand over our cases to the UNHCR. We are hereby no longer asking for acceptance in Israel, and ask the UNHCR to resettle all of us to any third country.
• Release of our brothers “>being held in Sinai torture camps by Bedouin kidnappers.

Then there is the obvious Passover imagery. Efrem Tesfa, an Eritrean activist who traveled down from Jerusalem to join the march, noted that it was basically the opposite of the Jews' exodus thousands of years ago. “It’s like the history is coming back,” he said. “The Jewish people came to Israel from Egypt. Now, the African people here decided to cross the border from Israel to Egypt, because in Israel they can’t live and are all the time in prison.”

Asylum seekers even accepted water from villagers at “>a sprawling outdoor installation by Israeli artist Dany Karavan called “Path of Peace.”

“>with disastrous results. Human-rights orgs and activists are trying to track the more than 4,000 asylum seekers who have accepted the deal since January, with little luck; many of their friends and family have reported them jailed, missing or dead.

The remaining options? Either move into a 10-bedroom container in the Negev, or evade border police in Tel Aviv. “This is the kind of thing that makes you stop dreaming about life,” Holot prisoner Nouradin Adam, 26, “>since the refugee uprising began in December.