One hour before the 19th Israeli Knesset, or parliament, dissolved forever on Dec. 8, its members made a last-ditch effort to save Holot, the “open” desert prison they created one year prior to detain undocumented Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants.
On the table was a fifth amendment to the half-century-old Anti-Infiltration Law — created to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel, but amended in recent years to govern the fate of 50,000 Africans who trekked to Israel’s southern border seeking work and asylum.
The latest amendment comes in response to a Supreme Court ruling in September that found Holot to be unconstitutional. Instead of closing it completely, Knesset members proposed that individual prison terms be limited to 20 months, and that prisoner check-ins be cut from three times per day to once each night.
After the final tally on the night of Dec. 8, the bill passed 41 to 29.
Members of the 19th Knesset, known for their high-drama plenum battles, used the vote to stage a final showdown of ideals.
“[We must] keep this country as the nation-state of the Jewish people and not invite a situation in which thousands of infiltrators come here to find work,” said right-wing Knesset member Miri Regev, a member of the prime minister’s Likud Party. “It’s a disgrace that parties who call themselves Zionist, like the Labor Party, opposed this bill.”
Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz, a former TV reporter belonging to the leftist Meretz Party, fired back. “It’s too bad Regev and the interior minister didn’t read the High Court’s first verdict overturning the law,” he said. “They would have understood that in a democratic state, it is impossible to imprison people without a trial. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Blacks from Africa, blonds from Sweden or people from Tel Aviv or Yeruham.”
Between 1,000 and 2,000 asylum seekers waited outside Ministry of Interior offices all day on Nov. 8, but none were admitted inside.
The goal of the new legislation, as stated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it was drafted on Nov. 30, is to continue driving undocumented Africans out of Israel.
“It fits the reality,” Netanyahu said of the law. “It also fits the rulings of the High Court of Justice. I remind you that Israel has achieved the extraordinary, which I’m very proud of, in blocking illegal migration across our borders — zero illegal migrants. Part of this entails repatriating illegal migrants. This year we repatriated over 6,000
illegal migrants. This legislation is designed to enable us to continue this trend.”
Tel Aviv University law professor Aeyal Gross pointed out that in the Supreme Court majority opinion, Justice Uzi Vogelman wrote that the legal question “isn’t solely quantitative — what is the maximum constitutional length of time for detention in custody — but whether it’s permissible to detain someone in custody for whom there is no effective deportation procedure. To this question I respond … absolutely not.”
Bashir Adam Abdalla, one Sudanese asylum seeker among approximately 2,500 prisoners currently living in rows of tightly packed containers on the remote Holot campus, already has served 10 months. He said another 10 feels like “forever.”
Abdalla said two of his fellow Holot prisoners — who are also his childhood friends from the Blue Nile region of Sudan — recently accepted Israel’s offer of $3,500 to return home. They are among the hundreds now thought to be jailed or disappeared by the Sudanese government after returning from Israel.
“They have a problem in their country, but Israel didn’t help them,” Abdalla said.
Neither Israel’s political left nor right seems very pleased in the wake of the vote. Pundits on both sides called the law a lesser evil that didn’t solve core issues — namely, reducing poverty and crime in South Tel Aviv, where the African immigrants are concentrated.
A 20-month prison term is “without any logic,” said Anat Ovadia, spokeswoman for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, one of the Israeli nongovernmental organizations that took the Knesset to court for creating Holot. When prisoners are released back into the Israeli public, she said, “They will be in worse shape than before. Before they go to prison, they build a life, a job, a community — and now they have to start all over again. It will make problems for everyone.”
Ministry of Interior security guards said they would not admit any asylum seekers into the Bnei Brak visa center until they formed a more organized line.
Hotline for Refugees and Migrants scored a separate legal victory in late November, when around 180 Holot prisoners were freed on the grounds that they’d already been jailed in Israel for two years without trial.
Last night, by comparison, was a disappointment. “I’m really frustrated, since I believed we could win this time,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at Hotline.
But the organization plans once again to fight the latest edition of the Anti-Infiltration Law at the Supreme Court level. “[We hope] the next Knesset will finally promote an appropriate solution to South Tel Aviv’s Israeli residents and asylum seekers alike, instead of more incitement and populism,” Hotline said in a statement.
The opposition isn’t much happier. Yonatan Jakubowicz, PR director for the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, an advocacy organization for Israelis living in South Tel Aviv, said that, in general, residents “expected a much stricter law — something more effective.” Especially, he said, after they saw that the law in its previous form, which allowed for indefinite detention at Holot, convinced more than 6,000 Africans to leave Israel.
“The new law is better than the worst evil,” he said. “But I’m skeptical that 20 months in Holot will get the effect we’re looking for, which is that economic migrants will go back to their home countries.”
However, Jakubowicz is hopeful that a less-publicized economic penalty included in the new amendment — one his organization has long been pushing for — will separate migrant workers from asylum seekers.
Under the law, undocumented Africans — thousands of whom have applied for asylum but either have been rejected or received no response — now will have to hand over 20 percent of their salaries to the Israeli government, money that will be returned to them only upon departure from Israel. Employers, too, will pay fines for keeping them on staff.
“Once we take away the option of working, they’ll go back to their countries,” Jakubowicz said.
This could have far-reaching implications for employers of Israel’s Sudanese and Eritrean workforce — a fixture in hotels and restaurants across the country.
The law “may turn them into very expensive employees, much more than an Israeli,” said Shabtai Shay, director of the Eilat Hotel Association in the resort city in the south.
The problem with this, he said, is that Eilat hotels haven’t been able to find Israeli citizens willing to do the job: “There was a plan to hire Israelis, but it failed,” he said. “Israelis didn’t want to come wash dishes and clean floors.”
According to Shay, it’s too soon to predict how employers will respond when the law goes into effect. “We are not fighting for the rights of the refugees,” he emphasized. “We try to employ them in a normal, regular way. But if we can’t, we need an alternative … or it will be reflected in hotel prices.”
Eritrean woman Okbit Demsas, right, said she had been waiting at the tucked-away Bnei Brak facility for almost a week. She showed the Journal a log of hundreds of names that she and other organizers had created to keep track of who was next in line.
Economic sanctions appear to be the new frontier of Israel’s African expulsion plan. The Knesset vote corresponded with a clear push by the Israeli Ministry of Interior to tighten the visa application process for Sudanese — and especially Eritrean — workers.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, ministry officials closed all African processing centers in central and northern Israel — save for one makeshift office set up in Bnei Brak, a religious suburb on Tel Aviv’s northeastern edge.
On Dec. 8, Roni Fisher, the employee manager at a popular Tel Aviv marriage hall, rode his motorcycle up to Bnei Brak. Visas for his three Eritrean staff members had expired days before, and the men couldn’t come back to work without proper papers. (Most visas issued to African asylum seekers are good for around two months before they need to be renewed.) Not understanding the holdup, Fisher headed to the ministry to vouch for them.
He was shocked by the scene he found there. “This is the first time it’s like this,” Fisher said.
Between 1,000 and 2,000 asylum seekers, among them dozens of pregnant women and parents toting small children, were crowded around a Ministry of Interior tent that had been erected in a slummy industrial area of Bnei Brak. Babies were crying. Pieces of cardboard littered an abandoned warehouse next door. Asylum seekers had been sleeping there overnight, afraid of losing their spot in line or getting caught by police without papers.
Terminated or suspended from their jobs until their visas could be renewed, many had nowhere else to be.
“I’ve been here since last Wednesday,” said 28-year-old Okbit Demsas, a young Eritrean mother. “There is no food, no water, no restrooms. It’s a terrible place.”
Okbit said she couldn’t return to her job as a janitor in Tel Aviv without a new visa. “If I can’t work, I can’t survive,” she said. “I will be kicked out of my apartment because I can’t pay the rent.”
Shielded from Bnei Brak’s looming Yes Planet mall complex by a few jumbo billboards and a highway overpass, the area surrounding the Ministry of Interior setup had become a temporary ghetto overflowing with African asylum seekers who had traveled from their apartments all over the country — Netanya, Herzliya, Tiberias — to secure legal status.
Asylum seekers in line told the Journal that only a handful of people had been admitted into the tent complex over the entire week prior.
Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabine Haddad would not provide the Journal with specific numbers of visa applications processed over this time period. Asked what caused the crisis in Bnei Brak, she said by phone on Dec. 9: “I know that yesterday, more than 2,500 people came there, and it’s a lot more than they can receive. But let me check that.” Later, she wrote in a text message: “We try our best to give good service.” Haddad did not respond to further requests for comment.
The situation outside Ministry of Interior offices changed considerably when, days into the crisis, a Jewish Journal reporter entered the premises.
Asked by the Journal why the line wasn’t moving, security guards said the Africans were acting too rowdy and impatient, and that it would be a security hazard to let them inside.
“They say they want order, but there are so many people here, there can never be order,” said Fisher, the Tel Aviv employer at the scene. (An elderly Bnei Brak resident walked by just then, looking bewildered. “What is all this?” she asked Fisher.)
Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party — whose votes critically swayed the new decision to keep Holot open — wrote on his Facebook page on Dec. 5 that Israel needed to separate Sudanese asylum seekers from Eritreans. The former, he said, should be treated “as Holocaust survivors. On the other hand, Eritrean labor migrants, who constitute the majority of those who infiltrated into the country, should be treated as illegal immigrants.”
(Lapid and others in his party, however, voted in favor of the Holot solution, which keeps hundreds of Sudanese asylum seekers jailed without trial and pressures others to return to Sudan.)
Eritreans in line at the Bnei Brak visa center rejected Lapid’s claim. Teclit Beyene, 24, described escaping from prison and fleeing Eritrea after he was jailed for giving a school presentation critical of the dictatorship. Another young man showed the Journal stripes of scar tissue running up his arms — left over from months of torture in the Sinai desert. He said he had been kidnapped from a Sudanese refugee camp by Bedouin traffickers and dumped at the Israeli border fence once his family paid a $30,000 ransom.
Okbit Demsas said she had also been tortured for weeks in the Sinai — all while her Bedouin captors held her small son in the room next door.
In Israel, Demsas has been working as a janitor at the Channel 2 news studio in Tel Aviv. On Dec. 8, she contacted her employer about the situation. By the time Channel 2 news reporter Gilad Shalmor showed up in Bnei Brak the next morning, the Ministry of Interior office had begun handing out visas again at a slow trickle.
Ministry spokeswoman Haddad texted photos that security guards had snapped of Shalmor outside the Bnei Brak offices to the reporter’s own phone, asking if he needed her help with anything.
Said Channel 2’s Eritrean janitor, Demsas: “That’s why they hide us here. They don’t want anyone to see what they’re doing.”