There is a new threat to Israel, although the people raising it are entirely innocent. The threat is represented by a growing population of African refugees, mainly escapees from the hellish dictatorships of Eritrea and Sudan, who are pouring over the Egyptian border into Israel and settling in some of the country’s poorer neighborhoods, especially in Tel Aviv. They’re now coming at the rate of more than 1,000 each month, according to recent government statements.
In summer 2006, when the presence of these new immigrants first gained public notice, the State Attorney’s office numbered them at fewer than 200. Then, they were strictly a humanitarian concern. And this continues to be so: The people from Darfur and Southern Sudan have fled annihilation; those from Eritrea fled war, lifetime military conscription and persecution. A substantial proportion of refugees from both places were tortured along the way, many of the women have been gang raped by their Sinai Bedouin guides, and all the refugees dodged brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of Egyptian border guards.
The African migration through Sinai to Israel began in 2005 with tiny numbers of Sudanese leaving Cairo, where they had been hounded by police, denied the right to work and treated with ruthless contempt by racist Egyptians. After a police massacre at the end of that year of at least 30 and as many as 200 Sudanese refugees outside the United Nations’ compound in Cairo, the routes through Sinai to the Israeli border began heating up.
The first arrivals were held in an Israeli prison for a year, or more. But Supreme Court challenges and pressure from the U.N. and the media got them out in 2006. They began moving to Eilat, to sympathetic kibbutzim, and to South Tel Aviv. The cell-phone grapevine between Israel and Cairo told of a relatively great life here.
Soon, the Eritreans started coming, too, and the numbers of African refugees entering Israel each month grew from dozens to hundreds.
Three years ago, prime minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure from American Jewry because of the worldwide concern over Darfur, granted temporary residency — which means the right to work and to receive Israeli social benefits — to the roughly 500 Darfurians in Israel at the time. Since then, about 2,000 more Darfur refugees have arrived, and they have not been given temporary residency. And, now, even Darfurians from among those original 500 say the Interior Ministry is refusing to renew their temporary residency, according to attorney Anat Ben-Dor, who represents many of them.
Israel’s leading activist on the refugees’ behalf, Sigal Rozen, former director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that 19,000 refugees in Israel are from Eritrea, 8,000 from Sudan and another 4,000 or so from various other, mainly African, countries. As these numbers continue to increase, they also signal a danger, potentially an existential one to this country, whose entire population is 7.5 million and whose size is roughly that of New Jersey.
“The flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa [is] a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a July cabinet meeting.
Officially, the Africans are called “infiltrators,” a misleading term because not only do they not hide from Israeli troops after crossing the border, they give themselves up eagerly. They are taken to Saharonim holding facility in the Negev, then released, usually within days, with a bus ticket to Beer Sheva. Afterward they usually head for Tel Aviv and settle wherever they find work.
None of them has been linked to terrorism or any kind of security offense, according to Deputy State Attorney Yochi Gnessin and William Tall, the representative in Israel for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most are young men who live together in rented apartments, several to a room, and they take on whatever work is available, “doing the rough, dirty work that no normal person would do, for whatever money they can get,” said Dror Krispi, who runs an all-night snack bar in Hatikva Quarter, where many refugees have settled. Most commonly, they work as garbage collectors, gardeners, packers in outdoor fruit-and-vegetable markets, house cleaners, janitors and dishwashers in the Tel Aviv area and as menial staff in the hotels of Eilat.
Yet in those poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and other cities where they’ve settled by the thousands, they have set off a wave of xenophobia. The backlash, once confined to nonviolent expressions, now appears to be heating up. In early December, a gang of teenagers in South Tel Aviv reportedly attacked some refugees, and an apartment building in Ashdod, where several refugees live, was torched, although it has not been determined who committed the arson or why.
Meanwhile, the asylum-seekers continue to come over the Egyptian border into Israel. To use Ehud Barak’s phrase from the bad old days of the Intifada, Israel proper (not counting the occupied territories) is a “villa in the jungle” — a democratic, relatively tolerant, prosperous country in the middle of the impoverished, repressive, sprawling Third World. To quote Netanyahu from late November, it is also “the only developed country that you can reach on foot from the poorest countries in Africa.”
Also since November, Israeli bulldozers have been building a security fence along the 150-mile border with Egypt. It is expected to take two and a half years to complete, said Udi Shani, director-general of the Defense Ministry, at a recent Knesset hearing. Construction of a detention camp is planned in the Negev desert, near the Egyptian border, to house up to 10,000 refugees. Netanyahu has given assurances that they will receive “humane” treatment; the Prime Minister’s Office’s official English-language term for the camp is “open housing center.” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, however, has noted that a camp meant to keep people in cannot at the same time be “open.” The refugees are to be prohibited from working.
The government’s hope is to find foreign countries to take the refugees in, reportedly with financial inducements. But U.N. representative Tall calls this plan “a non-starter.”
“Other countries are already dealing with much larger numbers of refugees, they don’t want to take in Israel’s, too,” Tall said. In early December, he said, some 150 Southern Sudanese refugees were flown back home, with their consent, via an unnamed third country, joining a similar number who repatriated last year to Southern Sudan, which is in the process of gaining independence.
But even though 300 refugees are gone, at least that many new ones are coming across the border from Egypt every week.
The Interior Ministry has also begun stripping refugees of their work permits, and the government’s plan is that once the detention camp is built, Israeli employers will be induced to fire them with the threat of heavy fines.
The question is whether all these high-profile measures will stop the “flood.” In November, Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest newspaper, reported on the murder, torture, rape, beating, starvation and other atrocities that large numbers of Eritrean refugees face from Bedouin guides while being transported through Sinai. The Eritreans pay $3,000 each to travel in ship containers through the Suez Canal to Sinai, then they are tortured so their families will send the guides more money, according to the report. Reportedly, many refugees are killed by the Bedouins. Since the migration through Sinai began in 2005, many others have been killed or captured by Egyptian border guards, Yediot Aharonot reported.
“There were 33 of us who came through Sinai, and only seven of us reached the border,” a former Eritrean political activist named Arefaine Tefazion, who made the trek in July 2007 and now lives in Bnei Brak, told The Journal. “All the rest were killed, or caught, or they just dropped and died on the way.”
“This country doesn’t understand the kind of abuse it will have to dish out for the Eritreans and Sudanese to decide it’s better to stay where they are. I don’t think Israel is prepared to sink that low,” said Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
Rozen said she sees no way to stop the influx. “There will be an average of some hundreds of refugees a month coming to Israel,” she said, “and if we want to look at ourselves in the mirror and be part of the family of nations, we’re going to have to deal with them as human beings.”
The influx of African refugees comes in addition to the estimated 150,000 foreign residents working in Israel illegally. They came here on work or tourist visas from the Philippines, Thailand, China, India, Nigeria, Nepal and other poor countries, and then remained because of the relatively high salaries here. These are not humanitarian cases; they come to Israel for work, not refuge. In the last year and a half of aggressive enforcement by the “Oz Unit” of the Population and Immigration Authority, about 3,000 illegal foreign workers have been deported. Typically, they’re held in prison for a matter of days before being put on a plane home, said Sabine Hadad, spokeswoman for the authority.
For African refugees, as for all illegal foreign workers, the nation’s true capital is Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station and its surrounding streets; over the last 20 years, the area has become an international enclave. A little farther out lie the neighborhoods of Hatikva, Shapira and Kiryat Shalom — old, poor and populated mainly by right-wing, religious Sephardim and right-wing secular Russian immigrants who, in general, don’t like the illegal foreign workers, but fear and hate the refugees.
At a meeting of Hatikva’s “neighborhood committee” in midsummer, the Africans weren’t referred to as “kushim,” a Hebrew word often used as a pejorative toward blacks. The Sudanese and Eritreans were described, rather, as murderers, thugs, thieves, drunks, drug dealers, gangsters, job-stealers, Christian interlopers and Muslim subversives bent on marrying South Tel Aviv’s Jewish girls.
“It’s all kushim outside my window; they’ve turned the place into Harlem,” one man said, and the voices of others echoed his concern. “I get on the bus at 4 in the afternoon and I’m afraid for my life. It’s 99 percent kushim on the bus,” a woman said.
“People are afraid to send their children to school, the old people are afraid when they see them in the alleys.”
“Pretty soon there’s going to be more of them than us.”
“They’ve taken over. We’ve lost the State of Israel.”
The neighborhood committee’s monthly discussion meeting was led by Shlomo Maslawi, a Tel Aviv city councilman from Hatikva. He derided the “bleeding hearts” who urge compassion for the Africans. “They tell us they’re poor, they’re refugees — but they’re not refugees, they’re infiltrators, they’re in this country illegally,” said Maslawi, a tall, quietly imposing presence. “They compare them to the Jews of the Holocaust, but where’s the comparison? These people are murderers!”
Yet only one refugee has been charged for a murder of an Israeli, which took place early this year in Hatikva, according to Tel Aviv police. There have been some cases of refugees assaulting prostitutes, according to Tamar Schwartz, director of Mesila, the Tel Aviv Municipality’s aid agency for foreigner residents near the central bus station. Otherwise, crimes by African refugees have tended overwhelmingly to be committed against other African refugees, often growing out of drunken street fights or domestic quarrels, Schwartz said. Five “refugee-on-refugee” murders have taken place this year, said Tel Aviv police report.
Channel 2 News, Israel’s leading TV news program, recently reported that only 1 percent of African refugees have had police files opened against them, compared to 6 percent of Israelis. Along the bustling main streets of Hatikva, they keep a low profile, going about their business quickly and quietly, and generally give the impression of a wary minority. On a weekend night along the main drag, Ha’etzel Street, the loudest voices one is likely to hear are in Hebrew.
The same sort of native backlash that has surfaced in South Tel Aviv has also occurred in Eilat, where many hundreds of Sudanese were absorbed in 2007 as menial hotel workers, after which more refugees arrived. A flyer put out over the summer by the ad hoc Action Committee of Eilat read: “Residents of Eilat, wake up!!! ... The Sudanese have taken over Eilat … soon they’ll be the majority … a nightmare on the streets!!! We have to fight for our home …”
The resentment has been gathering momentum. The ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, has begun serving African renters with summonses to appear at municipal hearings with their documents to prove the legality of their tenancy, following a call by local rabbis early last month not to rent apartments to refugees or illegal foreign laborers.
“Two weeks ago, the landlord came to the apartment and told me I had to leave, even though my rental contract still has eight months on it,” said Tsegeret Gebrehinet, the lone woman in a group of some 15 Eritrean refugees who agreed to be interviewed recently in a park at the edge of Bnei Brak. “Today, the city cut off my electricity. How can I live?” the 30-year-old house-cleaner who crossed the Egyptian border into Israel three years ago wondered aloud.
Many African refugees used to get temporary work visas, but the Interior Ministry has stopped renewing them. “Yesterday, I got fired,” a 20-year-old Sudanese refugee at the Hotline for Migrant Workers office said. He used to clean rooms at a Tel Aviv hotel before going to night classes.
“The manager was nice to me, he said he didn’t want to fire me, but he couldn’t employ me anymore without a work visa.” The man, who asked that his name not be used, had run away from his family’s war-ravaged village at 13, then traveled from place to place in Sudan and to Egypt before heading to Israel two years ago.
Population and Immigration Authority spokeswoman Hadad said work visas began being revoked in the middle of last month as a matter of government policy. “These people are here illegally, they do not have the legal right to work here, but we never enforced the law until now,” she said.
The swelling numbers of refugees has aggravated Israel’s class divide. The refugees’ defenders and most fervent sympathizers tend to be liberal, secular, middle-class Ashkenazis who live in neighborhoods that are out of the refugees’ price range. The Africans, like other foreign workers, tend to live among poor, mainly religious Sephardim and secular Russian immigrants, who aren’t so liberal.
“This was a neighborhood crowded with poor, needy people before. Then the foreign workers came who are even poorer and made it even more crowded, and now the infiltrators have come and made it intolerable,” councilman Maslawi said at the Hatikva meeting. “The whole character of the community has changed.”
The 1,000-plus Africans crossing the border each month is almost double last year’s rate. “The numbers are going up now because people want to get in ahead of the fence,” Rozen said.
“That’s a part of the reason, but it’s also because the smuggling operations have expanded,” said Tall, noting that the increase comes despite the fact that the “abuse of refugees in the Sinai is getting much worse.”
Israel, he said, “has to get used to the idea that it is a destination country for all kinds of immigrants. It’s a phenomenon that’s here to stay.”