January 5, 2011
When Africa Comes to Israel
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
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.”