Update, December 19: "Israel arrests 150 more African asylum seekers, just hours into second freedom march"
In the largest and most dramatic demonstration ever staged by African refugees in Israel, 150 Sudanese men who have been locked up in a monster immigration prison down south, some for over two years, stormed the Israeli government compound in Jerusalem yesterday. From about 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., they trudged through the snow that still lined the streets of the capital city after last weekend's record-setting blizzard, waving handmade signs in Hebrew and English and begging government officials to grant them asylum in Israel.
"No more prison! No more prison!" went one chant. Another: "Refugees' rights right now!"
As evening approached, they made a bold attempt to leave the main roadway and march up toward the Knesset (parliament) building. That's when a few dozen Israeli border cops stepped in, forming a human barricade around the group. All 150 refugees inside the circle either followed the cops' orders willingly or were tackled to the ground, one by one, and dragged onto two jumbo buses waiting to drive them back to their cold desert cells.
Many began sobbing near the end, while others chanted to deaf ears: "Freedom, yes! Prison, no!" A few left-wing Israeli supporters clung to the refugees' jackets, screaming, "They're HUMAN BEINGS!" as border cops ripped them away by their collars. News photographers elbowed past cops to capture the panic and agony in refugees' faces. The Reuters team even jumped onto the roof of a flimsy mobile home parked nearby (part of another man's protest outside Knesset headquarters) to capture the scene from above.
It was one half-hour of heartbreaking chaos — a quick, brutal end to the refugees' arduous journey across wintertime Israel.
It had taken the group three days to reach Jerusalem. They set out on Sunday morning from their prison grounds along Israel's southern border, walking for six hours until they reached the Be'er Sheva central bus station for the night. At that point, tired and weak, some were forced to end their hunger strike. One was hospitalized, and two others treated, for exhaustion.
The next day, the group of 150 refugees and about 20 human-rights workers walked another six hours or so, until they realized they would need to take a bus to make it to Jerusalem by Tuesday morning, as planned. So they shuttled north to Kibbutz Nahshon and spent their second night in an underground bunker. "The migrants, who had marched dozens of kilometers in the last few days, look shocked," wrote a reporter from Haaretz who stayed with them at the kibbutz. "They sit quietly feeling their aching, blistered feet, some of them bandaged."
Their injuries had gotten so raw by Tuesday afternoon that a couple refugees collapsed during the Jerusalem demonstration. Another man had what appeared to be a seizure near the end of the protest — but he was so boxed in by tense border police and panicking protesters that it took at least 10 minutes to drag him out of the crowd into an ambulance.
The seven-year story of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel is a complex and often baffling one. They began arriving around 2006. After fleeing their oppressive and wartorn countries, they would trek across the Sinai desert — where passers-through are commonly kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom by Bedouin gangs — and collapse at the gates of the Holy Land. A $400 million border fence has since been erected to shut them out. But the 50,000 to 60,000 asylum seekers who came within that window are a constant nuisance to Israel's conservative right: The government has refused to grant any of them refugee status, and is always trying to find new ways to sweep them out of South Tel Aviv, where they've clustered, or bribe them into returning home.
The most recent development in this blanket rejection/alienation was a new Anti-Infiltration Law passed earlier this month. In fact, the only reason the refugees were able to make their mid-December march at all — finally showing Jerusalem politicians the faces of the innocents they've been squirreling away to no man's land — was thanks to the new law.
The previous Anti-Infiltration Law, in place since early 2012, had allowed Israel to lock up African non-residents in the notorious Saharonim desert prison for at least three years without trial. But in September of this year, the law was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Israel. So politicians came up with a seemingly soft alternative: Africans who have been at Saharonim for one year will gradually be transferred to Holot, a larger "open" facility next door formerly known as Sadot.
But the bill has an ugly underside. At Holot, refugees can be held indefinitely without trial. And because they're required to check in three times a day, the desolate jail — capacity 3,000, and growing — is not really "open" at all.
"There's no difference" between the two prisons, said Mubarak Ali Mohammad, a leading member of the refugee march (pictured below). "They just call it 'open' because you can walk around inside."
But its gates do open — wide enough, at least, to allow for a somber, symbolic procession of 150 prisoners to march across the Israeli desert over the last three days. Their strength and desperation have given us all some pause. Images of the march mirror some of history's most famous exoduses, and certainly conjure a Torah passage or two. "You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt," read one refugee's small sign.
The entire walk/ride to Jerusalem, Israeli aid organizers kept predicting that border police would probably show up "in a few hours" and arrest the lot of them. Cops and soldiers were indeed trailing the procession the whole time, making their presence known — but for whatever reason, they waited until the final hour to pounce.
At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, when the group was scheduled to arrive in a parking lot across from the Prime Minister's Office, only about seven security guards lingered nearby. Press corps who had gathered on the other side of a barricade were under the impression that the arrest would be quick and easy: "Don't cross the barricade," a photographer from Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest daily, told me, "so the police will know you're not with them."
By "them," he meant the 50 or so "supporters from the left" who were waiting in the parking lot, beneath the giant Bank of Israel building, for the bus of refugees to arrive. The crowd had a very Occupy aesthetic: Drums covered in political stickers, rainbow mittens, an "animal liberation" sweatshirt. Vered Bitan, a freelance graphic designer from Jerusalem wearing cheetah gloves and funky sunglasses, held up a sign that said, in solidarity: "I'm not an infiltrator, I'm a refugee. Refugee is not a crime." She motioned to the towering "65 years" logo that sits atop of the Prime Minister's Office. "Before, they were all immigrants," she said of the people inside the office. "They were put in camps. But they forgot it."
Also in early attendance was Michal Rozin, a brand-new Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz party. "This bill that just passed — which I was against — is no solution for asylum seekers, or for the citizens of Israel," she said. "Instead of a bigger solution, we're just putting thousands of them in prison." She called the marchers "courageous and brave," and praised their approach: "They could have just run away, but they're coming here, instead."
The refugees finally arrived around 11 a.m. As they filed off the bus, they were instantly swarmed by photographers. To see their faces up close in the sun, hardened from the war in Sudan and a year-plus in Israeli prison, weary from the walk, but with the first glimmer of hope in months (some hadn't seen the outside world in over two years), was extremely overwhelming. There were many tears. Mohammad, who has been behind bars for 18 months, said that he and fellow prisoners had attempted a protest like this one at Saharonim in May 2012, but that jail guards beat and kicked them.
"Today, I feel free," he said. "I smell the good air today." Asked if he thought he would be arrested and taken back to prison, he said: "I can't think about that right now."
Those refugees who could speak English or Hebrew took to the megaphone and presented Israeli leaders with two options: Either grant them asylum, or kindly hand over Israel's refugee-approval process to the United Nations. "We are not terrorists," shouted Wal Yaldin, an asylum seeker who had driven in from Tel Aviv to support the prisoners. "God created us black. We love our colors. And we love Sudan, but we have war." It was difficult to understand, standing there beside them — as they waved signs with messages like "In danger, not dangerous" and "How many times should we start again?" — why the Israeli government can't concede this one small battle of many, one with such a clear division between right and wrong.
"Send this message to all the Jewish people around the world: We are refugees like you were before," said Yaldin into the megaphone.
Abdelmoneim Ahmad, a 24-year-old from Darfur whose mother died in the war in Sudan, added in an interview: "We are not against the law of Israel. We respect all the citizens of Israel. So we come peacefully to Jerusalem to send our message to the government." Ahmad has been locked up in Israel for 18 months. "There are serious problems in our country, like genocide and displacement," he said. "We were some of the victims, and we came here expecting protection."
Another prisoner standing nearby said: "We don't want to be dependent. We are begging you to give us freedom and let us work in Israel."
After about an hour-and-a-half outside the Prime Minister's Office, seeing that immigration cops weren't making any moves, the group turned around and marched 15 minutes uphill to the Knesset building. Government workers peeked through their blinds at the uncommon parade passing by. A couple refugees wore only Teva-style sandals to protect them from a foot of snow. City buses honked as the group spilled into the street, avoiding storm-blown trees on the sidewalk. And for three hours they stood there in the balagan of capital traffic, across from the Menorah Garden, shouting their demands and rounds of "No more prison! No more prison!" until their voices were hoarse. Men in black jackets and caps printed with the word "IMMIGRATION" started appearing around the protest's perimeter, but still made no moves. (An organizer from Hotline for Refugees and Migrants guessed that police were trying to out-wait the media, so the messy end segment would get as little coverage as possible.) The few remaining Africans who had come from Tel Aviv quietly slipped back to their cars, so as not to be included in the mass arrest that was clearly coming.
Indeed, around 3:30 p.m., the standoff between police and protesters devolved into a heated, last-ditch struggle for freedom. And by 4 p.m., the latter group had been rounded up into government buses and vans, the hope and exhilaration of the day drained from their faces. One immigration cop in orange sport sunglasses, as he pushed the last few refugees into a waiting van, chanted in a mocking voice: "Free my people! No more prison!"
And to what end? The protesters' No. 1 target, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responded to their demands in three sentences on his Facebook page:
Just as we are determined to protect our borders, we are determined to enforce the law. The law exists for everyone. The law is the law, and it certainly applies to illegal work infiltrators. The infiltrators who were transferred to a special facility can stay there, or return to their home countries.
According to a spokeswoman for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, the prisoners were all bussed back to the "open" Holot detention center last night. This morning they will attend a hearing with an officer from the Ministry of Interior. Most likely, said the spokeswoman, refugees who were gone for under 48 hours will stay at Holot, and those gone for over 48 hours will go back to Saharonim.
On December 15, Hotline and partner organizations submitted a petition to the Supreme Court to overturn the new Anti-Infiltration Law. The government now has until December 25 to comment on the request for interim injunction.
For more on the refugees and their current living conditions, see: "Inside Israel’s new-and-improved desert prison for African asylum seekers."