In the span of two short months, life has been turned upside down for the roughly 55,000 African asylum seekers who have taken shelter in Israel over the last eight years.
Israel's whirlwind efforts to drive out the Africans began in December, when authorities opened a new desert prison camp in Israel's far south for these "illegal infiltrators." The new prison, called Holot (or "Sands" in Hebrew), is lined in rainbow-colored holding cells without heating or air conditioning that fit 10 to a room. The camp's bare grounds — studded with pay phones and rows of baby plants — give the place a cold, almost apocalyptic aesthetic. Extra eerie is how suburban and permanent it looks.
Because the new facility is "open," its prisoners are allowed come and go. However, the nearest town is a one-hour bus ride away, and they must check in with prison guards three times a day. Prisoners at Holot have never been granted a trial and face indefinite detention in the harsh, hot-and-cold Negev desert.
Israel offers the African prisoners only one alternative: pocket $3,500 and return to war-torn Sudan or oppressive Eritrea. (Anwar Suliman, a 33-year-old community organizer from Darfur, said he personally knows of two Sudanese men who accepted this deal and were murdered upon returning home.)
Holot's first batch of about 300 prisoners — who had already been held at Saharonim, a closed prison nearby, for nearly two years — quickly took advantage of the new prison's come-and-go policy. But instead of escaping, half of them staged a 100-mile "freedom march" to Jerusalem to rebel against their indefinite detention.
The prisoners trudged through a fresh Jerusalem snowfall for hours, asking parliament members to treat them as refugees, not criminals.
But as the sun set on Israel's version of Capitol Hill, the march ended in tears. One by one, immigration police strong-armed the prisoners onto buses that transported them back down to Holot.
When a second group of prisoners attempted another freedom march days later, they were tackled just a few miles out and thrown back into prison. So, desperate, the asylum seekers in Israel who still had their freedom launched a protest movement. They gathered in Levinsky Park, their longtime hangout in rundown South Tel Aviv, and marched through the streets, stopping traffic and drawing stares.
Not long after the movement took off, the second phase of Israel's plan to expel its Africans was set in motion. Asylum seekers who had lived and worked in Israel for years — including gardener and chef Adil Adam, pictured below — began receiving mandatory invitations to Holot when they went to renew their work visas.
Many others, like Tekle Hagous, pictured below with his family in their one-bedroom Tel Aviv apartment, were dealt a separate kind of punishment: The Ministry of Interior simply refused to renew their work visas. "For me, to take the visa is to shoot me," said Gebretsadik Mashu, an Eritrean father of five.
In response to this blanket sentencing, anti-government rallies grew and intensified. On Jan. 5, an estimated 20,000 Africans flooded to Rabin Square, chanting "No more prison!" and disrupting life in peaceful, upscale North Tel Aviv. The next day, they marched to various beachside embassies and the United Nations' refugee agency, where they demanded that world leaders intervene.
Later that week, they staged a highly coordinated and historic demonstration — 10,000 strong — on the lawn overlooking Israel's parliament building. It was unlike anthing lawmakers had ever seen.
Despite the roaring African outcry and pressure from global activists and media outlets, Israel had summoned 2,500 asylum seekers to Holot by the beginning of February. That number has since reached 3,000.
Tour buses full of new prisoners now depart for Holot from the Nokia Arena parking lot every Wednesday and Sunday. Protesters and photographers crowd around as girlfriends and friends hug their loved ones goodbye.
The community does its best to lift spirits at Holot. Each Saturday, a tight-knit group of lefties and non-jailed Africans makes a two-hour trip to the desert prison to hang with 600-plus prisoners currently living there. Visitors bring shoes, books, guitars, food that doesn't look like Play-Doh, etc.
"People who two weeks ago came from Tel Aviv, now I see in their faces that they are more down," Sudanese community leader Anwar Suliman said after last Saturday's visit. "They do not show it, but inside they are more sad." (Suliman himself must report to Holot on March 9.)
Back in Tel Aviv, in a final show of desperation, hundreds of asylum seekers camped out in the playground area at Levinsky Park for two weeks. One week in, 29-year-old Eritrean protester Habtom Tesfay told me: "We people here are like a ship without a compass."
Although Tesfay said "we will be here until we get our rights," the park-sitters were eventually driven back to their crowded apartments by unrelenting rain.
Just before the rains came, another protester, 20-year-old Filmon Ghide from Eritrea (pictured below in a striped long-sleeve shirt), told me that Bedouin kidnappers had tortured him in the Sinai desert for six months before collecting $35,000 in ransom from his family and dumping him at the Israeli border fence. "They burned me all over my body. They made us walk on broken glass," he said.
Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar have largely ignored the protests and continued their prison campaign with an iron fist, shards of hope remain. A small group of African community leaders recently met with the government's Committee on Foreign Workers to find possible alternatives to mass imprisonment. And in April, the Israeli Supreme Court is expected to decide whether detaining Africans indefinitely at Holot is unconstitutional.
The Eritrean and Sudanese communities are meanwhile filling out individual applications for official refugee status — almost a two-hour process — en masse. When they're done, they plan to turn in the entire stack to both the Ministry of Interior and, more symbolically, to the U.N.
"The only solution I think is fair is to check all the claims," said Moussa Abdoulaye (pictured below at a press conference, far left), one of those meeting with Israeli politicians.
On the bus back to Tel Aviv from Holot last weekend, Israeli activist Sigal Avivi said she thought the key was to help "people in Holot understand that they are soldiers in the struggle — that they're helping their community by sitting in prison." Suliman agreed. "My plan is to make the people at Holot strong," he said. "We have to be patient."
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