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Inside Israel’s new-and-improved desert prison for African asylum seekers

by Simone Wilson

November 27, 2013 | 10:00 am

Hell on Earth, from above

Just over a couple months ago, African asylum seekers and their supporters in Israel were cautiously celebrating the Supreme Court of Israel's decision to overturn the Anti-Infiltration Law, which allowed Israel to imprison undocumented immigrants for at least three years without trial.

They were right to be cautious. Because on Monday, the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, responded to the ruling — within a few tight weeks of their 90-day deadline — by drafting a new Anti-Infiltration Bill that many human-rights orgs see as even harsher than the original.

At first glance, the bill looks to slightly improve on its widely despised predecessor. Under the proposed changes, undocumented African immigrants can only (only!) be imprisoned without trial for one year, as opposed to three years, and are thereafter required to check in regularly to an "open facility" nearby.

But "open facility," in this case, seems to be a euphemism for "larger and slightly nicer-looking desert prison."

According to the Hebrew version of Israeli daily Haaretz, even the Knesset's legal advisor, Eyal Yinon, noted at the meeting that "the difference between the planned 'open' facility and the existing detention facility seems minimal."

Despite this warning, the Anti-Infiltration Bill passed its first reading with flying colors on Monday, with 43 politicians voting "Yes" and 17 voting "No." After some fine-tuning this week by the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, the bill will hit the floor for its second and third reading early next week — after which it will likely be passed into law. "If the bill will be legislated, we are sure going to take it to the Supreme Court," said Anat Ovadia, spokeswoman for Hotline for Migrant Workers, Israel's original advocacy and resource center for African refugees. "But that could take 10 months. Even if we appeal, it will take so long that on the ground, they'll start to transfer [prisoners] to the open facility."

For this reason, groups like Amnesty International and U.S.-based coalition "Right Now" have pre-drafted emails, Facebook posts and Tweets for concerned citizens to send to Israeli politicians and ambassadors, pressuring them without having to think too much. (Sample Tweet from the latter: ".@israeliPM you must stop Knesset plan to create new detention for #African asylum seekers in Israel. It violates int law and Jewish values.")

But Twitter attacks may not stand up to bulldozers. Israel's new detention facility for Africans, called Sadot, is currently in the final stages of construction in the lot alongside the Saharonim Penitentiary, where over 2,000 asylum seekers are currently holed up. "They can see [Sadot] from their windows," said Ovadia.

Under the new bill, after one year at Saharonim, prisoners can request a transfer to Sadot, where they will be required to check in three times a day. Given its incredibly remote location in the harsh Israeli desert, this will make living outside Sadot impossible. The camp will be closed at night, and, Haaretz reported, "is surrounded by a high metallic fence topped by barbed wire that stretches for many kilometers." This, despite the fact that "during discussions... senior members of the Israel Prison Service said that there would be no wall or barbed wire on the site," according to Haaretz.

Sadot has been under construction for at least a year. In November 2012, a group of refugee-rights orgs in Israel led a small tour of the greater prison compound, situated near the border with the Sinai. (That great treacherous buffer between Israel and Egypt, where refugees fleeing the oppressive and violent governments in Eritrea and Sudan report being kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom on their journey to safety.) Here's what they observed on the tour:

The Ministry of Defense was installing hundreds of shipping containers onto the property, apparently as future housing for Africans in Israel. (Photo.) Cold white cells were lined in lockers and bunk beds. (Photo.) "Once completed," reported photo activist group ActiveStills, "it will be the biggest prison for immigrants in the western world" — with a final planned capacity of around 11,000 immigrants. 

Now, it appears the Ministry of Defense and Israel Prison Service have simply made a few tweaks, at the will of the new Knesset bill, to re-purpose the long-planned jail expansion into a superficially friendly sort of post-prison. Details on the new setup, from a Hotline for Migrant Workers press release:

The detainees in the open facility will be provided with housing, medical services and food. Women and children will be detained separately, and education will be provided to the children. In addition, according to the new amendment, the director of the open detention center would be authorized to employ the residents of the center in maintenance work within the center itself. For this work they will receive a “proper reward”, but it was emphasized that there would be no employer-employee relationship between the state and any 'illegal migrant'. The detentions centers will be open during the day and closed at night, and the detainees will have to be present in roll-calls three times per day to prevent the asylum-seekers from venturing too far from the center and working elsewhere. If a detainee tries to run away, is late for a roll-call or is caught working outside the facility, he will be transferred to the closed prison for three months, and afterwards will get a chance to continue living in the 'open facility'.

"They painted it rainbow colors, but it looks like a prison nonetheless," said Ovadia. "It's a nicer prison, with maybe better conditions — but the main problem is the obligation to be there three times a day, and in the night it's closed. The [Israel Prison Service] operates it. And prisoners are still locked in the middle of the desert, away from any inhabited place."

(Having just returned from the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, I will say: No amount of United Nations aid or caravan furnishings can make up for the psychological terrors of waking up every day imprisoned in a desert refugee camp, cut off from the outside world, with no discernable path toward life's goals.)

Ovadia added that as long as African asylum seekers are isolated in this desert compound, Israeli immigration officers can continue pressuring them to return to their home country. 

Indeed — in addition to cutting the ribbon on Sadot, the proposed Anti-Infiltration Bill will jack up the financial incentives for African asylum seekers to leave Israel altogether, from the current $1,500 to $3,500.

One Darfuri refugee summed up the absurdity of that offer in an interview with Ynet: "They better raise it to $50,000. I can't return [to Darfur]. There is a war there now, it does not matter how much money they give me."

When African asylum seekers began flooding into Israel around 2006, Israeli authorities blanket-refused all requests for asylum. Instead, they scrambled to pass scary new laws and build a high-tech, $400 million fence along the border with Egypt — but not before about 60,000 asylum seekers had made their way into the Jewish nation, flocking mainly to South Tel Aviv. Conservative Jewish residents have since staged protests in the neighborhood that have bordered on race riots.

Asylum seekers can be sent to the desert prison upon any small brush with the law. For example, a woman can be sent there for reporting her own rape, or a man can be sent there for failing to provide the receipt for a bicycle tethered outside his barber shop. (See: "Coincidence? Tel Aviv cops arrest Darfuri actor who played Tel Aviv cop in theatrical critique.")

"Democracy is not a recipe for suicide and human rights are not a platform for national ruin," Interior Minister Gideon Saar, who's helming this whole thing, explained at Monday's meeting. Under the new bill, according to Israel Hayom, Israel will spend another $125 million or so to build the prison and infuse South Tel Aviv with over 100 more police officers — just the personnel needed to round up more Africans and banish them to the desert. And to think what world-class refugee rehabilitation programs could be established on a budget of $500 million plus.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Simone Wilson is a 26-year-old journalist from Northern California currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel. She served as editor in chief of UC San Diego’s student newspaper, the...

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