Hundreds of African asylum seekers who've been stuck in an indefinite sentence at Holot, Israel's desert prison for border "infiltrators," attempted to jolt international attention back to their cause on Friday by staging an exodus back to the Israel-Egypt border.
Around 800 prisoners headed south with large packs full of food, water, clothes and blankets — and no plans to check in to Holot, ever again.
"We're calling for freedom/ Freedom from the halls of Holot prison/ Freedom from the shackles of Saharonim prison," rapped 25-year-old Darfuri asylum seeker Habib Adam, one half of the Holot rap duo Innocent Boyss, as he marched. (Holot is an "open prison" where prisoners must sign in three times a day, and the Saharonim facility next door is completely closed.)
But after two hours slugging through the brutal afternoon heat, prisoners were blocked by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) a few hundred meters short of the border.
The confrontation was brief yet intense. About a dozen IDF soldiers instructed the prisoners to halt at a fork in the road, fashioning a sort of frontline out of a ditch on the side of Route 211. "Lo rotzim!" ("We don't want to go!") the crowd chanted. Soldiers then began to tackle protesters, attempting to drag them onto a waiting prison bus.
But the Africans resisted, and hard. In one drawn-out struggle, prisoners tugged tirelessly on one of their own who was in an IDF headlock: "He was kind of turning into a limp doll and whimpering," said David Sheen, an independent journalist who caught the moment on tape.
"If I see one stone on my body, I'll kill you," an IDF soldier told a protester in English. But the Africans never seemed to go on the offensive, instead focusing on not letting one another be pulled onto the bus.
I did see one prisoner take a few blows from a soldier after being tackled to the pavement. However, when I ran over to photograph the attack, an Israeli man in plainclothes — who I'd seen consulting with the soldiers earlier — grabbed my camera out of my hand, ran into the desert and smashed it into the rocks. (Below is the last photo on my SD card, which I dug out of the rubble.) Soon after, Sheen was punched in the back of the head by another soldier.
The IDF soon pulled back. Ten to 20 minutes into the clash, the small troupe of soldiers apparently recognized that these hundreds of desperate asylum seekers had their heels dug firmly into the dunes, with absolutely no intention of returning to Holot. It would be a long, messy struggle — and there was many a camera still left at the scene, un-smashed.
So the army tried a different approach: They declared the area a military zone, and everyone inside it a trespasser.
A young soldier who identified himself as Sharon, who said he was head of command in the area, began approaching all reporters in the crowd. He told us he would hand us over to police, who were waiting just beyond the military zone, if we didn't leave voluntarily.
Sheen Tweeted: "Israeli police threaten to arrest me if i don't leave right away (so i can't film them beating the Africans)."
It never came to that. Sharon soon began conversing with Eritrean and Sudanese organizers, as well, about what it would take for protesters to avoid arrest. "You're disturbing those settlements because you're taking the army away," he said, pointing to some buildings in the distance. "Over there, you're making those children in danger, because you know, over there, those bad guys — you know because you come from Eritrea — they want to kill them. You understand that you're making a dangerous security problem, and still you stay."
Sharon then pointed to a nearby eucalyptus grove. "You can be over there," he said. "That is the line."
So the prisoners retreated to the grove.
This was a big letdown for some among them, who didn't understand why the group hadn't continued pushing all the way past the border. When they had first set out from Holot around 2 p.m., various prisoners had told me they hoped to scale the Israeli fence, entering what they thought to be an international buffer zone between Israel and Egypt. There, they said, Israel would have no more control over them, and the United Nations would be forced to intervene. (Although a source knowledgable on the subject later said there is no such buffer zone.)
But others thought the end goal should be more about escaping their situation than going down at the hands of the IDF. "We don't want to fight with the Israeli army," said Fitsum Kiflu, an Eritrean asylum seeker, of the decision to retreat.
Protesters have now been camping in the shady eucalyptus grove, named HaShalom Forest (Peace Forest), for more than 24 hours, scheming up alternatives. Hundreds more prisoners from Holot — along with asylum seekers still living in Tel Aviv — have since joined the roughly 800 original protesters, bringing more food and water.
Still, organizers pleaded in a press release this morning, "We are in dire need of basic supplies such as food, water, shelter and medical assistance." (Photo collective ActiveStills, who has been all over this story, reported that Physicians for Human Rights - Israel did show up to provide some medical care later in the day.)
The camp is also worried about hitting the 48-hour mark, because two days is the longest a prisoner can be gone from Holot without being arrested and sent to Saharonim. Which is exactly what happened to the group of 150 protesters who marched all the way from Holot to Jerusalem last winter to plead with government officials.
"If Holot is an open facility, then why and until when will we stay here?" protest organizers wrote before yesterday's march. "And if it is a prison, then what is our crime?"
Their demands, with some edits for clarification:
• Immediate reform to medical services for prisoners, and treatment of our patients immediately.
• Immediate release of detainees who have been in prison for over two years, have been victims of torture in the Sinai and have legal status according to international standards.
• We ask the Israeli government to hand over our cases to the UNHCR. We are hereby no longer asking for acceptance in Israel, and ask the UNHCR to resettle all of us to any third country.
• Release of our brothers arrested and sent to Saharonim by immigration police, on suspicion of organizing demonstrations inside Holot.
The mere aesthetics of the march — the landscape, the historical parallels — are cutting. These particular asylum seekers haven't been back to the biblical line where Israel's Negev desert meets Egypt's Sinai since entering the country some three to eight years ago. And many of the Eritrean prisoners, in particular, carry horrific memories of being held in Sinai torture camps by Bedouin kidnappers.
Then there is the obvious Passover imagery. Efrem Tesfa, an Eritrean activist who traveled down from Jerusalem to join the march, noted that it was basically the opposite of the Jews' exodus thousands of years ago. "It’s like the history is coming back," he said. "The Jewish people came to Israel from Egypt. Now, the African people here decided to cross the border from Israel to Egypt, because in Israel they can’t live and are all the time in prison."
Asylum seekers even accepted water from villagers at Nitzana, a historic rest stop along the ancient route from Egypt to Israel, and ended up halted by the army at a sprawling outdoor installation by Israeli artist Dany Karavan called "Path of Peace."
What will happen to the asylum seekers if they cross over to Egypt, Tesfa said, is anyone's guess. "Maybe the soldiers in Egypt will try to kill all of us or put us in the jail, or maybe they will try to help us," he said.
Either way, though, if the rest of the group makes the leap, Tesfa said he'll go with them.
Under past regimes, Egyptian soldiers have been known to shoot at Africans running toward the Israeli fence. IDF soldiers arguing with protesters at Friday's face-off predicted this as the likely outcome: "You will cross the line, and afterward they will shoot you — and I will take you back," Sharon said.
As dangerous as the Sinai may be, African asylum seekers in Israel say they see no other way out. The Israeli Ministry of Interior is offering them $3,500 each to return to either their home countries, Uganda or Rwanda — with disastrous results. Human-rights orgs and activists are trying to track the more than 4,000 asylum seekers who have accepted the deal since January, with little luck; many of their friends and family have reported them jailed, missing or dead.
The remaining options? Either move into a 10-bedroom container in the Negev, or evade border police in Tel Aviv. "This is the kind of thing that makes you stop dreaming about life," Holot prisoner Nouradin Adam, 26, told me in an interview last month.
So the exodus, in essence, is to tell the world: Israel's shackles have grown worse than the alternatives. "Thank u Israel," read one Eritrean's sign — the most resigned protest slogan I've seen since the refugee uprising began in December.
Teshome Nega, an Eritrean organizer of the march, told me on Saturday afternoon that a UNHCR representative had just come by the camp to talk with protesters. I haven't been able to reach the UNHCR to confirm, but according to Nega, the rep communicated that although the UNHCR could not intervene as long as the Africans are on Israeli soil, the organization might be able to help if they can exit the country.
So the plan for tomorrow, Nega said, is to try and cross to Egypt not by hopping the fence, but by asking Israeli authorities to let the Africans leave peacefully through a legitimate border crossing. (And hope the international community is there to catch them on the other side.)
From the group's Saturday night statement: "We are not criminals. We will stay near the Egyptian border until a solution is found that respects our rights as refugees. ... We will be forced to continue our journey to cross the border if our calls are not met."