Every Wednesday and Sunday around 10:30 a.m., at least one giant tour bus departs from the Nokia Arena parking lot, its seats filled with African asylum seekers and its cargo belly filled with their suitcases, pillows and those cheap fuzzy blankets in zipped bags you can buy at the Central Bus Station.
Their destination: an expanding desert prison camp for "illegal infiltrators" called Holot, located deep in the Negev, where winter nights are frozen and the summer sun is unforgiving.
"I don’t do anything — I just eat and sleep. Every day, every hour, the same,” 22-year-old Darfuri prisoner Haspel Karim Youssef told me when I visited Holot last month. Because Youssef was let into Israel by border soldiers after the draconian Anti-Infiltration Law was passed in 2012, he has been imprisoned for over a year, and never got to see the light of Tel Aviv.
The difference between Youssef and the African asylum seekers now departing from the Nokia Arena parking lot twice a week is that the latter group has been building a life here for years. In fact, the only trend in Israel's seemingly arbitrary selection process of new Holot prisoners is that they're the ones who've been here the longest. Many own businesses here; many more speak perfect Hebrew; some are orphans who just graduated from Israeli high school. "Every person who has been here for five or six years is getting a letter," said Mulugeta Tumuzgi, a tall, stately Eritrean man who has emerged as one of the community's leaders during the recent protest movement.
Just today, Tumuzgi spoke encouraging words into a microphone at Levinksy Park in South Tel Aviv, lifting the spirits of the few hundred asylum seekers who have been staging a last-ditch sit-in at the park since Sunday. Quite a few were resting on the ground, wrapped in blankets, as children played between them. The protesters looked more drained of hope than ever — but any sort of action is better than twiddling your thumbs, counting down the days until your indefinite detention.
According to the Israeli Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration, a total of 2,500 asylum seekers have been summoned to Holot since the new "open" facility was completed in December. That's up from 2,300 about four days ago — so the government appears to be rounding up around 50 asylum seekers per day.
The prison's capacity is 3,300 at the moment, but Channel 7 reported recently that "it can be expanded to hold as many as 11,000." And given its prime location in No Man's Land, there's nothing stopping the Israel Prison Service from building an entire African prison colony in the Negev.
In Hebrew, "Holot" translates to "Sands," which ironically makes the jail sound like some sort of cheesy beach resort. Instead, its name describes the only thing prisoners can see for miles: sand, sand and more sand. (Along with a couple other sister prisons nearby, and a small cattle farm that tragically mirrors the herded prisoners at Holot.) Even more ironic: The moshav, or farming community, next door is Kadesh Barnea, a holy site that served as key refuge for the Jews on their journey from Egypt back to Israel.
Last Wednesday, a couple dozen protesters stood in front of the bus to Holot, holding up signs and arguing with one old man who came by to hurl some "Go home!" hate at the asylum seekers boarding the bus.
The Israeli government prefers they do so, too: All Sudanese and Eritreans in Israel have been offered $3,500 each to make the risky return home. I saw one Sudanese man at last Wednesday's send-off negotiating such a deal for his brother — currently going crazy in captivity at Holot — with staffers from the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration working at a pop-up processing tent. Haaretz reported that the number of prisoners accepting this deal has risen tenfold over the last two months. (There have also been reports of asylum seekers who have gone missing since returning home.)
Two bus drivers waiting to depart for Holot last Wednesday called me over to chat.
"Why are they crying?" one driver asked of the Israeli protesters rallying in support of the soon-to-be-prisoners and hugging their African friends goodbye. The other driver — the same one who drove a gaggle of Israeli politicians down to tour the prison on Jan. 26 — told me the Africans had it good at Holot, with food and water and a roof over their heads. When I asked what the atmosphere was like on the bus, the first driver said, "They're happy to go."
I find that very hard to believe. The asylum seekers gathered in the parking lot that morning looked nervous, dejected, afraid yet resigned — anything but "happy." I spoke with Isaac Ali, a Darfuri man who said he has lived in Israel for six years and worked at Ha'Tarnegol ("The Rooster"), an art cafe in Jaffa, as he waited for the second bus to take him to Holot. I asked if he would ever try to get a day pass to visit Tel Aviv. "I don't have nothing to come back to," he said, looking down at his phone, indicating politely that he'd rather I stop questioning him.
Another man waiting for the bus, 25-year-old Noor Ahmad (pictured below, in green), an Eritrean who worked at a seafood restaurant along Tel Aviv's beach promenade, was accompanied by family and friends, including two sisters. They said their goodbyes on a nearby park bench. "We cannot return to our country," Ahmad said. "I need another option [besides prison], like a third country to go to." His friend, Nesredil Ahmad, also 25, said he would miss playing basketball with Ahmad, and added: "This is punishment for us, because the Jewish people forgot the punishment of the Nazis."
A wrenching goodbye ceremony like this one takes place twice a week in the Nokia Arena parking lot, as citizens of the city go about their daily lives. And this coming Wednesday — tomorrow, actually — my Sudanese friend Musa, who owns a watch shop in the bus station and has lived here six years, is due to board the bus. As I know him, he's a free man, always smiling, with a love of photography, shawarma and loud pants. I have no idea what I can possibly tell him or offer him to make his dark future at Holot any more bearable.
So no, I'm not partial on this, and I think Israeli politicians might feel a little differently about their mass prison sentence if their friends, too, were headed to sandy, barbed-in hell tomorrow morning.