African refugees defy desert cold, Israeli internment in march for freedom

A participant in a march by asylum-seekers in Jerusalem is arrested by Israeli police on 17 December 2013.

Yotam Ronen ActiveStills

On 15 December, about 150 African asylum-seekers, mostly Sudanese, began a march from the Holot internment camp in the Naqab desert with the intention of reaching the Israeli prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

Braving the freezing cold and refusing meals for three days, the African asylum-seekers staged their march in protest of an “anti-infiltration” law which was passed on 10 December in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

The law was swiftly enacted to circumvent an Israeli high court ruling that struck down the previous version of the anti-refugee Prevention of Infiltration Law.

Refugee rights advocates, including the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers in Israel, consider the newly-amended law to be even worse than the annulled provision.

The revised law reduces from three years to one year the amount of time that Israeli authorities can imprison asylum-seekers without trial. But it also stipulates that refugees can be held indefinitely and without judicial review in an internment camp.

The Holot internment camp is located in the middle of a firing zone in the Naqab (Negev) desert, 40 kilometers away from the city of Bir al-Saba (Beersheva). Although the Israeli government claims it is an open facility, the refugees are required to show up at three roll calls per day and are under curfew at night.

Over 1,000 Sudanese refugees imprisoned in the Saharonim jail were transferred to the Holot camp.

The camp is isolated from any residential area and the refugees held there are not allowed to apply for work permits. This means they are effectively locked up under terrible conditions, in a striking reminder of the internment camps in which the US held its Japanese citizens during World War II.

Setting a precedent

It is not surprising, then, that African asylum-seekers decided to take matters into their own hands and march to Jerusalem with their demands. They want an end to indefinite incarceration and for the Israeli authorities to examine their asylum applications in accordance with the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Israel signed and ratified this agreement but fails to respect it.

The march set an important precedent for two main reasons.

Unlike many of the pro-refugee protests that take place in Tel Aviv, this march was led and planned by refugees themselves rather than Zionist leftists. Sudanese refugees organized this mass action and were joined by other Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who live in Tel Aviv, Palestinian residents of of al-Araqib (a repeatedly demolished village not recognized by Israel) and Israeli solidarity activists.

The Israeli solidarity activists included Knesset members from the political party Meretz. They constantly tried to dominate the march, giving speeches appealing to the Israeli public, invoking Jewish identity and the “Jewish refugee narrative.” (Needless to say, the refugee narrative brought up in these speeches did not mention 750,000 Palestinians displaced by Zionist colonizers during the Nakba — Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in 1948).

A second reason why this march set a precedent is that it represented an inspiring act of civil disobedience by the refugees. Despite knowing that they would ultimately be arrested and taken back to Saharonim prison once they reached Jerusalem, they did not try to run away — even though they could easily have done so.

“We want dignity”

After two days of traveling, the refugees arrived in front of the Israeli prime minister’s residence around 10:30 am. They chanted “We are human beings,” “we want dignity,” “we are proud of our black skin” and “freedom yes, prison no.”

The Electronic Intifada spoke to Mubarak Ali Muhammad, who fled violence in the Darfur region of Sudan only to be immediately imprisoned by Israel when he arrived in 2012.

“As soon as I arrived the Israeli police arrested me,” Muhammad said. “I was held in Saharonim and Ketziot jails for 18 months but when the Supreme Court [as Israel’s high court is also known] ordered our release [in September], we were transferred to the open detention center in Holot.”

Speaking about the detention conditions in Saharonim, Muhammad said: “In the prison we are not treated as human beings and the conditions are very difficult. On 5 May 2012, for instance, we staged a nonviolent protest against the rough conditions so the prison guards responded by beating and shackling us.”

Asked if he dreams of going back to Darfur one day, Muhammad replied: “Of course we cannot now, but if [Sudanese leader] Omar al-Bashir is overthrown and there is stability, I’ll go back to Darfur immediately. I want to get married and have kids and I miss my family there and no-one dislikes his homeland.”

“Freezing cold”

Muhammad also spoke about the tough journey that the asylum-seekers had to make from the Naqab to Jerusalem. “We walked for almost eight hours by foot from Holot to Bir al-Saba amid the freezing cold of the desert,” he said. “Some marching refugees passed out because they were on hunger strike. We spent Monday night in a kibbutz and continued the march on Tuesday morning.”

The refugees originally planned to walk all the way from Holot to Jerusalem on foot but could not do that due to the snow storm that struck Jerusalem a few days earlier. Some refugees attended the march, wearing only socks because they had no shoes.

Najmiddine, a refugee who lives in Tel Aviv, spoke to The Electronic Intifada giving only his first name. He fled what the International Criminal Court has described as genocide in Darfur.

“Although I am not imprisoned, south Tel Aviv feels like a big prison for us,” he said. “I believe that all refugees, whether in Tel Aviv or the open detention center in the Naqab, share the same cause and demands. We demand the Israeli government look into our asylum application and decide our status.”

Najmiddine emphasized that he wants to go back to Sudan once stability is restored but right now it’s impossible: “I really miss my mother, my friends and my homeland. I miss going back to Sudan really bad.”

“Some people are racist”

Another Sudanese asylum-seeker, who asked not to be identified, said he fled ethnic cleansing in the Nuba Mountains in the south Kordofan region of Sudan. He has been living in Tel Aviv for eight years.

Asked if he faced racial abuse, he said, “Yes, some people are racist but others are very kind with us. I was not personally attacked but I heard from my friends that they were harassed and attacked by racist mobs.”

After more than an hour of chanting in front of the prime minister’s residence, the refugees and allies walked to the Knesset building where they were violently arrested by Israeli police who described them as “infiltrators.” The refugees were loaded onto buses and taken back to Saharonim prison.

On Thursday 19 December, over 150 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers walked out again from Holot internment camp in solidarity with their imprisoned comrades. After marching for an hour in the desert, Israeli immigration police launched a brutal campaign of arrests against all refugees who dared march out of the open prison. The police’s behavior was so extreme that it even flouted Israel’s own draconian law.

This time, the immigration police had no intention of allowing the refugees to march to a residential area and the only media representatives that covered the attack on refugees were photographers from the ActiveStills collective. As immigration police officers violently beat and verbally abused them, marching refugees were screaming and crying bitterly: “Freedom freedom.”

The internment camp is yet another chapter in Israel’s ongoing inhumane treatment of African asylum-seekers. After vicious incitement propagated by Knesset members and state-appointed rabbis, imprisonment without charge or trial, denial of basic rights, racist pogroms and so-called “voluntary” deportation under pressure and threats of indefinite detention and financial incentives, refugees are now facing indefinite detention in an open prison in the middle of the desert.

Refugees who have fled genocide in Darfur, ethnic cleansing in south Kordofan, the brutal, Israel-backed dictatorship in Eritrea and the torture camps in the Sinai, face a new form of enslavement in the supposed “refugee haven” of Israel, which is anything but a haven for non-Jewish black people.

Budour Youssef Hassan is a Palestinian anarchist and law graduate based in occupied Jerusalem. She can be followed on Twitter @Budour48.