African refugees get no reprieve from Israel’s racist rage

African asylum seekers protest against Israel’s deportation plan, South Tel Aviv, 25 February.

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

The fortunes of the African refugee community targeted by the Israeli government for deportation have swung wildly in recent days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first announced a United Nations-backed deal to resettle some of them in the West, but then quickly retracted the plan after right-wing Israelis complained that the deal was too generous to asylum seekers.

“I listened closely to many comments about the agreement. As a result, after reevaluating the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the deal,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.

“Despite the growing legal and international limitations, we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all possibilities at our disposal to remove the infiltrators,” he added.

In November, it was reported that the Netanyahu government secured agreements with unnamed African nations for the latter to take in many of the approximately 40,000 refugees remaining in Israel, ostensibly in exchange for a fee of $5,000 per head.

But Netanyahu’s plans for expedited deportation were quashed after protests by refugee rights activists in Israel and abroad shamed those countries, now known to be Rwanda and Uganda, into disclaiming the scheme.

Unable to deliver on his promise to quickly expel all the Africans, Netanyahu grudgingly agreed to a plan brokered by the UN refugee agency UNHCR which, if carried out, would have seen thousands of the refugees resettled in Western nations in the coming years.

But Germany and Italy, two of the countries cited by Netanyahu as committed to take in asylum seekers from Israel, quickly denied having ever agreed to accept refugees under the scheme.

Opposition to expulsion

Abandoned on all sides within hours of announcing the agreement, Netanyahu walked back the deal, first in part, then in whole, suspending it, and then canceling it altogether.

Although the deal would have provided political cover for Netanyahu’s planned expulsion of the refugees, his political camp vigorously opposed it because it also committed Israel to allowing around 20,000 Africans – mainly women and children – to remain in Israel for another five years and to help them move to parts of the country other than South Tel Aviv, where most of the community is concentrated.

Although a January poll showed that 66 percent of Israeli Jews support Netanyahu’s efforts to expel the refugees to Africa, a recent survey found that positions are reversed in those very areas where residents were more likely to actually encounter any of them.

A March poll revealed that in the greater Tel Aviv area, opposition to the expulsion reached 68 percent, and in the long-neglected neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv with the largest African populations, it hit 71 percent.

On 24 February and again on 24 March, some 20,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv to demonstrate in solidarity with the refugee community and demand that the Israeli government cancel plans to deport them, and instead work to improve the lives of all residents of the city’s delapidated southern district.

Protesters have criticized the Israeli government for having one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates in the world – less than 0.5 percent.

But Netanyahu has claimed that the non-Jewish refugees – about half Christian and half Muslim – pose a threat to Israel’s “national identity.”

In that sense Israel regards them similarly to how it has viewed indigenous Palestinians since its founding, when it expelled 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and barred them from returning because they are not Jews.

And local racists have long labored to shore up support for Netanyahu’s anti-African policies, and to demand that even crueler measures be taken against them.

“Mortal threat”

Shlomo Maslawi, representing Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party on the Tel Aviv city council, told Israeli TV that he would oppose Netanyahu’s now retracted plan, even though it included promises to invest in the overburdened neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, until “the Eritreans are gone, down to the last Eritrean – only then will there be rehabilitation.”

In recent weeks, as refugee rights advocates across the country and around the world stepped up their protests, forcing the African governments conspiring with Israel to deny their involvement, Netanyahu lashed out at the refugees, smearing them as a mortal threat.

If he had not built a high-tech fence on Israel’s southern border five years ago, Netanyahu told an audience in March, the number of Africans in the country would be significantly higher, a condition he deemed “much worse” than “severe attacks by Sinai terrorists.”

Coming under rare criticism from some of Israel’s staunchest American defenders, other government officials also doubled down to defend the mass deportations to African states.

Interior minister Aryeh Deri told Israeli army radio that to take these asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, and expel them to Rwanda and Uganda, would merely mean returning them “to their natural place.”

Avraham Neguise, currently Israel’s only Black legislator, a Jew of Ethiopian origin, also spoke out in support of the deportation to Rwanda and Uganda, telling Israel’s i24 TV, “Well, they came from Africa, and they’re going back to Africa.”

Yitzhak Yosef, one of Israel’s two national chief rabbis, also heaped scorn on the Africans in a sermon last month, in which he called Black people “monkeys” and the Hebrew equivalent of the N-word.

His fellow chief rabbi, Yisrael Lau, had already used that Hebrew version of the N-world to describe Black people, on his very first day in office.

Vigilante violence

These and many other incidents of anti-African incitement have ramped up racism against the refugees. The rage against asylum seekers has grown into a political force capable even of pressuring Netanyahu to cancel Israel’s international agreements.

But the most frightening effects of increased anti-Black sentiment are reserved for the refugees themselves.

Vigilante violence against African refugees has become increasingly common in recent years.

In 2012, an Israeli firebombed a daycare for the young children of African refugees, and in 2014, an Israeli man was indicted for stabbing an Eritrean baby in the head.

According to prosecutors, the man later stated: “I attacked Black terrorists, there was a Black baby, they said that a Black baby, Blacks in general, are terrorists.”

The firebomber received only community service, while the stabber was sent for psychiatric treatment.

Since that time, in separate incidents, two refugees – Haftom Zarhum from Eritrea and Babikir Ali Adham-Uvdo from Sudan – were beaten to death in public places by Israeli mobs.

The charges against Adham-Uvdo’s killers were reduced from murder.

One of the killers is a minor whose sentence for “intentional injury” to Adham-Uvdo is yet to be determined. The adult assailant received a maximum jail sentence of 10 years for manslaughter in a plea bargain, although he will probably be released in just a few years.

An Israeli court is currently offering Zarhum’s killers community service.

Coerced to self-deport

This anti-African incitement, coupled with the news that African refugees, including some recently expelled from Israel, have experienced torture, extortion and detention in Libya, where open-air slave markets have been documented, is taking a toll not only on adults, but on Israeli youth, as well.

In February, one refugee confessed that a group of Israeli schoolchildren had approached him on a public bus and asked him, “How much can we sell you for?”

With the Rwanda-Uganda deal shelved in shame, and the UN deal for resettlement in the West now derailed by Netanyahu himself, the fate of the 40,000 African refugees left in Israel is once again unclear.

In lieu of the UN deal, Netanyahu is now reportedly pressuring coalition partners to reopen the Holot internment camp that it closed down only last month in anticipation of the planned expulsions.

Starting in December 2013, Israel rounded up thousands of African men into this detention center, in order to pressure them to self-deport.

By Netanyahu’s count, the government was able to coerce more than 20,000 to leave Israel in this way – a third of the African refugee community.

When the Israeli high court forbade the government from keeping those men incarcerated there for more than a year, the latter banned the refugees who it was compelled to release from moving back to Tel Aviv or Eilat, the two Israeli cities with the largest asylum-seeker communities at the time.

As Israel released Holot’s remaining inmates in March, it informed them that the list of cities they were now forbidden from living or working in had mushroomed from two to seven, adding to the list Petah Tikva, Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Netanya and Jerusalem.

Now Netanyahu’s coalition partners say they may now pass an even harsher version of the so-called Anti-Infiltration Law which they have used to criminalize refugees.

The new bill would build in measures to insulate it from being overturned by the high court.

If they follow through on their threat to neuter the court’s powers, there would no longer be any legal impediment to jailing the African refugees indefinitely in Holot until they agree to self-deport to whatever destination Israel coerces them to go to.

David Sheen is an independent writer and filmmaker. Born in Toronto, Canada, Sheen now lives in Dimona. His website is and he can be followed on Twitter: @davidsheen.