Israeli leaders still ache to deport African refugees

Women wearing winter clothing stand in a queue

Refugees from Sudan and Eritrea queue at the Israeli interior ministry in order to renew their visas or submit asylum requests in the early hours of 4 February.

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The year 2018 was one of the most critical for African refugees in Israel. Under threat of imminent deportation, the community and their local supporters took to the streets, pleading for their rights to be recognized.

The mass deportations did not materialize.

First, it became clear that African governments were unwilling to accept refugees who had been forced out of Israel. That prompted Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to reach a deal with the United Nations aimed at resettling African refugees in the West.

Netanyahu scrapped that deal after being criticized by lawmakers in Israel’s ruling coalition who viewed the arrangement as insufficiently tough on refugees. The lawmakers objected to how the deal was contingent on allowing approximately half of African refugees to remain in Israel for five years.

Despite shelving his most merciless anti-refugee plans, Netanyahu continued attacking Africans living in Israel. He remains among Israel’s top 10 leaders in its war against African refugees.

10. Ayoob Kara, communications minister

In January 2018, Ayoob Kara, a government minister, suggested that African refugees were a health hazard.

He used that eliminationist language during a conference of Likud – the party led by Netanyahu – in Eilat, a Red Sea resort. Kara was seeking credit for overseeing a policy – then as a minister for regional cooperation – to fire Africans from that city’s hotel industry.

The policy had been implemented after Africans across Israel went on strike in early 2014. A week-long strike was called as part of protests against Israel’s jailing of refugees.

Hotel owners in Eilat lobbied Israel’s government to substitute African workers with people living in Jordan. Under the plan, permits were issued so that hundreds of workers could enter Israel from Jordan each day and then be bussed back to Jordan in the evening.

The Israeli government insisted that an African be fired each time a worker from Jordan was recruited.

According to Kara, the objective of the plan was to “save tourism in Eilat.” Its effect, he added during his 2018 speech, was that “we expelled the illegal [African] workers that burst in here and were a sanitary nuisance.”

Kara, a member of the Druze religious minority, is now Israel’s communications minister.

9. Nissim Malka, rabbi and politician

As mayor of Kiryat Shmona – a town in northern Israel – Nissim Malka used his position to muzzle anti-racist campaigners.

In March, staff and students at Tel-Hai College were scheduled to hold a comedy evening to raise funds for fighting the deportation of refugees. Right-wing local residents had threatened to converge on the venue – a cooperative bar linked to the local authority – and break up the event.

Rather than condemn those threats, Malka banned the event, accusing its organizers of “trying to create unnecessary arguments and divide our city.”

It was not surprising that Malka would, in effect, side with racist bullies. He has previously campaigned against Africans who fled vigilante violence in Tel Aviv and moved to Kiryat Shmona.

In 2012, Malka announced that the authorities “would carry out major enforcement activities” against “the infiltrators that are living in Kiryat Shmona and are working at businesses in town, especially in the food industry.”

Malka, who is also a rabbi, marked 10 years as mayor in 2018. He no longer holds the post after losing an election later in the year.

8. Gadi Yarkoni, local authority chief

Gadi Yarkoni, head of Eshkol regional council in southern Israel, was instrumental in having Africans moved from accommodations provided to them.

During 2018, 15 students from South Sudan were housed in Avshalom, a short distance from Israel’s boundary with Gaza. They were studying agriculture in Ashkelon Academic College as part of a program sponsored by the Israeli government.

It was something of an exception: Israel had begun deporting refugees from South Sudan en masse in 2012 – less than a year after that state was established. Yet even this rare act of official benevolence was too much for Israelis living in Avshalom, who closed the gate to the village, preventing the African students from entering it.

One resident went so far as to describe the students as “human trash.”

Although the police ordered the gate’s reopening, Yarkoni intervened to urge the college authorities that the students be moved. Deceptively, he suggested that local residents were simply afraid of having 15 young men living in the same house and would have reacted the same way if the students were Israeli.

7. Amir Ohana, lawmaker

Relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia – neighbors at loggerheads, often violently, for more than two decades – may finally be improving. Leaders of the two countries held talks in July, committing themselves to a peaceful future.

Despite the breakthrough, Eritreans – who comprise the majority of Africans living in Israel – would face considerable risks if they were expelled by Israel. Their country remains a dictatorship.

Amir Ohana, a Likud member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has implicitly recognized such concerns are valid by saying that the situation in Eritrea could deteriorate. His “solution” is “removing the infiltrators” before the situation in Eritrea “changes for the worse again.”

Speaking at a Knesset committee meeting during the summer, Ohana said “we’re going to push with all our might” for the mass expulsion of Eritreans.

6. Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben Gvir, pranksters

Followers of the late Meir Kahane – a notorious firebrand who urged that all Palestinians be expelled from their homeland – are known for their extreme violence. Baruch Goldstein, who committed the 1994 massacre in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, drew inspiration from Kahane.

Two of Kahane’s most high-profile followers displayed a warped sense of humor during 2018.

As the Netanyahu government announced plans – subsequently dropped – to force 37,000 Africans out of Israel early in the year, some extremists sought to worsen the confusion which the refugees encountered.

Itamar Ben Gvir and Baruch Marzel, leaders of the party Strength for Israel, plastered signs across south Tel Aviv, in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Africans. The posters offered aid to people facing deportation.

Eritreans who read the notices, which were printed in their native tongue Tigrinya, were led to believe that they were being promised refuge in the homes of Israeli citizens.

But when the Eritreans dialed up the phone numbers on the posters, their calls were answered by Israelis who had no knowledge of what they were attempting to communicate.

It appears that the whole thing was a prank orchestrated by racists, who wished to make fun of people in distress.

5. May Golan, campaigner

May Golan, a political activist in Tel Aviv, once declared she was “proud to be a racist.”

In 2018, the newspaper Haaretz exposed how she had fabricated data about the number of Africans entering Israel for scaremongering purposes.

Men and women wear tape over their mouths and shackles around their writsts and necks

Asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea hold a mock Libya slave auction outside the embassy of Rwanda in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, in a protest against the Israeli government’s plan to deport refugees to third states in Africa, presumed to be Rwanda and Uganda, 22 January.

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Golan – another follower of Meir Kahane – conceded as much in a follow-up interview with the TV channel Reshet 13.

Time will tell if being outed as a liar causes any damage to Golan’s political ambitions. She is hoping to be selected as a Likud candidate in April’s parliamentary elections.

4. Oren Hazan, lawmaker

In early 2018, Oren Hazan, a novice lawmaker, received a six-month ban from taking part in Knesset debates. He was punished for a series of insults directed at fellow politicians.

Hazan, who represents Likud, has proven adept at finding platforms other than the Knesset chamber for airing his bigoted views. He is perhaps best known for boarding a bus transporting Palestinians to see relatives in prison during 2017, telling one woman that her son was a “dog” and an “insect.”

Interviewed by an Australian activist in 2018, Hazan described Africans who had come to Israel as “fake refugees,” alleging they “don’t even have culture.”

“In the end of the day, those people that came from the black lands, came from Africa, all the way to Israel, they did it only for one reason. They came here to search for work, for jobs, they came here to search for a future,” he said.

Complaining about how Africans were having babies, Hazan concluded the interview with eliminationist language.

“If you will not deal with the problem right now, you will suffer in the future,” he said. “If you will not kick them out right now, they will kick you out in the future. If you will not wake up, you will wake up not just in a dream – in a nightmare. You need to destroy the problem when it’s still small.”

Hazan is a resident of Ariel, an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

3. Moshe Edri, police chief

In late January 2018, just before he stepped down as Tel Aviv police chief, Moshe Edri issued a frightening directive. Expecting that Africans would be rounded up for expulsion, Edri told police officers that they would soon be unleashing physical force against the refugees.

“The scenario that really worries me the most is large public disturbances. We have absolutely no advantage over them, and therefore the swath of police tools must be available to the station. In other words, very quickly we will have to switch to shock grenades, water cannons, exerting force,” said Edri, according to Israel’s Channel 10.

A piece of paper with the Population and Immigration Authority logo promotes a grant of $3,500 for refugees who voluntarily leave Israel

A leaflet distributed by the Israeli government encouraging asylum seekers to leave to an unnamed third country is found lying on the ground outside the interior ministry on 4 February.

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Edri suggested that the police were powerless against the Africans, and that their only option left was to use lethal force. “They take stones, rocks, rods, sticks, and beset you, and the only thing left for you to do is to shoot live fire,” he said.

Fortunately, the plans were not implemented – as the mass deportations were called off.

Later in 2018, Edri took up a top-level post in the public security ministry, which oversees Israel’s prisons and police.

2. Aryeh Deri, interior minister

As interior minister, Aryeh Deri has overseen Israel’s war against African refugees.

He played a central role during the early months of 2018 in trying to push forward the mass deportation plans. Before those plans were scrapped, he went on radio telling refugees that they must go back to Africa, as the continent was their “natural place.”

Deri has dodged accountability. When activists challenged his deportation drive in a religious court during 2018, he refused to cooperate.

He even declined to recognize the court, despite how his party Shas only regards religious courts as legitimate.

Towards the end of 2018, Deri was charged with fraud and tax-related offenses.

The allegations may not spell the end of his career. He has previously proven capable of making a political comeback after being imprisoned for taking bribes.

1. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister

In March, Benjamin Netanyahu praised the wall that Israel has built along its boundary with Egypt. Without it, he claimed, Israel would face “severe attacks by Sinai terrorists, and something much worse, a flood of illegal migrants from Africa.”

That same month, Israel put into effect part of a secret deal to provide at least one African nation with military aid. Netanyahu wanted that country – which has not been named – to accept refugees that Israel is seeking to deport.

Eventually, Netanyahu was forced to admit failure; no less than five African nations ultimately turned down his demand that they take refugees expelled from Israel.

For the time being, Netanyahu’s efforts to expedite the deportations have been thwarted. But his draconian anti-refugee policies have already had a pronounced effect.

Tens of thousands of Africans have been removed from Israel since Netanyahu became prime minister.

The crisis of African refugees may have fallen from the headlines. That does not mean it has gone away.

If Netanyahu heads Israel’s government after April’s election, it is a tragically safe bet that he will continue pursuing his racist objectives.

David Sheen is an independent writer and filmmaker. Website: Twitter: @davidsheen.