Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, dusk. Tired Filipino migrants vacantly stare as the shuttle buses draw in. A balding Chinese store manager squints nervously as a gabardine-clad Hassidic crowd pushes leaflets outside his store – ‘The Kingdom of Pork.’ These curling Hebrew A4 printouts shout – ‘Close this Kingdom of Hell.’ Russian toughs sporting tin crosses are hawking tickets and swig homebrew from reused Coke bottles, leaning on the station’s unwashed concrete walls.
Doors are slammed. Vietnamese love songs can be overheard. This is the other Israel-Palestine. Uncertain black Africans squat by the entrances, swapping cigarettes or the latest phone number of an employer who'll hire an illegal. Their voices are Darfuri or Eritrean. Unimaginable just over a decade ago, this is a snapshot of a growing population that is neither Jewish nor Arab in the Promised Land.
Today over 220,000 migrants work in Israel, out of a population of just 7.4m. Foreigners fill the manual, mostly menial jobs. Palestinians worked inside Israel proper before the Intifada. This migrant class was ignored and invisible for fifteen years, like German Turks in the 1970s.
This winter a fierce public glare fell on the exponential increase of African illegal immigrants. Rallies have been held in Tel Aviv denouncing them as infiltrators. Counter-marches were organized by leftist NGOs demanding their rights as refugees be respected.
Rabbis and coalition politicians have shrieked they pose ‘a threat to the Jews.’ Interior Minister Eli Yishai went as far as to say African migrants pose “an existential threat to the Jewish state.” Placing them in the same league of menaces as an Iranian atomic bomb.
A countervailing force has seen left wing cultural icons mobilize; whilst the liberal broadsheets and opposition politicians denounce any violation of their rights as ‘the shame of the Jews.’ The Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, denounced rabbis' calling not to rent non-Jews property as “another nail in the coffin of Israeli democracy.”
Israel is now as bitterly divided over African migrants as it is over the occupation.
Trickle, Now Flood
There are an estimated 35,000 illegal African migrants now in Israel. Their number has soared 2500% since 2006. They are overwhelmingly illegal and almost all arrive in small groups that slip over the desert borderlands in the south where Egypt, then Africa begins.
“Our problem is Israel is the only first world country that can be reached on foot from the third,”grimly notes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
What began as a trickle of migrants in 2006 has turned into a deluge. African migrants have been crossing the Sinai in ragged parties on foot at immense risk. They are often tortured and robbed by the Bedouin nomads, who alone know the chinks of fortress Israel.
Africans have changed the face of Tel Aviv’s southern districts. It is estimated that today as much as 10% of the city's population is foreign. In Israel’s Red Sea port, Eilat, the municipal authorities say they are on the brink of collapse under the weight of supporting 10,000 African migrants in a city of just 57,000 residents (pdf). The ‘Sing Sing’ slum, once the home of poor Soviet Jews, is now a black ghetto. The Israeli government claims that 1,100 Africans entered the country a month since February – compared to just 19,000 Jewish immigrants for the whole of 2010.
The Perils of Sinai
Haile Menjisted is Eritrean, like 70% of the African migrants. He has been in Israel one month and three weeks. “The Jewish are afraid that Israel will become a country for black Africans,” he says. “We are telling them we are temporary and escaping political persecution in Eritrea. We are telling them that we are willing to disperse from South Tel Aviv. We understand the overcrowding problem. We want to arrange a way to do this with the Israeli government.”
He says the migrants are facing grave dangers as they cross the Sinai. “The smugglers take the refugees across. They are hurting the refugees. They are violating the refugees. They are taking the refugees' rights.”
Segal Rosen from the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an NGO, told Think Africa Press of the horrific ordeal the refugees undergo to reach Israel.
“There is a growing phenomenon of Bedouin smugglers extorting the migrants. They charge them $2,500 to take them across the desert. Once they are there alone the smugglers take them hostage. They then demand a further $10,000 from the refugees as many of them have families in the West. Right now there was group held for six months, another group of 270 people held for seven months,”she says.
“They are being starved, they are being beaten. The women are being raped. Our estimation is that one in two of the women who cross the Sinai have been raped.”
Rosen argues that the refugees are being transported by the same Bedouin smugglers who brought thousands of Russian and Ukrainian sex-slaves for Israeli gangs into the country in the 1990s. These groups have also been used by the mafia as drugs supply lines.
In late December 2010 it was revealed that a further group of 250 Eritreans were being held hostage and tortured by smugglers linked to Hamas in Gaza, who have been trafficking weapons and supplies into the enclave.
“Israel has a problem in Sinai,” says retired Brigadier-General Shlomo Brom, former head of strategic planning for the IDF. “There is a feeling that Egypt doesn’t really have good security control taking into account the fact the Bedouin do not respect borders and have a history of smuggling.”
“What they smuggle depends on the moment,” says Brom. “It has been drugs. It has been guns. One dimension of this problem is the smuggling of guns into Gaza. It is basically the same problem, as the Egyptians do not really have full control of Sinai. This is partly because it is a desert far from the centre of the country where their security forces are deployed. It is not a priority for Cairo.”
For the Israeli conscripts patrolling the Negev border with Egypt, the task of sealing the border has not been easy. They are turning away refugees on the same route of their ancestors’ legendary journey out of bondage, themselves usually the grandchildren of refuges from Europe. Refusals to comply with orders have become more common.
One anonymous conscript recently told the Israeli press:
“Friday morning we caught a group of 31 people,” A. recounts. “There were five or six women and one small girl, an 11 month old baby. One of the women was holding her crotch in an unusual fashion, and she had the look of death in her eyes. The others also had this look. They were Sudanese and Eritrean; some were barefoot, some with shirts tied around their feet instead of shoes, without any gear. We loaded them on the Hummer in two batches and took them to the company. I saw the smiles on their faces when the two groups reunited. It was a kind smile that said ‘it’s over, the disaster is behind us, and perhaps we can start something new.’ I think this is what caused me to disobey an order that night.”
The anonymous soldier’s refusal to return the refugees to Egypt is due to the fact that once sent back to the Egyptians side, they are deported to Sudan or Eritrea, where they face the danger of imprisonment or worse. However, the Israeli military claims that its patrols are capable of assessing whether or not the migrants are illegal immigrants or intending to claim asylum.
Human rights groups regard this claim as absurd.
The Netanyahu government has announced its intention to build a fence along the Egyptian border, completing Israel’s encirclement by border walls, as a means to stem the flow. The government has pledged to build a new detention centre on the border to hold up to 10,000 migrants whilst their cases are processed.
“We are very worried about this detention centre,” says Nirit Moskovich, spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
“We are sure that it will be a refugee camp that will violate a lot of human rights. One of things we are positive about is that they will not be able to work. They will just be sitting there.”
Living Anxiously, in Limbo
Since 1948 the state of Israel has only granted 141 cases refugee status (pdf). There are 35,000 black Africans in Israel, 90% of whom are from either Sudan or Eritrea, and who are overwhelmingly Christian. Their lives are in limbo as the Ministry of Interior does not process their cases despite being obliged to under international law.
The Migrant Workers Hotline explains that cases from Sudan are not processed as the country is officially an enemy nation at war with Israel, whilst the government has close ties with the regime in Eritrea and does not want to risk its relationship by granting refugee status. This means they are not entitled to the benefits international law accord refugees – such as rights to work, healthcare or education. Instead the Africans of Israel live in the shadows.
“There is a black is every kitchen in Israel. No white person is doing the worst jobs in any restaurant in Tel Aviv. They are all super illegal and paid dirt,” says Esther, a waitress.
“They speak zero Hebrew and are all incredibly poor. Some people say they are a threat to the Jewish majority. Other people say they are making Israel a more normal place, like London or Paris – where not everyone is French or British.”
Oscar Olivier is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He says he has been waiting 16 years for the Israeli government to accord him refugee status. He is convinced that his dossier has not even been looked at.
“When I first approached Israel from Cairo, I felt this very strong emotion in my heart. Call me naïve. But I expected that a nation that had been refugees, that know what it means to be homeless, would understand and treat me accordingly,” he says softly. “I have been quite disappointed.”
He says he has been frightened by a recent demonstration held by nationalists in the shabby, run-down Hatikvah quarter in Tel Aviv. Locals and nationalist politicians gathered under the slogan –‘Expel the Foreigners.’
Oscar says he is disturbed by a recent letter by 39 rabbis on the municipal payroll calling for the faithful to cease and desist from letting property to non-Jews. Speaking quickly he explains.
“Israel is becoming more racist. This is because people are blaming the problems on the foreigners and don’t understand that the world economic crisis is behind the lack of jobs. I was particularly frightened when I saw the Rabbis' letter. I expected rabbis to preach love and I now see hatred moving freely ”
“Yet this happens in any country not just Israel,” he adds.
Tamara, a suburban housewife, is as confused as the Israeli media about the right moral response to the migration. “We are such a small nation; we just can’t afford to take them in. There isn’t enough space for us and the Palestinians on this land, let alone lots of Africans. But we can’t just send them back to Egypt.”
“This is an impossible choice but there are lots of other countries they can go to – we have only one Jewish country,” she says.
“This is the worst government that Israel has ever had in terms of human rights, shown through a raft of their initiatives, all sorts of bills, completely lacking in respect for human rights and against the liberal tradition in this country,” Amos Harel states; a leading Israeli legalist and human rights activist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“There is a significant proportion of the population that share these views and there has been a growth in these anti-liberal and racist tendencies. However, a lot of people are doing excellent work defending the rights of migrants,” thinks Harel.
The moral dilemma of the African migration has brought the fundamental dividing line between the Israelis of the left or right. What is the lesson that the Holocaust has taught the Jews?
For some it is never again.
For others it is never again, to us.
The paradox is that it is the Israeli working class and badly integrated Russian-Jewish communities of run-down Hatikvah and countless other shabby neighborhoods whose votes are sustaining the Netanyahu-Liebermann government not interested in peace with the Palestinians. Yet their very own communities are the ones that most desperately need it, not the middle classes prospering from the technology boom and enjoying cheap flights to the EU.
Settlements are built in a weekend and look like Californian suburbs, whilst Hatikvah rots and looks like Russia. The paint on Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture peels and splits as Ariel in the West Bank expands. These districts desperately need the funds spent on the occupation to be released - not on security hill-top settlements for fanatics but on social housing, retaining schemes and unromantic welfare projects for the many.
Unfortunately the African migration will only push Israel’s most vulnerable segment further into the nationalist camp whose project of perpetual occupation serves only a tiny minority of Israel’s population. Class struggle has been eclipsed by ethnic struggle on the streets in run-down areas of Tel Aviv.
Oscar from Congo explains, “In south Tel Aviv the Jewish mostly come from Russia. They come when they are grown-ups and cannot speak Hebrew. They cannot find jobs and are living on the money from the government. The money is going down and they think that the Africans are taking the jobs and getting the money. But we haven’t touched one Shekel from the government. ”
With the threat of war hanging over Sudan as the referendum on the South’s independence nears, Jerusalem is anxious these 35,000 Africans are the first wave of a human Tsunami.
Africans are migrating not only to Israel from the Horn but elsewhere in the Middle East. This is a mass migration that is beginning to have political consequences for the region.
In 2009 59,000 Somalis entered Yemen (pdf). From January to October this year, some 43,000 people – 13,000 Somalis and nearly 30,000 Ethiopians – made the dangerous trip across the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden in flimsy boats. Human Rights Watch has reported that Saudi Arabia has flown back 2,000 Somalis to Mogadishu, a warzone, last year.
In Israel’s neighboring Egypt between 2 to 4m Africans migrants are in the country. Cairo’s forces – unlike Israel’s – operate a shoot to stop policy on migrants trying to reach the Jewish state. An estimated 50 Africans have been killed this way since 2007.
Compared to its neighbors, and not to the EU, Israel’s policies towards the African migration are enlightened. However the numbers add up to the emergence of an unhappy African underclass, feared by the natives they are competing with for jobs, not just in Israel but across the Middle East.