‘The ship arrived in Jaffa toward noon,” reported Journey to the Land of Israel
in the year 2040, an early Hebrew fantasy about a cruise that sails south from
Beirut, past a colorful coastline of bustle and blossom which sprawls under
“snow-capped mountains rising into the clouds.”
Once at Jaffa, thousands
flock to the waterfront to greet the Jews in the vessel that hoists “the flag of
Judah’s camp,” and while a cannon fires a salute, Hebrew singing erupts from the
boat: “Pray for Jerusalem’s peace, your sons will flock from west and east,
south and north.”
This week, on the same shoreline, utopia was in short
supply as the people emerging from the horizon were Africa’s rather than
Jerusalem’s sons, and most of the people watching them were in spirit of
Then again, that book’s forgotten author, Elhanan Lewinsky,
though dead for more than a century, joined the already surreal scene when the
migrants, surely unaware of the irony, gathered in south Tel Aviv’s wretched
Lewinsky Park where they demanded a foothold under his utopia’s
The protest, which included a well-organized workers strike, a
hunger strike, a press conference, and 10,000 migrants’ busing to a rally
outside the Knesset, was unlike any previously seen in the Jewish state. As a
matter of fact, it was so perplexing that it is likely to backfire and
ultimately seal a saga of administrative ineptitude, social crisis, legal
ambiguity, diplomatic resourcefulness, logistical improvisation and political
alarm – with the migrants seeking utopia elsewhere.
The influx that saw
the number of illegal migrants in Israel soar over the past seven years from
fewer than 3,000 to 60,000 – is but a detail in a pan-African exodus that is a
paradoxical inversion of the continent’s historic traumas.
Whereas in the
past foreigners landed in Africa to seize, deport, and enslave its natives,
today Africans flee their continent and pressure the borders of other counties,
practically all of which see this trend as a strategic threat.
decade passed tough legislation against illegal immigrants and set up special
detention centers, Spain has built walls between its possessions off of Morocco
and the African expanses that lurk beyond them, and Saudi Arabia in recent
months expelled 150,000 Ethiopian migrants.
Israel’s situation – compared
with the many countries Africans eye – is unique because it is Africa’s only
overland meeting point with trans-African horizons. The fencing of the border
with Egypt, which was completed last year, brought the migration to an abrupt
end. However, it took Israel precious years to conclude that a fence is
necessary, and then to plan, budget and produce it.
African influx fell on socially weak communities, first in Eilat and then in
south Tel Aviv. Now the residents in the slums surrounding Lewinsky Park say
they can no longer recognize their neighborhoods, and that they are afraid to
walk their own streets after dusk.
Israel Police reported that in 2011 it
opened 1,200 criminal files against African infiltrators for felonies ranging
from public disturbance and smartphone grabs, to robbery, rape and murder. The
number of criminal files nearly doubled in 2012, including 100 sex
Indeed, a stroll through the streets between Tel Aviv’s new and
old central bus stations unveils what locals call Little Africa, a swathe of
urban decadence where Israelis have in recent years come to feel like tourists
at best, aliens at worst. The commotion of prostitution, drinking, and drug
abuse have long made the area intolerable for veterans to pass through with
Expelling the migrants is legally difficult because of
their countries of origin.
Some 34,000 of the 60,000 came from Eritrea
and over 15,000 from Sudan. These countries, due to their internal political
crises, are considered ineligible as deportation destinations due to the
international conventions that Israel signed, which ban sending refugees to
places where political risk awaits them.
This context raises the
situation’s most intriguing question: are the African migrants refugees, as
their leaders claim, or are they job-seekers, as the government claims. The
minority that did not come from Sudan or Eritrea were questioned upon arrival in
order to determine their status. Only a handful were recognized as refugees. The
Sudanese and Eritreans have been exempted from this hearing, because they were
recognized as eligible for humanitarian protection.
therefore set out to expel migrants from other countries, like Ivory Coast, and
to seek third countries that would take those it cannot send back to their own
homes. Israeli diplomacy, it was reported, found at least one such country, in
Uganda. Reportedly, migrants dispatched there would be flown at Israel’s expense
and also receive $1,500 each.
Uganda denied the reports that also
speculated that in return for its agreement the East African country will be
getting Israelis arms.
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein approved the
deal after verifying that Uganda is signatory to the International Refugee
Convention and that once there the migrants would not be abused.
BUILDING the fence the government set up a special detention center in a remote
place called Saharonim, on the Egyptian border about one third of the way
between Gaza and Eilat. The government’s growing resolve to lead the migrants
there, and from there to Africa, is what triggered this week’s protest, which
included a hunger strike in the detention camp.
The trekking into Israel
began in small numbers 20 years ago, according to the Population and Immigration
The trickle became a flood during the premiership of Ehud
Olmert, and it peaked during Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s previous term,
in 2011, when 17,000 Africans entered the Negev illegally.
The failure to
build early on the fence that would have prevented what now is an urgent problem
is typical of Israeli policy-making, which is often more responsive than
Then again, when it comes to improvisation, Israel can be
more agile than countries which are better at treating problems in advance. That
is how Israel produced the fence quickly, and also how it emerged with a
diplomatic venue whereby it is seeking African destinations where the migrants
can be sent without violating Israel’s international commitments.
Africans’ struggle will fail because what is socially intolerable for the
veteran population they pressure is politically unaffordable for the
For one thing, neighborhoods like south Tel Aviv’s Neveh
Sha’anan and Hatikva are time-honored Likud strongholds. Netanyahu cannot afford
to have this population shout from the depths of their souls that he has let
Secondly, the high profile which the crisis has now assumed
has recast it as a test of wills. The African and Israeli activists who drove
this week’s rallies have pulled the government up the tall tree they had climbed
themselves, and left it no alternative other than to throw them down to
Millions of voters looking at the multitude that gathered this
week outside the national theater, Habimah, were alarmed by the show of
magnitude that was supposed to persuade the public to back the migrants. The
politicians were even more alarmed.
The most telling reflection of the
political alarm the migrants aroused is their failure to win the backing of the
Arab parties and the political center.
Arab voters feel threatened
economically by the migrants. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister
Tzipi Livni, and opposition chairman Isaac Herzog all avoid joining the
migrants’ cause. They know the middle class they represent shares Netanyahu’s
view that the migrants are here for work rather than asylum. Confronting the
prime minister while he labors to evict the migrants would be, for them,
The African migrants work mostly in restaurants,
cafés and hotels. The government is therefore unimpressed with the economic
aspect of their residence too, because besides being a social liability they
constitute no asset to the labor market, where they are easily replaceable.
Indeed, some restaurants this week rushed to fire their African employees,
whether because they had no patience for their strike, or because they did not
want to be in the government’s viewfinder while they underpay and also fail to
insure illegal workers.
It will take several years to shed, but
ultimately this illegal migration’s aftermath will end like Lewinsky’s utopia,
where his traveler sails home while declaring that his heart remains “in the
Holy Land, the land of wonders, the land of the