Eilat could descend into lethal, racial conflict between veteran Israeli residents and the city’s African migrant population if the influx of migrants continue and the government does not handle the problem effectively, residents and local officials told The Jerusalem Post this week.
“We have managed to keep things under control so far, but I have no idea how long it can last, the tension here worries me a great deal,” Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevy said Wednesday, adding that his office is flooded on a daily basis with complaints from residents who say their children don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods, which he said have been taken over completely by Africans.
Using military-style language, Halevy describes the migrants as “a population that conquers more and more land as it grows” and said that Eilat has seen “more and more neighborhoods coming under their control.”
Though there are no exact figures on the size of the migrant population in Eilat, Halevy estimated there are around 7,000 in the city of 55,000, a higher proportion than that of Tel Aviv, the epicenter of Israel’s African migrant population. City leaders led protests in Eilat against the migrants before such protests came to south Tel Aviv, with mayor Halevy drawing fire for putting red “warning flags” up on sign posts through neighborhoods heavily populated by migrants.
Eilat has also drawn the attention of the nationwide media due to a campaign waged by local parents to ban children of African migrants from studying in local Eilat schools. To this day, no children of African migrants study in the city’s schools, and following the closing of a school at the nearby, former resort village of “Nof Eilat” this year, the 50 or so children will be moved to an alternative facility of their own in the city, according to the Education Ministry.
The eyes of the southern resort town were on south Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood three weeks ago, as residents incensed about the influx of African migrants to south Tel Aviv began smashing African-run storefronts and attacking people caught in the street who they identified as “infiltrators’.
In a two-bedroom apartment in the Aleph neighborhood’s “Sing-Sing” complex (so named because many believe it’s interior courtyard strongly resembles a prison) sits the “Youngster’s Dreams Organization”, a small community center founded by African migrants.
In the living room, around a dozen men from Darfur and South Sudan sit around a table, talking about how, in their words, life in Eilat has taken a turn for the worst over the past year.
“Sudanese people no longer feel safe here. It used to just be that people would say stuff to you in the streets, but now they’ll use their hands, touch you. It used to be good, but it’s all turned upside down,” said Mudir Gibril, 25, who has lived in Eilat since he came to Israel two years ago by way of Sinai.
Perhaps owing to the language barrier and the distance from Eilat to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Sudanese men were a bit unclear about recent acts of violence against migrants in the center of Israel, mainly piecing together things they had heard from other members of the community. One man, Adam Mohammed, said he had heard that two people were killed in the firebombing of an apartment housing Eritrean migrants on Jaffa road in Jerusalem this week, which left a number of people lightly wounded. Gibril, for his part, had heard that the Interior Minister had referred to African migrants as “a cancer” on the country (the statement was actually made by Likud MK Miri Regev at the May 23rd rally in Hatikvah), something he said was “very hard to swallow”, adding “a responsible person should not say such things.”
Mohammed is a close friend of Abdullah, a Darfurian refugee who told police he was brutally beaten by guests at Eilat’s Club Hotel, where he works in housekeeping. For the men gathered in the apartment Wednesday, the incident was merely the latest escalation in what they said has been worsening harassment from their Israeli neighbors.
“People are afraid, you walk down the street and people say things to you, they throw eggs, stones. It’s gotten terrible here, but we can’t go back to Sudan, so what do people want us to do”, said 24-year-old Mohammed, who left home in Darfur at age 16 and has not been back since, living in Chad, Libya, and Egypt before making Eilat his home.
The men at the community center expressed a persistent fear that a single incident will take place and things will spiral out of control. It could take only a single act of violence, such as a rape or a violent attack, they say, for things in the city to explode and for the underlying tension in the city to translate into death and destruction.
The mutual fear between African migrants and Israeli natives is familiar to anyone who has spent any time in south Tel Aviv speaking to migrants and natives in recent years. The migrants complain that they are harassed at night and subject to sporadic violence, and the native Israelis say they live in fear, staying behind closed doors at night lest they be targeted by marauding gangs of drunken African men. Both fears are based on a foundation of tension and the lack of a common culture or language, and have arguably been exaggerated recently by the media circus surrounding the issue and the inflammatory statements made by politicians looking to capitalize on the lack of a clear government policy on the issue.
Lacking the resources to adequately check refugee status determination (RSD) for asylum seekers, the government will face a particularly difficult time checking the asylum requests of the over 60,000 migrants, most of whom come from Sudan, an enemy state, or Eritrea, a dictatorship, and cannot be returned because they stand to face persecution in their home countries. In the meantime, lacking a way to efficiently determine refugee status or the ability to remove the migrants from Israel, the government has taken steps to stop the flow of new migrants, launching construction of a fence along the Egyptian border and a detention facility next to Ketziot prison, meant to jail new illegal migrants once completed.
On a massive plot of dusty wasteland outside Ketziot prison on Wednesday there appeared to be little trace of a holding facility meant to house thousands of migrants. Heavy construction equipment leveled the sand and dust, preparing the area for the construction of the facility, which at first glance appears to be a long ways from completion. Perhaps owing to the easier logistics, work on the Egypt border fence has been advancing at a far quicker pace. In March Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said half of the construction of the 4.7 meter tall, 247-kilometer-long fence had been completed and that the rest would be finished by October. As opposed to the site of the future detention facility, the dirt path running along the fence was a hive of activity on Wednesday, with intermittent construction teams welding new sections and stringing up barbed wire along the length of the fence. The area nearest Kerem Shalom and the Gaza Border were fully completed, though further south the fence alternates between finished portions and steel posts waiting for chain link and barbed wire.
The last point south in Israel, Eilat has seen a disproportionately large influx of migrants, not only because of its location near the Egyptian border, but also because o ready employment in the resort town’s hotel zone, where African migrants have taken the place of foreign workers, and filled spots that the hotel owners say they tried for years to entice Israelis to take.
As long as there is a tourism industry in Eilat the city will need foreign workers to man its hotels, said Shabtai Shai, head of the Eilat hotels association this week.
According to Shai, until 10 years ago, the government allowed foreign workers with permits to work in Eilat, a decision that was cancelled by the government in 2006. The government then launched “Operation Uvda” to recruit Israelis to work in the hotels in Eilat, efforts which Shai said only brought in a few dozen Israelis to answer the thousands of jobs short in the industry. About the same time, the waves of African migrants began arriving to Israel, many of them making their way first to Eilat.
Shabtai said that the Africans have brought manpower essential to running the city’s 12,000 hotel rooms.
Still, like most of those in Eilat contacted by the Jerusalem Post, Shabtai said that the problem isn’t the very presence of the Africans in the city, rather that over the years their numbers have increased to an unsustainable level.
“We have a manpower need in the city for about 700-800 hotel workers, but we have about 6,000-7,000 in the city, coming from all different places in Africa. So on one hand you have a social problem and a demographic problem developing, but at the same time there is a core force of around 700 workers that have been like oxygen for the hotels,” Shabtai said.
Shabtai added that as long as Eilat residents aren’t willing to wash dishes in hotels and residents in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem don’t want to do the hotels’ dirty work, there will always be a need for the migrant workers, and if they are not allowed to work in the city anymore “they might as well shut down the city.”
Employment of African migrants has been a source of particular controversy as of late. Not considered refugees, they aren’t legally allowed to work, but a lack of stiff enforcement means that they find employment across Israel, mainly in service jobs and manual labor.
There has been some voices lately, including Police Chief Yochanan Danino, who have called for allowing those currently in Israel to work legally, so as to avoid the crime and social issues that result from having a wayward population of mainly young men loitering in city streets with no source of income to provide for themselves.
Sigal Cohen, a local 43-year-old mother of six who lives in the city’s Aleph neighborhood, says she believes that Eilat could serve as a model of sorts for how the migrant population should be treated, saying that the only reason Eilat hasn’t seen violence against migrants like has taken place in south Tel Aviv is that by her estimation most of the African population in the city is regularly employed, meaning they are less likely to turn to crime, and less likely to loiter in public areas during the day. Indeed, despite the disproportionately large number of migrants in the city, there was no public park that had a scene anywhere close to resembling Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, where hundreds of migrants, mainly new arrivals, lay on the grass throughout the day, without any income or anywhere to go, and nothing but time to kill.
“I think that because most of them are working, you don’t see the same scenes like you do in Tel Aviv. I think that as long as they have work I will prevent other problems from developing,” Cohen said, adding that since the violence in Hatikva three weeks earlier, there has been a noticeable drop in the numbers of Africans out on the street in the city, adding that she thinks they have lowered their profile afraid of violent attacks from locals.
Cohen said she is a veteran social activist in the city, organizing the local “social justice” protests in Eilat last summer, in addition to protests against the growing migrant population. Cohen said the social issues and not racism or nationalist ideology have made her passionate about the issue, saying that as the numbers of migrants has continued to grow, the strain on the local social services has become unbearable.
“I have to say to my government that it’s their fault, I put the blame on them, not on the Africans, because it’s a concentration of people who came all at once and it’s overpowering the welfare systems of Eilat. It’s impossible to continue like this and it’s a disaster waiting to happen.,” Cohen said.
Cohen doesn‘t mince words about where the anger of the protest movement should be directed, saying “I’ve said all along, people shouldn’t throw Molotov cocktails at them [African migrants], the Molotov cocktails need to thrown at the Knesset, they’re the ones to blame for this.”
Another veteran campaigner against the growing migrant population is Nachum Sari, the head of the Eilat municipality’s urban renewal department.
Sari said that after years of sounding the alarm about the growing social problems caused by the growing migrant population, the next step will be clashes between Israelis and migrants, something that could be devastating for the small resort town.
“The first rape or murder that happens here will enflame the city and this is something that can’t be allowed to happen here, it’s a small place,” Sari said.
Sari said that his job is first and foremost to worry about the disadvantaged Israelis in the city’s poor neighborhoods who his office has been working to assist for many years. He said that the current situation, wherein poor neighborhoods are being filled with poorer, more disadvantaged new arrivals has caused widespread resentment among the veteran Israelis, and tension which he said could eventually explode in violence.
Sari suggested that the government could start by doing whatever it can to determine who is a refugee and who is an economic migrant and that once refugee status is determined, the government can move the refugees to more economically viable neighborhoods, where they will no longer be a burden economically disadvantaged Israelis.
“I want the state to decide what to do them, we cant have a situation where people only pay attention to the issue when there’s violence,” he added.