The desert wind about his face, Nir Harpaz, an IDF battalion commander, squints as he scans the open border with the Sinai wilderness for signs of infiltrators.
Beside him the remnants of a rickety barbed-wire fence are slowly being buried by the shifting sands. Lt.-Col. Harpaz clicks his tongue and runs his hand through his cropped ginger hair.
“I tell you,” he confides. “This problem is not one the army can solve.”
The desert border with Egypt is long, porous and vulnerable. For generations, if not millennia, this region has been exploited by smugglers bringing in drugs, weapons, prostitutes and, for the past few years, tens of thousands of Africans seeking freedom in the West.
Now the government wants to seal this 240-kilometer border.
“We are in Israel,” Harpaz says. “Egypt is 10 meters away and you can clearly see there is no barrier. There is no problem for anyone infiltrating unless we lay an ambush for them or a patrol passes by.”
Egypt and Israel have been at peace for more than three decades. With miles of desert stretching back from both sides of this “line-in-the-sand” border, and few settlements, there was never a need to erect even a fence along most of the border to separate the two countries.
But recently the government decided that infiltrations were a national threat that has “security and demographic consequences.”
The cabinet approved nearly NIS 1.35 billion on March 14 to erect a sophisticated barrier of fences, patrol roads and surveillance devices along the frontier. “There is a broad agreement that we need to protect the State of Israel and its future as a Jewish and democratic state,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said during the cabinet discussion. “The quantity of infiltrators will only increase.”
According to government figures and refugee rights organizations, about 20,000 people seeking refuge or work in Israel have crossed the border on this route in the past three years. Some are shot by Egyptian border guards. All are desperate to reach freedom inside Israel.
Harpaz explains that his troops zealously go after infiltrators smuggling in weapons, terrorists or drugs, but they are in a quandary when it comes to “civilians.”
“They are coming in here night after night, in large numbers – 200 last week alone,” the commander says. “You don’t open fire at these guys. That’s forbidden. It’s true that they are violating Israel’s sovereignty, but you aren’t going to be shooting at someone who is only coming to look for a job. So, we check them, give them food and water and take them to a detention center. That’s it.”
After a short detention, the illegal aliens, most of them fleeing forced conscription in Eritrea, or the war in Sudan, are dumped in the streets of Tel Aviv where they live in shelters or eke out a living doing menial labor. Refugees speak of harrowing journeys on their way to Israel. They pay about $2,000 to Beduin guides to sneak them over the border, but sometimes the Beduin hold family members hostage until ransom money is paid. Some of the migrants remain in Israeli jails.
“Maybe if I had been killed on the way it would have been better, because now I am back in prison. I want to get out. Just send me back to Darfur to die,” says M, a Darfurian who spoke to The Media Line
from prison on condition he not be fully identified.
Yohannes Bayu, himself a recognized political refugee from Ethiopia, has set up the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv to help the migrants.
“Look, we are talking today about 20,000 refugees,” Bayu says. “Israel is a developed and rich country. This is nothing. Other countries are dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees throughout the years. When you reach a point when you cannot take, or this is beyond your resources or capacity, then you will ask assistance to resettle refugees to different places. But Israel has not reached even that point.”
International aid workers and lawyers are worried the new barrier will make it more difficult for genuine refugees and asylum-seekers to find safety in Israel.
Attorney Anat Ben-Dor, director of the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University, says the refugees are particularly vulnerable in Israel since the country has no set legislation regarding granting someone refugee status according to international conventions.
There is no proper mechanism to help Israeli authorities differentiate between genuine asylum-seekers and foreign laborers infiltrating the country for work. Previous governments agreed to grant temporary residence status to 600 migrants from Darfur and 2,000 from Eritrea and Ethiopia on humanitarian grounds.
“Israel is basically implementing a policy that is sending a message to all refugees and asylum-seekers that they are unwanted here and that other people should not consider coming here,” Ben-Dor says. “I think the target that the government is seeking will be at least partially achieved. There will be a reduction in the number of people arriving but at a very high human cost.”
Israelis living along the border say an improved barrier will help them feel safer from infiltrators.
“Our security situation now is relatively good,” says Charles Krauer, a farmer from Moshav Kmehin, in the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council. “But further on the border is open. I understand they are dealing with it now, and that will improve the situation against infiltrations, without a doubt.”
Bayu says the government is panicking and spending millions of dollars needlessly on this ad hoc barrier, instead of adopting proper procedures for allocating refugee status.
“The government today is creating fear among the Israeli population by saying these people are coming for work or changing the demographics, just in order to gain support,” says Bayu, who says that according to international law the estimated 15,000 Sudanese and Eritreans currently in Israel are eligible for political-asylum status.
“The fence is not the solution,” she continues. “It has been tried by
many countries around the world. It doesn’t work. These people will do
whatever it takes to save their lives.”
Ben-Dor believes that because of its history, Israel is obligated to extend its hand to help the refugees.
“I think Israel as a Jewish country has a heritage and maybe some sort
of a duty, derived straight from Jewish values, to provide sanctuary to
people who flee persecution,” she says. “And I would like this country
to fulfill its role as a Jewish and as a democratic state and be a safe
haven to people who suffer persecution.”
While the debate continues over whether these people are asylum-seekers
fleeing persecution or just migrant workers looking for better jobs, it
is clear that the Sinai barrier will make it harder to get into the