Anyone who happens to pull into the central Israeli city of Yehud on a Friday
morning at 7:30 or thereabouts is likely to see a dozen or so Africans sitting
on benches and parapets waiting for someone – anyone – to pick them up and give
them a day’s work.
There are similar scenes at the entrances to other
cities and towns in this region, especially Bnai Brak, where there are at least
twice as many.
Most of the job-seekers evidently are employed Sundays
through Thursdays elsewhere.
But when Israeli workers take their days
off, the Africans – most of whom infiltrated into Israel by way of the chaotic
Sinai Peninsula – would work eight days a week if they could. (The same applies
to the Chinese, who came here under the dubious aegis of various manpower
outfits that operate in China and Israel.)
This situation reflects the Africans’
dismal situation here. It also indicates that the governmental authorities have
no coherent policy with regard to them: either to integrate these people into
this country’s society and economy or expedite their deportation (The latter is
a dubious option, however).
Interior Minister Eli Yishai evidently
harbors little if any sympathy for the estimated 80,000 non-Jews who trekked
here from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and other African countries. He has been
trying to expel most if not all of them without regard to the humanitarian
considerations. Nor is he moved by the fact that many have children who were
born here and attend Israeli schools. These children speak Hebrew just like
their Jewish and Arab classmates, but that does not seem to matter.
personal crises generated by Yishai’s hard-line policy were reflected in the
recent demonstration in Tel Aviv by dozens of Africans who fled their native
Ivory Coast and made it to this country. They pleaded with the Israeli public
and government to understand that their situation will be precarious if not
life-threatening if they are forced to return to their native land.
other hand, Israel is a very small country and cannot be expedited to serve as a
refuge for all comers. Its primary mission is to serve as a sanctuary for Jews
who were or have been persecuted in Europe and elsewhere in the world for the
past two millennia.
Complicating the current situation is the fact that
the African infiltrators are not allowed to work in this country. This
restriction evidently is based on the assumption and expectation that their
departure either is imminent or inevitable. As a result, the cost of meeting
their physical needs must be borne by the Israeli taxpayers during the
open-ended interim period.
Evidence of this can be seen in areas like
southern Tel Aviv, especially the Tel Giborim area, where hundreds of African
men can be seen lounging around, doing nothing from morning to evening while
ostensibly hoping for a prospective employer to show up with a temporary job
In the meantime, they have turned whole neighborhoods into urban
ghettos in which crime and public disorder proliferate. These areas’ relative
small apartments often house three or more families. Utilities, such as
electricity and water, often are tapped illegally by these economically strapped
residents who cannot afford to pay the bills.
Actually, it is
preposterous that more Africans and other non-Jews should be entering Israel,
albeit illegally, than are Jewish immigrants from abroad and that the net Jewish
influx is even smaller when the number of Israelis who leave for foreign
countries – those who are known as yordim – is taken into account. By the way,
the latter fact never is included when the annual rundown of aliya (Jewish
immigration) is disclosed by the Central Bureau of Statistics on the eve of the
Jewish New Year.
It is time that the government faced up to the need for
a socially-constructive program that would enable a substantial proportion of
these people to merge with Israel’s heterogeneous population of Jews, Arabs,
Druse, Circassians and others. A grandiose detention center deep in southern
Israel is not the answer. The government should not turn a blind eye to the
appalling conditions in which many of the Africans and their families
A positive and enlightened policy would inspire foreign observers
to recognize Israeli tolerance and good will while bearing out the assumption
that a nation that was denied permanent hospitality throughout its
2,000-year-long Diaspora shows magnanimity instead of unwarranted indifference
to those in need of a safe haven.
While adopting this attitude at the
governmental level, intensive diplomatic efforts should be made to convince
countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, which are
far from being overpopulated and are endowed with ample territory, to accept the
current overflow coming to Israel. This can be done with the cooperation of the
UN’s refugee agency which has offices here as well as bilateral
Concurrently, the long overdue security fence which is expected
to be completed along the Israeli- Egyptian border, should be monitored and
guarded effectively to such an extent that infiltration via Sinai will become
impossible – despite the people-smuggling skills of the Beduin tribesmen based
Instead of silly talk of the threat posed by prospective
inter-marriage between Jewish Israelis and African infiltrators, the mass media
here should be informed about positive programs designed to enable those
Africans who will remain here to live normal lives, attain standards of living
similar toll the prevailing condition of the country’s non-African majority and
eventually identify with its national and international goals – among them peace
with all of the surrounding Arab states (in addition to Egypt and Jordan) and
normal relations with the entire Islamic world.
The writer is a veteran
foreign correspondent in Israel.