“It’s not that we are going to lose the old neighborhoods to the Sudanese, we’ve
already lost them. I feel like I live in Sudan. We have no choice but to take
the law into our own hands.”
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Nachum Siri is not a happy man. An Eilat
city councilman and an activist on the local anti-migrant taskforce, he said the
city is in danger of being lost to African migrants.
“There is no one
from the government taking care of the problem, it’s left to the weakest people
in Eilat to handle the problem,” he said last week.
Siri and others from
the municipality and the neighborhoods plan to set up roadblocks at the
entryways to Eilat sometime in late March, to shut down the city until the
government offers a solution.
“We will do this as a cry for help, to show
that the situation is impossible and we can’t handle it on our own,” he
Hotel representatives in Eilat say the Sudanese and other Africans
are taking jobs that Israelis don’t want.
“That’s not true at all. The
hotels were there before the Sudanese came and they’ll be there after they
leave. They just want to make more money. Eilat wants to be a city that has
hotels, not hotels that own a city,” Siri said.
“Don’t think it’s just
from the [Egyptian] border that they come here. Every morning there are busloads
coming from Tel Aviv to Eilat to work in the hotels. If the hotels weren’t here,
they wouldn’t be coming to Eilat. The hotels want them here because they can pay
them less; they can pay them a quarter of whatthey pay employees.”
For Shabtai Shai, director of the Eilat Hotels
Association, migrants dominate the staff at the hotels due to the difficulty in
finding Israelis willing to work in lower-rung jobs, such as in housekeeping or
He said the migrants are a solution that came in the wake of
failed government efforts to encourage Israelis to take these
“Originally there was a plan to allow 1,000 foreign workers to be
employed at hotels in Eilat, but the deal was canceled altogether in 2006.
Instead they launched a plan to encourage Israelis to come and work in their
place, a plan that included a NIS 12,000 cash payment to anyone who stayed to
work for a year, as well as supplements for single mothers among other
The plan failed completely,” he said.
Shai said he
realizes that “without a doubt, for the city of Eilat, the Sudanese create a
demographic problem and the government needs to find a solution to this,” but
that “if tomorrow, the state were to kick out all of the refugees from the
hotels without any sort of alternative presented, the hotels would
If there aren’t workers, instead of getting your room at 2
p.m., you’d get it at 7 p.m. The level of service would be hurt so badly that
some hotels would have to close entire floors. This would not only hurt
migrants, but also many Israeli employees of hotels who would be laid
Shai said that the Sudanese are an adequate solution to the hotels’
employment problem, but far from ideal.
“They have no training in the
field and you just take whoever you get from who arrives in Israel, not who you
want. If we took in people from Thailand or Sri Lanka, we could go there and
interview them and do it in a more organized way, instead of taking people who
showed up after breaking through the border,” he said.
weren’t looking for a cheap, illegal alternative to maximize profits, he said.
Rather “we are asking the city to help us get the workers with legal permits and
everything, so that it will be under control.”
Until the employment and
residence of migrants is placed under some sort of organized framework, the
municipality will continue its own efforts to deal with the problem, Siri said.
The councilman mentioned in particular the placing of some 1,500 red flags
across the city, which seem identical to those put up on the beach by lifeguards
when it’s too dangerous to swim.
“We put the flags up all over the city
to warn people about the situation and to show the government that we’re tired
of this situation and we are under demographic threat,” he said.
flags have a different connotation for Israel Nahari, 64, who manages a school
for the children of African migrants at the site of the one-time Nof Eilot youth
village just north of the city. A few dozen Sudanese also live there.
say it very much resembles what the Nazis did in the 1930s, when they put up
signs reading “Achtung Juden” to warn people of the presence of Jews,” Nahari
“In Eilat, there are very, very many people who want to scatter the
Africans in every direction; even in our kibbutz there are a few people like
that. But we don’t ask these questions about if they should be here or not. It’s
our job to help them.
“There is a great deal of opposition to the
refugees in Eilat, mixed with a great deal of racism. Because at the end of the
day, they don’t bother people much. People in Eilat say the Africans bring
diseases, or that every day a ‘near rape’ happens.
Up until today, there
hasn’t been a single rape here, but every day there’s nearly one? What does this
mean?” he asked.
The school teaches around 65 children from the age of
five to 17, split among four combined course levels.
The children arrive
each morning at 8 on two buses from neighborhoods in Eilat where the African
migrants live, and return at 11 a.m. The students learn “a lot of Hebrew, some
English, some Arabic, and a lot of math,” Nahari said.
“Also, on my own I
teach them some geography and history, about how the world was, is, and how I
wish it could be.”
Walking around the grounds of the former youth village
outside Kibbutz Eilot that has become a home away from home for the migrants,
one could be forgiven for momentarily thinking you were somewhere in the Horn of
Africa. Small, sunparched shacks with thatched doors dot the dusty grounds and
off in the distance, red rock desert mountains climb toward the sky as a breeze
sweeps in off the Red Sea.
Occasionally, a small African child peeks his
head out of the door of a shack and disappears giggling, and a group of towering
Sudanese men joke around a picnic table. A number of the houses have South Sudan
flags painted on their outside walls, while a foosball table painted to resemble
the Israeli flag gives away the place’s true location.
While he speaks
fondly about the school, Nahari has no illusions about the school’s potential
for academic achievement.
“To tell you that we’re reaching academic
achievements here... we’re really not. But we’re giving them an educational
framework, teaching them how to learn together, study together, work together,
We give them a framework to those hours in the day when
they have nothing to do. We’re talking here about a level of education much
different than what’s accepted in Israel. We are happy that they come neat and
organized each day with their sandwich, that’s enough.”
Back in Eilat,
young African men hang around outside a complex of four-story apartment
buildings strewn with trash and broken furniture.
The buildings in
central Eilat are part of the “Sing-Sing” housing project, so named because it
bears a certain resemblance to a penitentiary, if not to its namesake in New
Standing outside Sing-Sing last Thursday, 30-year-old
“Isaiah” refused to give his real name, saying he feared his family in Eritrea
could be harmed.
He arrived in Israel three years ago, and while “life
here is not bad, sometimes it has been hard because the people and the
government 100 percent cannot understand our problem. You know some people when
you tell them your situation in Eritrea, they tell you directly, ‘why don’t you
go back to your homeland and fight there, why don’t you go back there and
fight?’ They say this because they cannot understand how hard it is. They cannot
understand our problems; we must persuade these people first and then persuade
the government what our problems are.”
Isaiah has no legal status in
Israel and works as a supervisor at a hotel restaurant.
have the same problem.
In Eritrea, I would need to be a soldier all of my
life, until I reach 50.
And there is no freedom. Israeli people don’t
want to understand this.
They think we just had economic problems in
Eritrea, but we didn’t have economic problems. The main problem we have there is
social, political problems. It’s not economic problems. I completely reject the
idea that we have economic problems.”
Isaiah said the quality of life in
Eilat for Eritreans and Sudanese is getting worse, because since they don’t have
legal status, people feel that they can exploit them.
“Now its getting
worse. People know we have no rights here, people know that they don’t have to
pay us. Which means that you are left without legal means to get your money.
People are starting to be more aggressive. A lot of [African] people are coming
to me saying that they aren’t getting their money.
People are not happy,
they aren’t getting their money and people are racist towards them.”
situation in Eritrea isn’t going to improve anytime soon, Isaiah
There is only one thing Israel can do to stop the influx of African
migrants, he said.
“Israel must build the fence [on the Sinai border].
People will never stop coming to Israel unless they build the fence. Israel will
always be a better place to go than the other African countries.”