Middle Israel: Into Africa

The African migrants’ well-organized rallies this week were an overkill that will result in their departure.

African migrants protest in front of the Knesset, January 8, 2014. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
African migrants protest in front of the Knesset, January 8, 2014.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
‘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 salutation.
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 skies.
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.
Italy last 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.
Meanwhile, the 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 offenses.
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 their children.
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.
The government 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.
PRIOR TO 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 Authority.
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 pro-active.
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.
The Africans’ struggle will fail because what is socially intolerable for the veteran population they pressure is politically unaffordable for the government.
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 them down.
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 earth.
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, politically suicidal.
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 Hebrews.”