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A year in review: Anti-African racism and asylum seekers in Israel
While most Israelis were focused on the latest war on Gaza or the last election, verbal incitement, physical attacks, incarceration without trial and forced deportation of Africans continued unabated. A timeline of Israelâ€™s war on African asylum-seekers between November 2012 and May 2013.
By David Sheen
An African refugee holds a sign reading: â€œWe are all refugeesâ€, during a demonstration in Tel Aviv against racism and the governmentâ€™s policy against African refugees, July 28, 2012. (photo: Activestills)
Last Thursday, May 23, 2013, marked exactly one year to the day when a thousand Jewish Israelis ran rampant through the streets of Tel Aviv, smashing and looting African-operated businesses and physically assaulting any dark-skinned person they came across. Sadly, the Israeli economic, political and religious establishment â€“ who were in large measure responsible for the pogrom â€“ did not respond by working to quash the racism, but rather ramped up their efforts to expel all non-Jewish African people from the country.
In previous articles and videos, I chronicled in detail the incitement that precipitated the anti-African race riot, and the persecution that came in its wake. The first details the month preceding the riot, the second describes the day of the riot, the third details the two months that followed, while the last one details the next three months, chronologically. This article is a timeline of Israelâ€™s war on African asylum seekers over the next seven months, between November 2012 and May 2013.
In November and December 2012, most Israelis were focused on the armyâ€™s assault on Gaza, and in January 2013, they were mainly occupied with national elections. In February and March, the formation of a new government and a visit by U.S. President Obama commanded the news headlines, and in April and May, internal tensions over the respective rights and responsibilities of different groups of Jews were the most pressing issues discussed in the Israeli media.
During these seven months, the issue of what to do about non-Jewish African asylum seekers did not generate as much media attention as it did in the days that followed the May 23, 2012 pogrom. But throughout, the verbal incitement against Africans continued, the physical attacks on Africans continued, the incarceration without trial of Africans continued and the forced deportation of Africans continued. The new Netanyahu government continued the same racist policies as the old one.
State persecution of asylum seekers
Inspectors from Oz Unit (the immigration authority) arrest a mother moments after she brought her daughter to the kindergarten in â€œHatikvaâ€ neighborhood in Tel Aviv. After her arrest they went to the kindergarten and arrested the girl as well. The mother and her child did not have the option to go and fetch their belongings or to say goodbye to friends and family. (photo by: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)
In the beginning of November, two Israeli NGOs released a report documenting the devastating conditions under which the Israeli government holds African asylum seekers against their will. At the Saharonim detention facility, where thousands of men, women and children are cramped into crowded conditions and exposed to the harsh desert, there is a shortage of medical care, there are no education or recreation facilities, and they are allowed no privacy or visitors.
For African asylum seekers who havenâ€™t been swept off the streets into incarceration, humiliation and exploitation are the norm. Public buildings refuse them admittance and force them to wait for service outside in the cold or in dismal underground parking lots. Many Africans are afraid to even jaywalk across the street, petrified of being picked up for even the slightest infraction and being sent to jail indefinitely without trial. Israeli citizens know full well that African asylum seekersâ€™ rights and freedoms are precarious and subject to summary revocation. As a result, Israelis often take advantage of Africans and extort them for large sums of money.
As most African asylum seekers are denied work permits, some choose to purchase forgeries, so they can eke out a living. If they are caught engaging in this deception, the government brands them a â€œthreat to public safetyâ€ and incarcerates them indefinitely. In late December, the government announced that it would refrain from conducting arrests during the Christian holiday season, between Christmas and New Years. But it was just a ruse: when Africans emerged from their homes to do their holiday shopping, the authorities pounced on them and dragged them off to jail. Immigration police continued to ambush Africans outside the few health clinics that agree to serve asylum seekers.
On Christmas Eve itself, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that the construction of a border fence had been completed and that it was effectively preventing any more African asylum seekers from entering the country. He then said that the government would now focus on driving out all of the 60,000 or so African asylum seekers who are already in the country.
Netanyahuâ€™s Christmas Eve call to cleanse the country of non-Jewish Africans conclusively put to rest any hope that his government would stop hounding the asylum seekers once the border fence was complete. It also dispelled the argument that Israelâ€™s war on Africans was only the pet project of its then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and it validated my report published two weeks earlier by The Electronic Intifada, The Dirty Dozen, which identified Netanyahu as the countryâ€™s top racist.
In February, United Nations officials in Israel accused Israel of secretly coercing asylum seekers languishing in its detention facilities to return to the country they fled from, Eritrea, which the UN called a â€œtotalitarian stateâ€ that â€œtortures dissenters.â€ Forcing them to choose between deportation or rotting in jail indefinitely, the editors of Haaretz called Israelâ€™s offer to Eritrean asylum seekers a â€œâ€˜voluntaryâ€™ death penalty.â€
A week later, Haaretz revealed that the Israeli government had also been secretly sending asylum seekers back to Sudan. Confronted with the evidence, the government admitted to secretly smuggling out over 2,000 Sudanese asylum seekers. The act even contravened a ruling of Israelâ€™s Supreme Court, due to the danger the asylum seekers face upon their repatriation. The United Nations representative in Israel called this act â€œthe gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed â€“ a crime never before committed.â€
Caught in the act, Israelâ€™s attorney-general ordered an end to the secret deportations of asylum seekers from Eritrea. But a month later, in April, the deputy attorney general clarified that the order does not apply to asylum seekers from Sudan. Another month later, in May, the attorney-general announced that he had instructed his office to formulate guidelines which would streamline the deportation of all African asylum seekers living in Israel.
Israelâ€™s election results, and their impact on the stateâ€™s asylum regime
In the run-up to the Israeli elections, most major political parties campaigned on platforms which included advocating the expulsion of all African asylum seekers. The ruling Likud Beiteinu party publicly spoke of the war on Africans as one of the governmentâ€™s â€œaccomplishmentsâ€ and a good reason for it to be re-elected. The Strong Israel party continued its tradition of organizing anti-African rallies in the Tel Aviv neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of asylum seekers.