Israel Grapples With Influx of Africans as Tensions Grow
By JOSHUA MITNICK And JOEL MILLMAN
TEL AVIV—Israel has stepped up its efforts to round up and repatriate
South Sudanese migrants and is building a tent-city detention center
in the desert, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government
struggles to stem the monthly tide of thousands of Africans crossing
illegally from Egypt.
The South Sudanese represent a fraction of some 60,000 Africans who
took advantage of lax Egyptian border controls in recent years to slip
into Israel. With human-rights groups calling them asylum seekers and
the Israeli government insisting they are looking for jobs, the
Africans' growing presence has become a lightning rod for racial
violence in Tel Aviv and other cities.
Israeli immigration authorities arrested an immigrant from Southern
Sudan in Tel Aviv last month.
In June, Mr. Netanyahu began the repatriation program, a month after
naming the African illegal immigrants as a national threat to
Israel—along with Iran and missile stockpiles in the region. He warned
that their numbers could reach into the hundred thousands and change
the character of the state of eight million, while acknowledging that
the majority—who hail from Eritrea and Sudan—can't be swiftly
To deter new arrivals, Israel is building a fence along its border
with Egypt and detention facilities in the desert near the border.
"Maybe I sound like a racist, or unenlightened, hateful of
foreigners," said Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has been
the most vocal advocate of deporting the Africans, in a post on his
Facebook page. "This is not a campaign against the infiltrators, but
rather a campaign to preserve the identity of the Jewish Zionist
Human-rights groups and refugee organizations have accused Mr. Yishai
and parliament members of whipping up tensions between the migrants
and the working-class residents of south Tel Aviv.
A man waved the South Sudanese flag as migrants waited in South Tel
Aviv to board a bus for Ben Gurion International Airport for
deportation June 17.
In May, a legislator from Mr. Netanyahu's party called the migrants a
"cancer in our body" during an anti-migrant rally in a working class
Tel Aviv neighborhood where many migrants reside, and shortly
afterward a riot broke out in which Africans were attacked and stores
they own were looted.
Ever since, Israeli border police that normally guard against
Palestinian attacks were deployed to the area of the riots to maintain
order. Neighborhood vigilantes have organized community-watch teams to
monitor the Africans.
Both Israelis and the Africans say they are afraid of one another. In
June, Israelis participating in a protest against the migrants
mistakenly attacked an Ethiopian Jew and a Jerusalem apartment of
African migrants was torched. In April and May, African migrants were
accused of perpetrating several incidents of theft and rape.
"It's not safe for a black person to walk around in some areas," said
Yohannes Bayu, director of the African Refugee Development Center in
Hate crimes have gone from a sporadic to a daily phenomenon, according
to the Hotline for Migrant Workers.
Early Friday in Jerusalem, a group of three Israeli youths attacked an
Eritrean senior citizen, who was saved by a 23-year old bystander who
intervened. Several weeks ago, 11 minors were accused of a series of
attacks on Africans.
Meanwhile, immigration police in June raided the houses of hundreds of
South Sudanese residents in Tel Aviv and Eilat, giving them the option
of accepting stipends of €1,000 ($1,247) per adult as part of a
voluntary repatriation via plane, or face incarceration and forced
deportation. At the end of June, Israel gave some 2,000 Africans from
the Ivory Coast the same choice.
The South Sudanese number 1,500, compared with 34,000 Eritreans and
14,700 Sudanese, the government said. They were immune from
deportation until April, after Israel's foreign ministry issued an
opinion that they could be repatriated without putting their lives in
Unlike the South Sudanese, Israel can't deport the Eritreans, because
the international community accuses their government of political
repression, or the Sudanese, because Sudan is an enemy of the Jewish
Israeli and international human-rights advocates have argued that the
South Sudanese migrants will be at risk when they go back because the
newly independent nation is mired in a war with Sudan and suffers from
unreliable access to food and drinking water.
Israeli advocates for the migrants have said a state established to
absorb Jewish refugees from World War II from Europe has a
responsibility to open its doors to African asylum seekers.
Orit Marom, a spokeswoman for Asaf, an aid organization for asylum
seekers, said the government is aggressively pursuing the South
Sudanese because of recent pressure to stem the tide of the Africans.
"This is the opposite of Jewish values, which speak about compassion
and 'loving one's neighbor.' Israel is acting in the opposite," she
The migrants usually pay thousands of dollars to Sinai Bedouins to
transport them to the border and guide them past Egyptian patrols. In
the past two years, many have been imprisoned and tortured by their
Bedouin guides and held for ransom.
Once inside Israel, they are taken into custody by the army and
released shortly afterward with temporary residency permits. The
Africans have become ubiquitous in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat,
where several hundred are employed by hotels, and in Tel Aviv, where
they work as short-order cooks, street sweepers for the municipality
and in construction. Others who can't find work congregate in public
In recent weeks, accusations that the Africans are involved in violent
crime have spurred calls for authorities to round up the migrants.
"Every day there is a rape," said Liz Cohen, a 30-year-old waitress
who lives in the south Tel Aviv Hatikvah neighborhood. "So I bought a
Taser. We are living in fear."
Right-wing politicians have called for heavy fines for employers of
the Africans and incarceration of Israelis helping them to avoid
arrest. Israel's parliament earlier this year mandated a three-year
incarceration for the illegal immigrants, and the Defense Ministry
began building detention centers to hold as many as 25,000 migrants in
the desert region near the border.
Such accommodations would be "not acceptable" for asylum seekers for
whom states have an obligation to protect, said William Tall, the
representative of the United Nations High Council for Refugees in
A local Israeli official said that while the country must reduce the
number of Africans and even put them in prisons, government officials
have nonethelessincited public sentiment against the Africans by
calling for impractical solutions.
"These days, the government has entered into a type of hysteria," said
Shmuel Rifman, the chairman of the Ramat HaNegev Local Council.
"There's a need to lower the flames."
Write to Joel Millman at joel.millman_at_wsj.com
Received on Sun Jul 08 2012 - 00:28:28 EDT