Out of Africa: Israel Confronts a New Generation of “Infiltrators”

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GALI TIBBON / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli protesters chant slogans against racism and the government's policy regarding the African migrants on May 24, 2012 during a demonstration outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residency in Jerusalem.

Israeli immigration enforcers do not work on the Jewish sabbath and so, on a Saturday afternoon, tattered southern Tel Aviv can look like nothing so much as an African city. Having slipped into  Israei, young men from Sudan, Eritrea and other impoverished nations wander the streets of a country that physically borders Africa but where the citizens live like Europeans. Most of the locals do not like the migrants, referring to them as “infiltrators,” a term that evokes a security risk associated with Palestinian trying to reclaim their land, or mount an attack.

Dusk was approaching in Levinsky Park, a tidy square of green in Tel Aviv that at any hour of the day or night is dotted with African men waiting out the day. “No work, no food, no home,” says Solomon Mendasha, 41, who arrived from Eritrea four years ago with the help of smugglers to whom he paid $3,400. He gestured to the grass beneath his feet. “Sleep here.” Most of the Africans are legally forbidden to work in Israel. Most do anyway, in an underground economy that pays a fraction of the minimum wage for jobs Israelis refuse to do, like hauling garbage and cleaning homes.  The wives of cabinet ministers often make headlines for employing illegal immigrants as nannies or housekeepers. Of the 62,000 African who have sought asylum in Israel since 2006, an unfortunate number are homeless.

There is also much crime blamed on the foreigners–including a pair of alleged rapes that took place in late April and mid-May. Some complaints cite unanchored statistics that 40% of crime are linked to Africans (there appear to be no published studies to support the allegation). On May 24, a demonstration was held in south Tel Aviv to protest against the perceived rise in crime attributed to Africans. “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body,” said Miri Regev, a member of the Israeli parliament from the Likud party, who spoke before the gathering of perhaps 1,000 people. “There are rapists and harrassers here,” said lawmaker Michael Ben Ari of the right wing National Union. “The time for talk is over.” After the speeches, some of the protesters went on a rampage, chasing down reporters as well as any black people unfortunate enough to be nearby.  Regev would later complain that she was unjustly smeared by critics who found her rhetoric reminiscent of that used against Jews by the Third Reich.

Since the riot, Africans are reportedly being attacked on the street and in their sleep. A group of young Israelis were charged with attacking Africans in Tel Aviv with chains, clubs and stones, allegedly stealing bicycles from the migrants. Tel Aviv’s police chief says the most immediate need is to allow refugees to work legally. But the mere presence of young black men discomfits many in Israel, where Ethiopian Jews resident in the country for more than a generation complain of a deep-seated racial prejudice. Israel’s attorney general has approved a plan to deport 700 people to South Sudan, the newly minted country that has resumed war with Khartoum.   “They always blame the Sudanese,” says Mubarak Abakar, who is from Darfur. “For everything.  The problem is we don’t want to go back to Sudan. That is a problem.”

Akbar’s own journey was paid for by relatives working in Europe or America. A year and a half ago, he spent nine days in the Sinai Desert, sharing one liter of water a day with nine other people, and one piece of bread with four. Then they crossed the border into Israel.  “Everybody comes through this way,” he says. “When we find Israeli soldiers, immediately they brought food and water. Every ten minutes they bring the food and the water like that. At that time we were feeling very good.”

The Israelis are unhappy with the situation. Large numbers of Africans remain in cities of the Negev Desert, where they arrive from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The border is being reinforced by a massive new fence intended to thwart both terror attacks out of Sinai and illegal immigration. The Negev is where the government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also building a camp that can hold 8,000 immigrants, for as long as three years before deportation, though some may be held indefinitely.

Currently authorities process many refugees with temporary papers then dispatch them to Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial center.  Levinsky Park is next to the city’s bus terminal.  “It’s very dangerous with them,” says Yafit Cohen, 59, changing buses at a stop at the edge of the green. The presence of a large police station actually inside the park offers the native Israeli scant comfort. “It’s frightening,” she says. “Young girls, 13, 14, they are afraid to go out.”  Has she had any difficulty personally?    “You can read in the newspapers what’s going on,” Cohen replies, then mulls the topic a moment. “Maybe they’re not to be blamed, because they have nothing to do. They’re not working. It’s a problem that needs to be solved. It’s not only the south of Tel Aviv. It’s not an easy thing. For them and for us.”

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