Israel’s war on African asylum-seekers did not let up in 2013.
December 19, 2013
Twelve months have passed since The Electronic Intifada published "The dirty dozen: Israel’s racist ringleaders." My article was a catalogue of the Israeli officials and cultural figures most responsible for the persecution of the country’s non-Jewish African population.
Over the course of 2013, the war Israel is waging against African asylum-seekers has not abated. Sadly, in many respects, it has ramped up in intensity.
However, some who have led the charge to expel Africans from the country have been replaced by fresh faces. National elections in January and the resultant makeup of the government pushed two of Israel’s biggest racists out of the limelight.
Michael Ben Ari started his own splinter party, Strong Israel, which failed to garner enough votes to secure him a seat in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, from which he could rail against Africans. And Eli Yishai’s Shas party was not invited to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new ruling coalition, leaving Yishai without the interior ministry, which wields great power over the lives of asylum-seekers.
But Ben Ari passed the torch to a young acolyte who has carried on his incitement campaign and forged an alliance with the new interior minister. The man who replaced Eli Yishai has continued his quest to drive all African asylum-seekers out of the country, with the same fervor, and greater media savvy.
10. Yehuda Bauer — academic
After leading Israeli politicians riled a south Tel Aviv crowd of thousands into a frenzy of hatred, igniting an anti-African pogrom on 23 May 2012, the international media finally took note of the government’s war on asylum-seekers. The plight of African asylum-seekers in Israel popped onto the radar of human rights advocates outside Israel and the world began to wonder why a country ostensibly created to provide a safe haven to refugees was so determined to expel a new group of asylum-seekers.
To quell this line of questioning, Professor Yehuda Bauer spearheaded a group of public figures who issued a petition calling upon the world to relieve Israel of its obligations to the approximately 60,000 African asylum-seekers living in the country.
As a professor of Holocaust studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an academic adviser to Israel’s national Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and a winner of the Israel Prize in 1998, Bauer commands a great deal of respect. In December 2012, Bauer leveraged this prestige to defend Israel’s treatment of asylum-seekers, saying that it has "an impressive record … sheltering refugees from around the world" and to admonish "the nations of the world to accept their responsibility to share the burden."
Bauer’s efforts to whitewash history and blame every country other than Israel for the crimes being committed by the Netanyahu government is particularly pernicious when one considers the actual facts.
In its entire 65-year history, Israel has granted refugee status to less than 200 persons, according to Member of Knesset Zehava Galon writing in Israel Hayom. Only 8 of the 990 who submitted asylum applications to Israel in 2011 were recognized as refugees, according to Haaretz — less than one precent.
Of the Africans that have arrived in recent years seeking asylum, less than one percent have received refugee status. In the rest of the world, 43 percent of Sudanese and 81 percent of Eritreans that request asylum receive refugee status — the vast majority of Africans in Israel hail from Sudan and Eritrea — according to the Israel Knesset Research and Information Center’s own report from last month (see pages 52-53). Also, the Middle Eastern countries have done much for asylum-seekers as a whole, taking in millions of refugees (Annex to UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2012, Table 3, page 79).
But Israel leads the world — by far — in the ratio between the number of asylum-seekers living in the country that are recognized by the United Nations, to the number of asylum-seekers living in the country that are recognized as refugees by the country itself.
In other words, Israel refuses to grant refugee status to almost any asylum seeker.
Bauer’s petition references the Evian Conference of July 1938, castigating those countries that " 'failed the test of civilization’ by refusing to help Europe’s Jewish refugees" on the eve of the Nazi Holocaust. Bauer’s words became especially ironic on 14 July 2013, when Israel began to deport asylum-seekers back to the repressive regime they fled from in Eritrea — 75 years after the original Evian conference.
9. Gaby Barabash — hospital director
During a meeting held in the Knesset in April, Gary Barabash, director of the Ichilov Medical Center (the largest hospital in Tel Aviv), complained that African asylum-seekers in Israel were having babies.
Although no new African asylum-seekers entered Israel in 2013, Barabash said, "The problem is that they closed down the fence, but they did not close down the natural growth, and the number of Eritreans born here rises from year to year."
In July 2012, Barabash forbade African asylum-seekers from entering Ichilov to visit their friends and relatives receiving medical attention there. That decision was later rescinded after doctors called it "patient-care apartheid" and a health ministry official called the policy "racist," saying, "a country that went through the Holocaust cannot possibly use discriminatory policies against migrants."
Unfortunately, Barabash’s anti-African policies are not the exception, but the rule in Israel.
After many years in which the Israeli government would not allow asylum-seekers access to any public health care services except in absolute emergencies, it opened a clinic in south Tel Aviv so that they could receive treatment without having to come into proximity with the rest of the population. As soon as it was set up in January, Israeli immigration police began to "ambush" asylum-seekers there, according to Israel’s health ministry.
Israeli social worker Bracha Shapiro noted in August that asylum-seekers are often refused medical services at Israeli hospitals because they are not Jewish or because they come from Africa. Their only option is to turn to institutions operated by communities of Christians and Messianic Jews.
8. Danny Adino Abebe — journalist
There is no shortage of Israeli journalists who couch their reporting on African asylum-seekers in derogatory terms, vilifying them in the eyes of the Israeli public.
In June, top Israel Army Radio reporter Hadas Steif employed racist tropes traditionally used to dehumanize Africans, saying that an African man suspected of snatching the wallet of an Israeli man "thought that he was in the jungle" and that Africans "tend to crawl."
But the Israeli journalist who has superseded all of his colleagues in attempts to smear asylum-seekers is actually an African man himself: Ethiopian-Israeli reporter for Yediot Ahronot Danny Adino Abebe.
Just days after Steif’s racist report, Adino Abebe published a scandalous accusation: at least 1,000 Ethiopian-Israeli Jewish women had been kidnapped in Israel and were being held against their will by non-Jewish African asylum-seekers.
Adino Abebe did not produce even one piece of evidence to back up this calumny. Adino Abebe ignored all my requests for just a single source that would lend credence to this claim.
After Muftah published my report on his accusation, I sought out Adino Abebe again in October to ask for his reaction, and this time he personally responded to my query. In that exchange, he stood by his claims, but still refused to provide even a scintilla of evidence.
Adino Abebe’s attack on African asylum-seekers neatly mirrored a nearly identical slander made against Palestinian citizens of Israel. At a Knesset committee meeting in February 2012, Danny Danon (now the deputy defense minister) accused Bedouins of kidnapping 1,000 Jewish Israeli women.
High-ranking Israeli police officials at the meeting said they had no evidence that even one of these alleged kidnappings had ever occurred.
7. May Golan — rising political star
When Michael Ben-Ari failed to receive enough votes in January’s national elections to retain his Knesset seat, some naive analysts suggested anti-African racism in Israel was waning.
Ben-Ari, more than any other Israeli legislator, was adept at riling up a crowd with calls to ethnically cleanse the country of non-Jews. But his performance at the polls, just short of an electoral mandate, was in all likelihood not a sign that the voting public had rejected his views.
Rather it showed that most mainstream political parties had actually adopted his views on African asylum-seekers. There was no need to vote for a splinter faction when the ruling party campaigned on the same racist platform.
In the run-up to the national elections, Ben-Ari welcomed May Golan under his wing. She shared Ben-Ari’s desire to deport all African asylum-seekers, as well as his penchant for fiery — and racist — rhetoric.
But while Ben-Ari now lives in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank and only visits south Tel Aviv on occasion to stir up anti-African sentiment, Golan continues to live in south Tel Aviv, an area that has seen the largest influx of African asylum-seekers. She is seen as having more street credibility.
What’s more, Golan is young, secular and photogenic, which gives her the potential to influence more Israelis than Ben-Ari could have hoped to. In the run-up to municipal elections in October, Golan scored political points that her mentor Ben-Ari could never claim.
In an effort to harness the anti-African sentiment simmering in south Tel Aviv, Israel’s ruling Likud party announced a pact with Golan. In exchange for Golan’s endorsement of the Likud list for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council, Likud promised to appoint Golan to head a steering committee of south Tel Aviv residents that would deal with the issue of African asylum-seekers. The deal was sealed with a warm hug from the Likud party’s number two Gideon Saar, Israel’s new interior minister.
Golan has expressed hope that the Israelis who come to the aid of African asylum-seekers be raped.
Likud’s embrace of Golan who, like Ben Ari, is a follower of Meir Kahane, may signal the Israeli government’s most enthusiastic adoption of the political positions of the notorious racist, who Golan eulogized at a memorial service in October.
Kahane was a popular American-Israeli ultra-nationalist rabbi who, as a Member of Knesset between 1984 and 1988, advocated that Israel should: outright annex the West Bank and Gaza, ethnically cleanse the Palestinian population, criminalize inter-racial/religious relationships, and become a Jewish theocracy. Kahane and members of the group he founded, the Jewish Defense League, were found guilty in domestic terrorism cases in the United States during the 1970s. Kahane himself was eventually assassinated in New York City in 1990.
6. Ron Huldai — Tel Aviv mayor
Tel Aviv-Jaffa mayor Ron Huldai is the only one of Israel’s racist ringleaders from 2012 to have hung on to a spot in 2013, besides the man in the number one slot.
Huldai dropped from number four to position six, not because he persecuted African asylum-seekers any less in 2013 than he did in 2012, but simply because the ranks of Israel’s leading anti-Africans have swelled so much.
Tel Aviv is economically reliant on foreign financing. In order to ensure that investment dollars and tourism euros keep on flowing, the city has to maintain its reputation as a multicultural metropolis. But Tel Aviv’s sandy beaches and modern museums are nowhere near the impoverished areas of town where asylum-seekers have settled, so there’s no danger of international visitors taking notice of Huldai’s harassment of the city’s African population.
In May, Huldai’s municipal inspectors entered African restaurants and poured bleach into their pots of food. When human rights activists responded with shock, the municipality claimed that these were standard procedures applying to all food-serving establishments.
This cynical excuse may have been more convincing if the raids had been not been conducted during the dinner hour, in full view of paying customers. In reality, it was simply an attack on African businesses, and an attempt to cut off what little income asylum-seekers make. This was part of the national strategy to "make their lives miserable" so they will give up and leave.
Israel has only granted a tiny fraction of the African asylum-seekers in the country legal work visas. But even this minuscule amount was too much for Huldai who in July changed municipal policy to exclude Eritreans from opening their own businesses.
When human rights activists realized that the rules had been altered, they appealed to Huldai for clemency. He agreed to let those asylum-seekers who had already paid out of pocket for the registration process to go through with it; but in the future, there would be no new such shops in Tel Aviv.
5. Hagai Hadas — ex-Mossad official
The January 2012 "anti-infiltration" amendment, which the government used to imprison all African asylum-seekers who entered the country from June 2012 onwards, was challenged in the courts by human rights groups and the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. Eventually, in September 2013, all nine Israeli high court judges voted to strike down the amendment and ordered the government to free all the 1,750 Africans jailed on the basis of it within three months.
Instead, the government released just 700, most of them women and children, and passed a new anti-infiltration amendment last week. It circumvents the high court ruling and permits the continued incarceration of the remaining approximately 1,000 asylum-seekers, plus thousands more that the authorities intend to sweep off the streets.
The Knesset’s own legal advisor has admitted that the new amendment will likely be rejected by the high court. But that will take time.
One of the main reasons that it took so long for the court to strike down the January 2012 amendment was that the government argued that such a move would be unnecessary, since it planned to swiftly expel all African asylum-seekers from the country.
The government claimed that it had reached understandings with several African countries that had agreed to take in the asylum-seekers, so the court suspended its decision until the government could provide details of the plan.
The man appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his special representative to negotiate these agreements was Hagai Hadas — formerly a senior official in Mossad, Israel’s foreign spy agency.
Hadas claimed he was on the verge of sealing deals with at least three African countries which had agreed to take in tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, in exchange for Israeli arms and military training.
When the government’s stalling tactics began to test the court’s patience, they announced Hadas had sealed a deal with Uganda. But the Ugandan government immediately denied that it had agreed to any such deal.
The idea that Hadas, acting on behalf of the Israeli government, was plying African nations with weapons is especially horrific, given the history of Israeli arms sales to Africa.
In June 2012, the Israeli newspaper Maariv revealed that the government had approved the sale of arms which had been used to slaughter civilians in Rwanda and other African nations. Even Michael Ben-Ari, the previous Knesset’s most ardent enemy of African asylum-seekers, admitted this to me when I interviewed him in August 2010.
4. Arnon Sofer — eminent academic
In his last major act as interior minister in the previous government, Eli Yishai published an official report advising the Israeli government to deal harshly with African asylum-seekers. The report was authored by a committee led by Professor Arnon Sofer, a founder of the University of Haifa, a lecturer at the National Defense College and an advisor to Israel’s prime ministers.
For years, Sofer has warned that Jews will soon comprise less than half of Israel’s population and that once this occurs, the Arab majority will usher in a fundamentalist Islamic regime. To prevent this from happening, Sofer has advocated that the government suspend civil rights and build hermetic walls to keep Palestinians out.
He said in 2004: "When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day."
Sofer is regarded as the ideological architect of Israel’s wall in the West Bank, and advised former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when it was being planned.
At Yishai’s behest, Sofer applied his paranoia of Palestinians to the issue of African asylum-seekers. The insurmountable walls he wants to construct would also serve the secondary purpose of keeping out any other non-Jews who would seek asylum in Israel. Sofer has said that if not for these walls, 100 million Africans might try to migrate to Israel.
The construction of a wall on Israel’s border with Africa was already well underway when Sofer was tasked with writing his report, and it has since been completed, drastically reducing the number of asylum-seekers entering Israel to nearly none. But this measure would not suffice for Sofer.
As I wrote back in May, the report "calls for toughening the rules of engagement on Israel’s borders to send smugglers a message — a euphemism for possibly instructing soldiers to shoot asylum-seekers, a position held by some of Israel’s most racist lawmakers. The report also labels Israeli citizens and others who advocate for the rights of African asylum-seekers as 'anti-Semitic’ and possibly terrorists, and calls for them to be arrested. The Sofer Report minces no words concerning the 60,000 African asylum-seekers already in Israel. 'There’s no room for another ethno-national group in Israel,’ the report says, 'they must be expelled.’ Sofer’s report dispenses with the whitewashed term 'detention’ that the government once used to describe its prison for asylum-seekers, and now shamelessly adopts the word 'concentration’ to describe the camp it decrees the Africans must be rounded into."
3. Yehuda Weinstein — Attorney General
You’re riding your bicycle down the street when you hear your phone ring. You pull over to the side of the road, step onto the sidewalk and answer your phone. At that moment a policeman walks up and asks you if the bike and the phone belong to you. When you answer in the affirmative, he demands that you produce receipts proving that you purchased them.
If you are unable to do so, and you are an African refugee living in Israel, you could be taken to jail, without even the courtesy of a kangaroo court trial.
The man who created this racist regulation, first made public in July, is Israel’s Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.
Israeli blogger Yossi Gurvitz compared the procedure to the 1857 Dred Scott decision, when the US Supreme Court ruled that black people were not humans and as such they were not entitled to legal protections such as the right to a trial, called habeas corpus. When human rights activists learned of the regulation, they immediately petitioned Israel’s high court to overturn it.
The court dismissed the petition out of hand.
In October, the high court finally invalidated the January 2012 anti-infiltration amendment and ordered the government to free all the African asylum-seekers Israel was jailing without trial on the basis of it. In response, Weinstein ordered police, prison and immigration officials to ignore the court’s decision and to continue incarcerating asylum-seekers (albeit under a different law) for the protection of "state security" and "public health."
In February, it was revealed that Israel had secretly coerced at least 1,000 asylum-seekers to return to Eritrea and Sudan, behind the back of the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR. The UNHCR representative in Israel, Michael Bavli, called this "the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed — a crime never before committed."
Caught contravening a ruling of Israel’s own high court, Weinstein drew up a new protocol for interior ministry officials, a legal fiction which would allow Israel to publicly claim that these deportations were not coerced. By the summer, the deportations had resumed in earnest.
Back in May 2012, Weinstein decided not to prosecute the Israeli author of a book which advocated killing non-Jewish people and even non-Jewish babies. Weinstein said that he based his decision on the fact that the book’s author did not specify Palestinians and other Arabs as the non-Jewish people that he advocated killing.
In other words, Weinstein ruled that there was nothing illegal about publicly advocating the killing of other non-Jewish people, such as African asylum-seekers.
2. Gideon Saar — Minister of the Interior
The day that Eli Yishai stepped down as Israel’s interior minister, asylum-seekers and their allies across the country breathed a sigh of relief. Yishai had used this powerful perch to incite racial hatred in ways that would be unthinkable in any other democratic country, publicly accusing Africans of bringing AIDS to Israel and of raping Israeli women to give them the disease. Whoever replaced him would be welcomed as an improvement.
Unlike Yishai, the man who took his place, Gideon Saar, does not make such crass statements. As a leading contender to eventually replace Netanyahu as prime minister, Saar has a more moderate image to maintain. So, like Netanyahu, he uses coded language to achieve the same effect.
Any hopes that Saar would rein in the interior ministry’s persecution of asylum-seekers were dashed after his first foray into south Tel Aviv, just weeks after he entered office.
On a tour of the neighborhoods most heavily populated by Africans, Saar refused to communicate with any of the African people who approached him. He told journalists that the Africans must return to the countries they fled from or find refuge in some other country.
By tapping May Golan to lead a steering committee of south Tel Aviv residents that would advise the government on asylum-seekers, Saar can continue to speak in measured tones, while he rubber-stamps the demands of one of the country’s most extreme racists.
1. Benjamin Netanyahu — Prime Minister
Once more, Israel’s most powerful politician, Benjamin Netanyahu, tops the list of Israel’s racist ringleaders.
He easily swept January’s national elections and deftly neutralized competition from political challengers. Even without either ultra-Orthodox party, he was able to form a supposedly center-right coalition that controls seventy seats out of a total of 120.
With victory in hand, Netanyahu appointed Likud lawmaker Miri Regev to head the important interior committee that determines the fate of asylum-seekers.
Regev is the very same member of Knesset who triggered the 23 May 2012 anti-African race riot in Tel Aviv with her cry of "The Sudanese are a cancer in our body" — and later apologized to cancer victims for comparing them to Africans.
In a powerful opinion piece published in Haaretz in March, Israeli filmmaker Galia Oz described Netanyahu’s war on African asylum-seekers, Palestinians and other non-Jewish groups as Kahanism (the ideology based on the teachings of Meir Kahane) by proxy. "The hands are the hands of Interior Minister Eli Yishai," he wrote, "but the voice is the voice of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu … He no longer needs to engage in verbal thuggery. Others take care of it for him. Netanyahu watches from the sidelines."
Netanyahu does not need to resort to the vilest forms of racism to delegitimize asylum-seekers; others do that work for him. But the master plan is his: to decant the country of all non-Jewish Africans.
In December 2012, he announced that the completion of the border fence was imminent and that the rate of Africans entering the country had been reduced to nil. But that was not enough.
"Now we are moving to the second phase," he said. "That’s the phase of returning the infiltrators that are already here."
After the high court struck down the January 2012 anti-infiltration amendment, Netanyahu quickly took the lead and established that the government would not comply with the court order. He made clear he would instead work around it to pursue the goal of ethnically cleansing the country, with or without judicial assent: "I have ordered to move forward with new legislation that will enable the strengthening of the detention of illegal work infiltrators."
Earlier this month, a massive majority of Israel’s legislators approved his handiwork.
David Sheen is an independent writer and filmmaker. Born in Toronto, Canada, Sheen now lives in Dimona. His website is www.davidsheen.com and he can be followed on Twitter: @davidsheen.