Welcome to South Tel Aviv

By Asher Greenberg

Since 2006, tens of thousands of non-Jewish Eritreans and Sudanese have migrated to Israel, crossing what was then a lightly defended border with Egypt’s Sinai desert. Their arrival has upended neighbourhoods, charged Israel’s already polarized political atmosphere, led to the frantic construction of a $400 million fence to keep them out, and to a massive prison complex meant to hold them. Their migration has sparked a Bedouin kidnapping and trafficking industry in the Sinai, which in turn has led to the torture and mutilation of thousands. This is the story of Israel’s African migrants. This is a longer version of an article that appeared in Tablet Magazine

Part 1 – A Refuge for Infiltrators 

Part 3 – Between Hell and a Hard Place

“I’m not against them because of their skin, their colour, their being African.”

Meir Ya’acoby owns a shop in Neve Sha’anan, a neighbourhood of South Tel Aviv. Once a gateway for Greek and later Iranian Jewish immigrants, the neighbourhood’s reputation today is one of poverty, drug-dealing, prostitution, neglect, and as the landing point for a massive wave of African – mainly Eritrean and Sudanese – illegal migration.

IMG_8943
Neve Sha’anan

Today, there are 54,000 non-Jewish African migrants in the country. Just 10 years ago, there were practically none.

A Jewish-Iranian immigrant, Ya’acoby speaks in a deliberate authoritative tone, in his native Farsi. “They have been let loose here. They do anything they want here. They steal bikes, they get into fights. They are vahshee.”

It’s a Farsi word suggesting the feral or uncivilized, something between wild animals and savages. It can be used jokingly or as a more serious insult.

As part of Ya’acoby’s business, he interacts with the migrants day-to-day. “They are my customers, they buy things from me, they buy clothes from me.

“There are good people amongst them, but they all came here, all in Tel Aviv and have gotten together in one group and they have made a mess of life here.”

What should happen to them?

“The government should take care of them. I cannot take care of them, what am I, their babysitter?”

***

Israel has dealt with Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees since its inception, but the influx of non-Jewish African migrants – that is a new problem.

African migrants started trickling into Israel over the border with Egypt in 2006 – at first mainly from Sudan, and later, mainly from Eritrea.

Sudan’s civil war displaced hundreds of thousands of people, a small subset of which made it to Israel.

Eritrea is an autocratic government – it has had the same president since gaining independence from Ethiopia 20 years ago. Military service is universal and indefinite. The pay is meagre and some of the military duties could be described as forced labour, according to Human Rights Watch. About 1,500 Eritreans flee their country every month, many to neighbouring Ethiopia.

As to why the migrants came to Israel – that is less clear. Israel had never been a serious destination for African migrants. But things changed in 2006. The crisis in Darfur, blocked routes to European countries, crackdowns on African migrants in Egypt and Libya – all played a role. Whatever the reasons, once a few had settled safely in Israel, family networks encouraged more migrants to make the trip.

The Israeli government’s policies have changed over the years. Initially, migrants were given a medical checkup before being dropped off to fend for themselves in cities around the country. As the number of migrants grew to the tens of thousands, virtual ghettos developed in places like South Tel Aviv. As Israeli residents protested against the transformation of their neighbourhoods into “refugee camps”, the government’s language and policies took on an increasingly anti-migrant tone.

Israel is one of the original signatories to the 1951 refugee convention, which defined the meaning of a refugee according to international law and the responsibilites of states in granting asylum.  In short, the convention defined a refugee as someone who would be persecuted upon returning to their homeland, because of their identification with a particular ethnic, political, religious or other group.

But whether the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are actually refugees – that is the centre of the debate. While the term refugee is used loosely in the press, its official use would have legal implications, indicating that the migrant is protected under the UN convention.

Normally, govenments assess a migrant’s claims, checking to ensure that someone is not trying to subvert the regular immigration process (also known as a “refugee status determination” process or RSD).

Many Western governments recognize a high percentage of Sudanese and Eritreans as refugees. But in Israel, as the public mood soured against the migrants, the government employed popular and legal strategies to avoid labeling its African migrants as refugees – or even conducting RSD procedures. In official statements, the migrants are referred to as “economic infiltrators,” suggesting they are job seekers rather than aslyum seekers.

Instead of RSD, African migrants from Eritrea and Sudan are given a temporary protection visa, which allows them to stay in Israel – but without the legal right to work or access to the state’s social security (although under a promise made to the Supreme Court, the state mostly turns a blind eye to under-the-table employment). Since June 2012, new migrants are jailed upon entry into the country. Under a recent amendment, they can be held indefinitely at an open-air internment camp in the Negev.

With no official body actively resolving the migrants’ refugee claims, there has been debate, racially charged at times, over why the migrants are in Israel and what to do with them. This week, thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese protested in Tel Aviv, demanding an end to migrant detentions, the right to work, and the processing of their asylum claims.

The result leaves migrants in a state of uncertainty.  Many fear being picked up off the street and put in prison one day or deported. And Israeli residents don’t know whether the uninvited guests are really here to stay.

***

The police are expecting violence this evening. The fear goes back to a demonstration earlier this summer that turned violent as a mob ransacked stores owned by Africans and threatened Africans on the street.

It’s almost too bizarre and horrible a story to believe. An 83-year-old woman was raped on Dec. 21. The police arrested an Eritrean man in his 20s, a resident of south Tel Aviv with a criminal record, with DNA evidence linking him to the crime. A gag order on that news was lifted a few days later, sparking the protest. Whether the suspect’s ethnic identity should have been released to the public is a subject for discussion in the country’s media.

“Ha’am doresh hasudanim legoresh,” the protesters chant. “The people demand the Sudanese be expelled!”

It rhymes in Hebrew. It’s a deliberate adaptation of the slogan from Israel’s version of the “occupy” protests in 2011 – where hundreds of thousands took to the street chanting, “the people demand social justice.”

IMG_8932 (1)
Protesters in South Tel Aviv

But today, there are maybe just 100 people, some holding placards, some yelling, some just milling about. The protest has jammed up under the sweeping tentacles of the central bus station. There is a heavy police presence and a media one as well.

The protesters’ neighbourhoods were neglected for years, only to be used as a dumping ground for the thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who illegally crossed the border into Israel, seeking asylum. And work.

Without a policy and without enough space in the country’s prisons, the state would drop them off by the busload near the central bus station. Today many work off the books in the city’s cafés or as day labourers in construction. On any given day, in the neighbourhoods surrounding the central bus station, there are far more Sudanese and Eritreans on the street than Israeli residents.

Orna, who declined to give her last name, says she’s here because she doesn’t feel safe. The “Sudanim,” Israeli shorthand for the non-Jewish Africans in the country, steal and drink at all hours of the night, she says.

“What brought me here today is my pain. From 5 p.m.  women are afraid to walk alone. I am over 60 years old, should I be afraid to walk alone? They should be taken away from here – all of them. All thieves and rapists.”

Corine Galili’s mother was murdered on her way to the grocery store in the morning. Police later arrested a drunk Sudanese man. “I said at that time that it is impossible,” Galili says, “this phenomenon of so many infiltrators that enter Israel and to the centre of the city where people live… they let them enter with no supervision”.  Infiltrators, or mistanenim in Hebrew, is the term the government favours for the African migrants.

“Only violence will wake the politicians … only if we go into their stores and start breaking things will they realize that we will not take it,” says Moshe Sapayov. He’s 28 and has five children, some of whom he brought to the protest.

Efraim Agami is also 28. He’s holding a sign for the ultranationalist party Otzma LeYisrael or “Strength to Israel” whose slogan is simply “returning the infiltrators home.” He is married with one child and sums up the mood when he says, “I am angry towards the government that doesn’t do anything, and the public that stays silent.”

A man is yelling on a megaphone in Hebrew. “Nothing will happen if we sit quietly. Bibi [short for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] will wake only by force. I’m not an activist. I’m a resident who worries for his family.” Across the street, a number of Eritreans are standing on the sidelines, watching the commotion. The mood is one of resignation.

Back in the protest, Sapayov sums it up for everyone.  “The only reason I am not leaving the neighborhood is because I have no money. If I had the money, I wouldn’t have stayed here.”

***

In a metropolis without a subway, Tel Aviv’s tachana maerkazit or central bus station is a nerve centre for fleets of local and intercity buses. In the grand tradition of failed urban renewal megaprojects, the station was built in 1993 smack in the middle of a run-down working-class neighbourhood. At the time, it was the largest bus station in the world.

Today, half the cavernous structure is still empty. The lower floors are in varied stages of abandonment. A decade of dust clings to ‘90s-era signs to Haifa, Hadera and Jerusalem.

The upper floors harbour discount clothing shops, bakeries and fake DVD stands. It’s one of the most diverse parts of Israel: Jews and Arabs on day-trips; Thai and Filipino migrant workers queuing up at the local version of Western Union; Mizrahi shop-owners selling pizza and falafel, and commuting Israeli soldiers carrying oversized backpacks and assault rifles.

If you never stepped outside, you might be left with the impression that this is some kind of poor but harmonious and cosmopolitan part of a Middle Eastern city.

And yet, outside, everything changes.

In a country purportedly made up of only Jews and Arabs, a sea of African faces greets you. The sound of Tigrinya, an Eritrean-Ethiopian language, fills the air. African barber shops and convenience stores neighbour Israeli-owned furniture stores and auto-body shops. Just a few blocks north, in the heart of Neve Sha’anan, an open-air market runs down the middle of a decrepit low-rise street. Migrants hawk their motley assortment of household items, simple electronics, clothes, shoes, and tools all laid out on cheap mats. Big Russian men sit drinking big bottles of Carlsberg.

A few blocks east in the Hatikva neighbourhood, there is low-rise housing, a multitude of scrawny undomesticated cats, some Eritrean bars, and the old Yeminite Jewish market.

This South Tel Aviv was born out of political and economic factors beyond its borders.

After the violent Palestinian revolt against Israel sent people strapped with explosives to Israeli cities, the government shut out Palestinians from its cheap labour markets. To replace the agriculture workers, the construction workers, and caregivers, Israel gave temporary work permits to hundreds of thousands of Thais and Filipinos. Many of them stayed on illegally. Added to that now are tens of thousands of African migrants living five or six to a room in subdivided apartments.

Ground zero is the central bus station. In a neighbourhood of three or four story apartments, the station’s ramps stretch out like tentacles between dusty crumbling buildings. It looks as if an alien ship took out half the neighbourhood when it crash landed, then decayed and faded 20 years to match its run-down surroundings: Neve Sha’anan to the north, Florintin to the west, Shapira to the south and Hatikva to the east.

While you can feel the poverty anytime, the neighbourhood’s tensions come out more frequently at night.

***

One evening last summer, South Tel Aviv boiled over. Politicians revved up a protest crowd of nearly 1,000. Miri Regev of the governing Likud party infamously referred to the Africans as cancer (she later apologized). After the rally, mobs roamed the Hatikva neighbourhood, beating up Africans, and looting African stores.

Rahwa Hayle remembers that night. “They threw a lot of stones [at the house]. Even when I called the police, they didn’t answer.”

Hayle lives in the heart of Hatikva. It’s a small house; two beds share one room, one for herself and one for her five-year-old son, Nachum. To distract him, Hayle plays videos on her computer. She speaks to her son in a mixture of Hebrew and Tigrinya.

Like the other Eritreans in Israel, Hayle’s life here is unstable. Her visa doesn’t permit her to work. But she works anyway as a housekeeper, bringing home the equivalent of just under $1,500 per month. Nachum goes to school in the local gan or Israeli kindergarten.

Rahwa (1)
Rahwa Hayle holding her identity card in her home in Hatikva

Hayle left Eritrea in November 2007. She was 23. Like many others, she paid Bedouin traffickers to smuggle her through Sudan and Egypt on her way to Israel.

Hayle’s reasons for making the trek are more complicated than others. Her story tumbles out episodically, but without chronology. It takes an hour to understand that her use of the phrase “the father of my child” is deliberate and not an example of a poor command of English.

“My parents they force me to marry. Because if you marry and you have children, you will not be all your life in the army.”

Hayle married in 2004 when she was 20. But she was not allowed to marry the man of her choice. When she became pregnant after an affair, she fled the country. The plan was for her lover to join her in Israel, but he never made it. He was caught on two attempts, spending years in jail. He can’t risk trying again.

As for her husband, still in Eritrea, he knows about the child. Hayle asked for a divorce, but he didn’t accept. “I said the child is not yours. My life is now changed. I need to be alone. He says until the end of your life I’ll be with you.”

But Hayle is afraid. Some of her husband’s family is in Israel. She says that other Eritrean women have been killed by their husband’s family over infidelity.

“Because of that I’m afraid because the brother of my husband is here and also he has family here.

“To kill is not easy. I say to his father, his brother. If he need to kill me, he can do here. But don’t hurt my son. He’s another life. Another child. He don’t know anything. The mistake is from me.”

Hayle’s story is unique but exemplifies the difficulty in defining Israel’s African migrant population. They didn’t all appear at once because of a war next door, as did Syrian refugees in Jordan. Nor did Hayle run away from famine. Instead, it was a loveless marriage, an infidelity, and, like everyone else in Eritrea, a life with no future.

***

If the residents of South Tel Aviv need a spokesperson, Haim Goren could be it. Able to describe the neighbourhood’s problems articulately, Goren walks that fine line between legitimate grievance and the stereotyping that comes from making generalizations.

Goren is part of a group of Jews who have moved into the South Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Shapira and see it as their religious and national duty to turn things around. He moved from a West Bank settlement to Shapira together with his wife. Her great-grandparents lived in the neighbourhood.

“In no other place in the world does a refugee camp ‘sit’ on top of an existing neighborhood,” Goren says.  “The lives of the residents became unbearable. I cannot go out with my child after dark to the playground, because people are living and sleeping there.”

Goren is a geography teacher at a local religious high school. He is clean-cut and talks quickly. He wears a kippa, a skullcap worn by observant Jewish men.

He points out a public park in the middle of the neighborhood: a playground in the centre of a grassy square. There are dirty blankets and clothing in the plastic slides.  A gated kindergarten lies adjacent to the park. The central bus station is in sight, just a few blocks to the north.

Over the last three years, the park has become a home for African migrants, he says.

“In the morning the park seems pretty peaceful and empty, but in the afternoon when I pick up my kids, there are many immigrants in the garden.”

And at night, he makes sure to walk his wife to the central bus station. “Many young men came here, in their 20s and 30s … they have an African mentality and do not understand the Western mentality. The way they treat women is completely different.”

“We understand that these people escaped great distress, and from countries where they have experienced great suffering. But it is impossible that the government allows all of them to be in one place, small and narrow, in South Tel Aviv. There are 25,000 residents here, and an additional 40,000 immigrants sharing one space. It means that our entire infrastructure has collapsed.” (Estimates for the number of migrants in Tel Aviv range considerably, as the government does not keep regular statistics.)

Goren is a member of the neighbourhood association. The migrants, despite their numbers, are not able to join. “It is a matter of status. They need now to move people, check them and see who is a refugee and who isn’t. If they get a temporary refugee status and live here, then they are part of the community … but at the moment, people don’t have responsibility to the state and its rules because they don’t have citizenship.”

Goren3
Haim Goren in Shapira

***

The softness and hesitation in her tone suggests careful consideration of what she will share with a stranger. She begins by giving short answers, stumbling on her words as she forms full sentences.  She skims over her journey to Israel, casually mentioning two men in Sudan, describing the situation as “very difficult.”

Zabib came to Israel in 2009, leaving behind her family in Eritrea. She came on the advice of a friend, who told her Israel was a safe place. “I was thinking is like a democratic country and a developed country so I can work and study. And when I came here I found it difficult. It’s just different from what I was thinking.”

She cleaned houses for $6 an hour before starting an Eritrean daycare and women’s centre in a decrepit building in Florintin last June. The room is lined with cribs and babies. As she gets into the details of her current work and what she is doing for the community of Eritrean women, there is a growing sense of warmth in her voice.

Besides looking after children, the centre runs English and Hebrew classes, health, family planning, and human rights courses. Everything in the centre, the toys, the cribs, are donated by the U.S. Embassy and Israelis, she says.

Zabib4
Zabib’s daycare in Florentin

She doesn’t make as much money in the centre as she did from housekeeping. “It’s not enough but I’m okay. You can’t do two things at the same time. You have to pick one. Less money and contribute something to the community…it’s important.”

Zabib says she does not like to dwell too much on plans for the center, because for her, the future is uncertain. Though, in a way, her future has never been certain.

“Even in Eritrea, [a woman] can’t plan for the future. You can’t move by yourself. If you want to leave to visit family far away you are not allowed. You need a document to visit the other part of Eritrea. This, in my home, my country.”

While the centre is a relative success, she does not feel that much more secure in Tel Aviv. “You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Tomorrow the government may send you to prison.”

Between Hell and a Hard Place

By Asher Greenberg

Since 2006, tens of thousands of non-Jewish Eritreans and Sudanese have migrated to Israel, crossing what was then a lightly defended border with Egypt’s Sinai desert. Their arrival has upended neighbourhoods, charged Israel’s already polarized political atmosphere, led to the frantic construction of a $400 million fence to keep them out, and to a massive prison complex meant to hold them. Their migration has sparked a Bedouin kidnapping and trafficking industry in the Sinai, which in turn has led to the torture and mutilation of thousands. This is the story of Israel’s African migrants. This is a longer version of an article that appeared in Tablet Magazine

Part 1 – A Refuge for Infiltrators 

Part 2 – Welcome to South Tel Aviv

Nitzana sits just a kilometre or so inside the Israeli border with Egypt. Relics of previous wars dot the desert landscape, as in much of Israel – rusting barbed wire, abandoned guard posts, and dirt tracks that lead… where? Off into the desert, to 1,000-year-old ruins, to army patrols, to Bedouin traffickers.

Entrance to Nitzana
Entrance to Nitzana

The Nitzana youth camp sits on a hill. On one side are waves of rocks and sand that make up Egypt’s lawless Sinai, through which tens of thousands of Africans have been smuggled, some enduring torture and cruelty at the hands of their Bedouin captors. You can almost imagine the final few hundred metres, half-starved men and women running past shooting Egyptian soldiers, trying not to get caught in the barbed wire.

On the other side of Nitzana – impossible to miss – sits the massive Israeli prison complex Sahronim. Just about every African asylum-seeker who makes it into Israel will spend time there. It’s the first stop, where the government processes the people it calls ‘infiltrators.’ It’s also become the last stop for nearly everyone, after the government passed legislation that imprisons every new illegal arrival. Just driving up to the main entrance brings out several officers. “This is a closed military zone, do not to take any pictures,” they say.

In between the prison and the Bedouin, there is Nitzana, part-school part-refugee camp for underage Eritrean migrants. It is the unlikely offspring of law, bureaucracy and a few good hearts. Inside, 50 Eritrean teenagers study Hebrew and English, mathematics and sciences.  The bureaucratic term for them is “unaccompanied minors” – their parents and relatives are missing or struggling back at home in Eritrea. Here the teenagers recuperate, some from their journeys, some from the beatings and torture they endured in Sinai, within sight of the desert and prisons they escaped.

In this lonely corner of Israel, Sahronim and Nitzana make plain the contradictions of the country’s response to a situation that no one asked for and no one saw coming.

***

Sigal Rozen is the founding member of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. Started in 1991, the organization advocates for Israel’s most vulnerable non-citizens.

“At the beginning, we focused on those detained for deportation. But in 2000-2001 the main problem was the trafficking victims from the ex-Soviet Union. So we became expert on sex trafficking victims.

“You can say that our focus shifted according to the population that was in prison.”

Rozen’s voice has a sweet timbre but she rolls her R’s harder than most Israelis.

She studied French and English literature before joining a high-tech company in the ‘90s.  While on maternity leave, she read news articles describing the Israeli government’s deportation of migrant workers.

“I got upset and some other people got upset. We got together and started the Hotline. At the beginning, I was on maternity leave, so I was working industriously around the clock on this issue. After three months, it was clear I could not go back to my work.”

***

Today, there are about 54,000 asylum seekers in Israel. Close to 36,000 of them are from Eritrea. But this is still a relatively new problem.

Sudanese migrants started coming in the mid-2000s. Much of the early migration was connected to the conflict in Darfur. The Sudanese government responded to a secessionist movement by backing Arab militias called the Janjaweed. The resulting wanton destruction led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and massive displacement. In July 2010, the International Criminal Court indicted Sudan’s president on charges of genocide.

In Israel, at first there was empathy for the arrivals. The human rights catastrophe in Darfur represented an echo of both the Holocaust and the Israeli situation. And Darfur, like the Holocaust, was being ignored by the West.

“It is critical for the Jewish community to respond to this genocide,” the head of the American Jewish World Service said back in 2004. “We would never again let the world idly stand by.”

And, while this wasn’t explicit, it resonated that the Darfuris were being slaughtered by Arab militias. Israel was just beginning to come out of the bloody intifada, a traumatic period when Palestinian suicide bombings ripped through Israeli cafes and buses.

In 2006, there were just 200 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. And “as long there were 200 (or) 300 Darfuris, there was a lot of sympathy in the Israeli street,” Rozen says. “They are genocide survivors and the number was small and not threatening.”

But what began as a trickle soon turned into a steady stream. And not just Sudanese, but Eritreans too. The Eritrean story was not so widely known. To Israelis, Eritrea was just another poor African country. Most Eritrean asylum seekers were army deserters, a cultural taboo in Israel. By June, 2007, only a quarter of the African migrants were from Darfur. And 600 more were crossing into Israel every month.

Florintin neighbourhood of South Tel AViv
Florintin neighbourhood of South Tel AViv

At first, there was no real policy in place. Most migrants were kept in prison or small settlements. But soon there wasn’t enough room in the prisons. By the end of 2007, there were close to 8,000 in the country. The government had to do something: so after being documented and checked, many migrants were just dropped off in front of police stations in cities like Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva and Eilat.

It was in 2007 that stories first started appearing in the press about ghettos in places like South Tel Aviv. The media and the public started using the government term for the asylum-seekers: “infiltrators.”

“We totally lost the fight on this,” Rozen says. “Even when [the media] are on our side, they call them infiltrators. The choice of word is influencing a lot. We believe after we lost the fight in the terminology, we lost it with the audience, with the Israeli public. Because the term infiltrator reminds Israelis of al-Qaeda or the Fedayeen [Palestinian militants].”

And, meanwhile, more kept coming.

Between 2008 and 2011, a period of just four years, another 45,000 crossed the border, many of them Eritrean. The African population in Israel quintupled from 2007 to 2011.

Tel Aviv, Eilat and Be’er Sheva grew restless. Protests broke out and the government was under pressure.

The first order of business was to keep out new “infiltrators.” Israeli soldiers were ordered to turn back as many migrants as possible at the border while the government constructed a 230-kilometre-long, $400-million fence.

The barrier was completed earlier this year.  It has been so effective that the government has halted plans to expand detention centres. According to the latest figures from the Israeli immigration authority, only 36 migrants crossed into Israel by Oct. 2013. By the same point in 2012, more than 9,000 migrants had crossed.

But when it came to the tens of thousands migrants who’d already made it in, the government was stuck. The Sudanese could not be deported because Israel had no official diplomatic relations with the country – they are technically at war.

This was made clear when South Sudan became a country in 2011. The new state developed ties with Israel and roughly 1,000 South Sudanese migrants were “voluntarily deported” there in short order – each was offered 1,000 euros to go. Rozen believes there are only about 60 South Sudanese left in the country. For many of the other migrants, the hasty removal of the South Sudanese is a window into their own future.

As for the Eritreans, who make up the bulk of the migrants, they cannot be deported directly to Eritrea because of the oppressive practices of its pariah government. And Israel did not want to be ejecting or seen to be ejecting probable refugees directly to a place where they may be in danger (the international principle is called non-refoulement). But on the other hand, granting the Eritreans refugee status would have enabled the migrants to stay in Israel, an untenable political position for most Israeli politicians by the late 2000s.

So instead, the explicit plan was this: make life as difficult as possible for those who’d already made it in, in the hopes that they may leave on their own.

***

Israelis possess this unique way of talking. It can be an affront to Canadian sensibilities. Israelis will refer to it as no-nonsense, no-bullshit straight talk. Canadians might just call it rude.

As its best, this style avoids the circuitous pleasantries used to avoid talking directly about an issue and, also, unnecessary drama in emotionally charged conversations. But at its worst, in conversation you can pick up a whiff of the attitude, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, but I do.” It’s an essential Israeli quality born out of the army and a civilian life on the edge.

Asaf Weitzen embodies the quality. He arrives in a Tel Aviv café, his hair disheveled, wearing a trench coat, sunglasses, and a few days’ beard. Weitzen is a lawyer, with a dozen African asylum-seeker cases on his plate at any given time. He also writes in the press about government policy.

“Every time I publish an opinion article in Haaretz [about the African situation],” Weitzen says, “people attack me. They say I’m only doing this because I’m getting paid.”

He’s laughing as he says this.

“Now it’s funny from two perspectives. First, and it’s quite obvious, I used to be a commercial lawyer.  So, really, this is the reasoning?

“I could have made more money as a teacher probably. This is the best argument you can find?”

Weitzen speaks quickly and with the utter confidence that comes from believing what you’re doing is right. Or at least, that you’re the right one to do it.  He speaks with the exhaustion and dark humour that comes from years of fighting a bureaucracy.

Sahronim detention center
Sahronim detention center

In June 2012, the government amended the Prevention of Infiltration Law, then empowering the state to imprison new migrants for up to three years. But what really got under Weitzen’s skin is that the law also gave the police sweeping powers to detain any African suspected of crime. It’s a procedure called administrative detention.

Weitzen explained the legal rationale: “If I go to Israel and I do something illegal, the state has two options. It could put me on trial but why waste the money? They could say instead, ‘I’m sorry this isn’t working out. It’s not you, it’s us. Take care.’ So they’d put me on a plane, stamp my passport ‘10 years denied entrance to Israel’ and, end of story.”

But the asylum seekers cannot be deported. “So they say, ‘It’s not you, it’s us, it’s not working,’ but instead of expelling them, they just put them in detention for unlimited period of time.”

It’s a legal trick, putting someone in detention for administrative reasons. Because someone can be put in jail for the smallest offence, it creates a lot of fear and uncertainty in the migrant population. Which may have been the idea.

“So in this environment, it’s easy to see what bad Israelis are incentivized to do. Blackmail.”

In one case, an Israeli took pictures of an Eritrean wedding, Weitzen says. The man fell and broke his camera. He demanded the couple buy him a new camera. “He said that they pushed him. So of course they paid him for the camera.”

In the past, the government argued that the purpose of this law was security. “But in the last version, they did not ‘hide’ anymore. In this law it was clearly stated that the purpose of the law is to deter work infiltrators from entering Israel. They didn’t say anything about security anymore. Because they realized it’s a joke. None of these people ever attempted to violate our security.” 

***

Most of those involved in migrant issues believe the problem lies with Israel’s refugee status determination process (RSD). That’s the process by which any state decides which asylum seekers are genuine refugees and which can be safely deported.

In Israel, the RSD process is barely functional. The acceptance rates are among the lowest in the world: only 0.2 per cent of claims processed. Since the state was created in 1948, only about 170 non-Jewish refugees have been officially recognized. And since 2009, only one African migrant has been declared a refugee – an albino baby born to parents from the Ivory Coast.

“No country really likes refugees,” Weitzen says. “But what is amazing is that in other countries, the recognition rates are 10 to 30 per cent. The refugees are the same refugees; how come there is such a huge difference?”

The majority of Israel’s migrants are from Eritrea and Sudan.  Until very recently, their claims weren’t even being processed. “The government decided strategically to prioritize the non-Sudanese and non-Eritrean caseload. Their decision was practical, to the best of my understanding,” says Sharon Harel, the UNHCR’s (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) representative in Israel.

Weitzen argues that the government isn’t in a hurry to assess claims because recognition rates for Eritreans and Sudanese are high in the developed world. In Canada, 97 per cent of Eritreans seeking asylum have been recognized. In the United Kingdom, 76 per cent. In the United States, 86 per cent.

“That’s a good indication that even here in Israel, the ratio could be the same if people’s cases could be documented and heard, you know if they will have an interview,” Harel says.

Many of the migrants feel the same way. “I want the Israeli government to check us, to interview us, to make the refugee status determination and to interview every individual to know why he is leaving his country, why it made him run away,” says Gabriel Tekli, an Eritrean shop owner and political activist in South Tel Aviv. “And based on that, to make a decision, whether he is a refugee or not. But giving us a collective name – work infiltrators – without checking individual stories … you know, it does not feel good.”

Many NGOs argue that giving the migrants access to Israel’s social safety net – health care, for example – would introduce stability in neighbourhoods like South Tel Aviv, reducing desperation and crime.

“A person doesn’t want to live his whole life not knowing,” Rozen says. “Right now [the migrants] want food and they want a roof. But the moment they get it, they’ll start thinking about their future. ‘Should I go to school, should I open a business?’ It’s so difficult to do when you don’t know where you’ll be five years from now.”

***

Nitzana, the youth camp between Sinai and the prison, is a few hours’ drive from Tel Aviv.  In a country where every scrap of land is contested, the wide expanses in the Negev give you some room to breathe. Farmland gives way to rocky desert; green orderly Israeli villages to Bedouin shanty towns of corrugated metal and dirt paths.

Toyotas from the ’90s suddenly veer off the main road and follow some previously unseen dirt track at the kind of speed that says, “This is my land.” The army uses a lot of the rest of the empty space. There are long stretches where every turn-off is blocked off with the ominous sign, “danger, firing zone.”

Yair Amir is the director of Nitzana. The settlement is a youth boarding and agricultural school. Besides 50 African minors, it houses an eight-month “origins” program for Russian Jewish youth to learn Hebrew and about Judaism, a pre-army preparatory camp for Israeli teens, foreign workers studying agriculture, and the occasional elementary school field trip.

Yair Amir, Director of Nitzana
Yair Amir, Director of Nitzana

But the African program is new, started in May, 2011, in response to a specific problem. While the majority of Africans entering Israel were young men, some were younger – 12, 13, and 14. Without parents, they could not be processed as adults. After being recognized as minors, they were sent to a special prison – Matan.

“They take classes there. They have social workers. But it’s still prison. They have a yard, a fence, like every prison you know,” Amir said.

After a few months in Matan, the children are sent to boarding schools around the country. Nitzana is the only one geared entirely for African children.

As part of his job as director of Nitzana, Amir goes to out to Matan every few months to interview new students. “I want to meet them, explain exactly what’s here. I want to know if he wants to be here.”

Amir lives in Nitzana with his wife and two children. His kids, along with his top nine African students, go to an Israeli elementary school. The other 40 study in Nitzana’s classrooms.

“We are under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. But we have to make some changes to fit to their needs. They come without Hebrew, with only some basic knowledge in English and Math. And we have to start at their level. There’s no curriculum for this in Israel, for 14- or 15-year-olds who come from Africa.”

There are no walls at Nitzana, but not many have tried to run. “It’s happened. Not so often, but it’s happened. We cannot block them. There’s a bus here.”

But “most of them want to study. They come under so many kinds of pressure. Even someone who really wants to study can get a phone call from Eritrea – your mom is sick, please send money. And then the kid is screwed up for weeks.”

Almost all of the kids are in debt.

“It’s not what happens to them. It’s what happens to their families,” Amir says. “They get a phone call from Israel or from Eritrea. I have one kid with more than $20,000 debt. If he works half his life, he won’t cover this.”

In some ways, an unaffordable $20,000 debt is better than a reasonable $1,500 one, Amir says. “Because [with] $1,500, you have some aspiration that you will cover this in one or two years.” In that case, the temptation to disappear into the streets of South Tel Aviv may be too high.

***

Between the Prevention of Infiltration Law and administrative detention, there are now roughly 2,000 Eritreans in prison. Earlier this year, a coalition of NGOs won a Supreme Court decision arguing that migrants cannot be kept in prison and denied the opportunity to ask for asylum. So the Interior Ministry has begun processing RSD claims for Eritreans in prison. So far, several dozen have been rejected.

Weitzen and other lawyers help migrants through the process.

But after experience with the bureaucracy charged with assessing refugee claims, Weitzen says the process is flawed.

He describes a client, an Eritrean born and raised in Ethiopia, who went through the Israeli RSD process.

“They interviewed her and decided she was lying. How come? Because they asked her questions about Asmara [the Eritrean capital] and she didn’t know the answers. But she said from the first place ‘I’ve never been to Asmara, never been to Eritrea.’ ”

She was also rejected because the state erroneously believed she had lied about a 1998 deportation she faced in Ethiopia.

Weitzen collected 15 official documents, including U.S. State Department reports, Human Rights Watch reports, and a judgment from a U.S. court that compared the situation faced by Eritreans in Ethiopia to Jews in Germany.

“I presented all this to the court. The state said, ‘okay, we will re-interview her.’ They rejected her again just a few days ago. Their reasoning for rejection?  She says there was a deportation in 2005 and they say there was no deportation in 2005!

“I will help her and finish the case. But so few of them have lawyers and there is so little we can do for them.”

Weitzen used to be a commercial lawyer for communications companies. Back then, he says, “the answers came in a minute, because it deals with money. But when dealing with refugees and asylum seekers, it’s kind of what we call ‘effective balagan,’ or ’effective chaos.’ Because when I’m not getting an answer, [the Africans] are still without status, and everything is okay from the point of view of the state.”

***

In Nitzana, Amir’s voice changes in tone.

“I don’t have to tell you about Sinai, what we find on their bodies. Their bodies were exposed and their eyes were exposed to the traumatic events that took place in Sinai. They saw people murdered. Women raped. Men raped. It never ends, this story.”

One Friday, one of Amir’s wards came into his office. He had a severe stomachache.

“I say ‘Why you didn’t tell me.’ He says ‘I try to throw up, get over it by myself.’ And then he told me that in the Sinai he didn’t eat for months, just half a bottle of cola for a few kids per day, and some bread.

“Two social workers for 50 boys. It’s not enough.”

Looking ahead, Amir is as uncertain as everyone else.

“For these kids, you don’t know what their future is. I want to prepare them for the option that they might go to a third country or maybe the option that one day Eritrea will change and they can go home.

“They had a chaotic life before they came here, and maybe they’ll have a chaotic life after. I want to give them some island, some tools for life, some tools of school and also to feel like a teenager. On their journey here, they didn’t have this option.

“And after they leave here, I don’t know.”

“this is an acceptable risk”

It’s a bizarre headache. Not so much a migraine, but the kind where it feels like your brain is trying to climb out of your head. The kind that says, “hey, body, what the *fuck* are you doing?” And my body doesn’t answer. It doesn’t even shrug. That’s because my chest has taken over. With an iron grip on my legs, it drags me forward at a pace I would not refer to as leisurely.

The desert valley is already getting dark and I keep glancing at the clock. “Okay, by 4:15 pm, if I don’t reach the halfway mark, I’ll turn around.” The thought is not a comforting one.

So I planned this day off. This is something I don’t do. I really don’t. I plan trips to the beach and wonder whether I should bring some of those readings I’ve been ignoring. Of course then I feel guilty because I don’t end up doing the work I brought along. All in all, it’s pretty unhealthy. This is me trying to change. To take a break from the city, the public buses, the election campaign, from the asylum seekers, from Israelis, from family, from my girlfriend, from life. A present to myself.

I set aside an entire day with no purpose other than to drive two hours south in a little rental car and find a wadi to hike in the Negev. That’s Israel’s largely empty southern desert, which makes up about half the country’s land area. 

In a country where every scrap of land is contested, and drips with blood and history, the wide expanses in the Negev give you some room to breathe. Even the weather is different. Sheets of heavy rain are gradually replaced with drizzle and eventually sunshine as I drive south. Farmland gives way to rocky desert; green orderly Israeli villages to Bedouin shanty towns of corrugated metal, dirt paths and trash. Toyotas from the ’90s suddenly veer off the main road and follow some previously unseen dirt track at the kind of speed that says, “this is my land.” The army uses a lot of the rest of the empty space. There are long stretches where every turn-off is blocked off with the ominous sign, “danger, firing zone.”

I had gotten a late start that morning. It took longer to rent the car than I’d anticipated. My plan was to hike Ein Avdat, a narrow desert canyon half an hour south of Be’er Sheva. After a two hour drive south, in a typically impatient and impulsive move, I saw the line to get into the Ein Avdat national park and turned around. Then I continued driving south.

I picked out another trail from the Lonely Planet guide. It was in Machtesh Ramon, a crater so vast I couldn’t make out the other end. To get to the hike, all I had to do was descend into the canyon on route 40 and then look for the signs to the Be’orot camping ground.

This takes longer than expected and it was close to 3 pm by the time I make the left off route 40.

It turns out the “road” to Be’orot is a dirt path no more than a few meters wide, marked by little rocks on either side. I can hear the constant ‘ting, ting, ting’ of little rocks bouncing off the undercarriage. Route 40 quickly disappears behind me, leaving a darkening green-less desert lanscape on every side. The road is frequently crossed by stretches of sand stained dark, as if water had gushed through the area not that long ago.

This is when my head first started its revolt.

It’s already past 3 pm. I am alone in the desert, driving through rocky terrain in a little Hyundai designed for squeezing into tight urban parking spaces. And the sun is going down in a little over two hours. Twenty kilometers an hour turns out to generate the maximum pinging on the undercarriage I can handle. I pray not to get a flat.

This continues for 20 minutes. I find the Be’orot camping ground, a group of stone structures, with canvas roofing and rugs for carpeting. Here a group of 40 or so middle-aged tourists barbecue and laugh. The Bedouin owner informs me that my trail is another 15 minute drive away and that the road to get there is “okay for small cars.”

Half an hour later, alone on the trail, watching my phone service toggle between one bar and “no service,” I follow white-and-green markers into a darkening canyon. The markers are hard to make-out in the shadows.

I keep up a pace just short of a jog, trying to avoid twisting my ankle on the uneven terrain.

My head is a foggy mess of anxiety, and, by now, hunger. All of which is faced by a steely rationale that says, “this is an acceptable risk.” Unable to really resolve the dilemma in my head, my legs just take over.

It’s a strange place to be. Calm and anxious.

The environment is both enchanting and cold. Warm and uncaring.

The shadows grow as I trot through the rocks. My brain runs one way as I run the other. I am having fun and I might die.

***

Exiting the half-crescent canyon, I finish a brutal climb up a 4×4 path that carries me back to my little Hyundai rental. It’s 4:30 pm, still 45 minutes to complete dark.

On my bumpy trip back down the rocky path, I pick up a group of tourist stragglers on their way back to their car. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, my European guests learn that I’m a journalist covering the African asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv. And that I’m on vacation for a day to get away from it all.

And then one woman asks what I think the most important problem is when it comes to the Africans. I explain that it’s complicated but that the lack of a resolved status for the asylum-seekers is probably top of the list. That causes a litany of other social and political problems downstream. But she wants to know have I heard of the rape of an elderly woman in South Tel Aviv by an Eritrean? She forcefully proceeds to tell me that the most important problem is violence against women. And that it is ignored by media.

I drop them off at their car and continue on my way. The last flicker of sun passes below the horizon as I follow the path of rocks back home.

***

IMG_0395

IMG_0393

IMG_0381


IMG_0374

IMG_0372

IMG_0392

IMG_0398

The place where there are angry people

What do you bring to a protest?

Definitely, a camera. A notebook. Pens. An audio recorder. Videocamera? No, too much.

The police are expecting violence. But it’s their job to anticipate the worst. The idea I think is if it goes to shit, at least no one can say, “I wasn’t warned.”

The fear goes back to a protest earlier this summer that turned violent as a mob ransacked African stores and threatened Africans on the street.

Definitely should not have this much cash in my wallet. If I’m going to get mugged, at least the thief should not make $300. I’m just not going to think about the expensive dSLR digital camera I’m carrying.

IMG_8941

It’s almost too bizarre and horrible a story to be believable. An 83-year-old woman was raped on December 21. The police arrested an Eritrean man in his 20s, a resident of south Tel Aviv with a criminal record, with DNA evidence linking him to the crime. A gag order was lifted, which sparked the protest I’m on my way to report on. Whether the suspect’s ethnic identity should have been released to the public is a subject for discussion.

I get out of the cab a few blocks from the protest. The driver warns me to “be careful.” I answer in Hebrew that this is my job and I’m a journalist. Having just learned the word for journalist in Hebrew a few days before, I’m still enjoying any excuse to use it. Not to mention, saying “I’m a journalist” somehow makes the whole thing feel more real.

As I walk west toward the Central Bus Station, I see two black, presumably Eritrean, men walking in the same direction behind me. I figure this is probably the time to get over my own fear and I turn around.

“I’m a journalist,” I say. “Can I ask you a few questions?”

Suspicious faces slowly change into accommodating ones.

“Do you know anything about the protest?” I ask in a slow clear voice in English.

I point in the direction just down the road, but they don’t seem to understand what I’m talking about. They seem hung up on the word “protest.” I don’t know how to explain what I mean and I’m not sure what the word is in Hebrew either.

At a loss, I say, “the place where there are angry people” in Hebrew, but that doesn’t quite register either. Besides, I can barely make out the response, which is stated in a heavy Eritrean accent.

Bemused and exasperated, I give up and thank them. Continuing down the road, I can now make out the blue flashing lights and the throng of people.

Sometimes I think I’m a little bit racist. I think of that song from Avenue Q, “everyone’s just a little bit racist, sometimes.” I grew up in a somewhat uniform environment. Yes, I’m tolerant and I believe in pluralism. But I think I also unconsciously picked up some stereotypes. I mean, I see it all the time in otherwise tolerant people. “You’re Jewish, you must be smart.” It’s really only a hop away from “you’re Jewish, you’re cheap” and then, “you know a lot of Jews didn’t show up for work on the day of the World Trade Centre attack. Just saying.” Mine is this: when I pass a group of young black males on the street in a less-than-perfect neighbourhood, I get nervous. But I believe the only way to change a stereotype – which has an emotional anchor – is to confront it by interacting with people. You know, be a journalist.

I can now hear the rally as well as see it.

“Ha’am doresh hasudanim legoresh,” they chant. “The people demand the Sudanese be expelled.” It rhymes in Hebrew. It’s an adaptation of a similar chant used in the social justice rallies that swept Israel last year.

IMG_8932

There are maybe 100 people, some holding placards, some yelling, some just milling about. The protest seems to have jammed up under the sweeping tentacles of the central bus station. We’re in the heart of the neighbourhood inundated with Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum-seekers. There is a heavy police presence and a media one as well. Videocameras roll as reporters interview protestors and the Army Radio reporter looks overwhelmed with the attention.

I take a few minutes to track down my translator. Then we set to work. We’re looking for a variety of protestors to talk to – old, young, religious, secular, men, women. “Why are you here? Who do you blame? What is the solution?” Most are residents, including one who says her mother was killed by an Eritrean. The answers indicate a little anger and a lot of fear.

It’s fascinating to explore that line between legitimate fear and grievance, ignorance and racism.

IMG_8938

Their neighbourhood was neglected for years, only to be used as a dumping ground for the thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who crossed the border into Israel, seeking asylum. And work. Without a policy and without enough space in the country’s prisons, the state would drop them off by the busload in the central bus station. They were permitted to stay in Israel, but not to work. On any given day, in the neighbourhoods surrounding the central bus station, there are far more Sudanese and Eritreans on the street than Israeli residents.

IMG_8937

After interviews with six or seven Israeli protestors, my translator and I approach a group of Eritreans standing on the sidelines. I wonder what they make of this all. But we run into the same language difficulties and I wish I had brought along a Tigrinyan translator as well.

Meanwhile, a man is yelling on a megaphone in Hebrew. I can only catch snippets:

“…government neglecting…”

“…nothing will happen if we sit quietly…”

“…Bibi will wake only by force…” [Bibi is short for the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]

“…I’m not an activist…”

“…I’m a resident who worries for his family…”

And the collective chant resumes, “the people demand the Sudanese be expelled. The people demand the Sudanese be expelled. The people demand…”

IMG_8935

I’m meeting with residents this week. More to come.

Where does the bus go?

“Where does the bus go?” she says in Hebrew. The elderly woman, sitting in the row in front of me, interrupts my train of thought and I try to stammer out a reply in Hebrew.

“Tachanah merkazit.” The central bus station, though I hate saying it, because the way I pronounce the ‘r’ quickly identifies me as a North American.

After a moment passes, she says, “sorry if I bothered you.”

I must have looked confused because then she adds, “some people don’t like it.”

I smile politely and say of course not. Besides, I’m not quite sure what she means.

I stare out the window and wait to see the behemoth that is Tel Aviv’s central bus station.

In a metropolis without a subway, the terminal acts as a nerve centre for a fleet of local and intercity buses. In the grand tradition of failed urban renewal megaprojects, the new station was built in 1993 smack in the middle of a run-down working-class neighbourhood. Half of the cavernous structure is empty. The upper floors harbor colourful discount clothing shops, bakeries and fake DVD stands. Israelis on day-trips, Thai and Filipino migrant workers, Mizrahi shop-owners and off-duty soldiers shop and mingle. It gets dustier, spookier and more desolate the lower you go.

You can see the seven-story structure from several blocks away. In a neighbourhood of three or four story apartments, you can see the bus ramps stretch out like tentacles between the crumbling buildings. It’s as if an alien ship took out half the neighbourhood when it crashlanded. That is before decaying for 20 years to match its graffiti strewn surroundings.

Of course not long after the bus station’s crash-landing, a different sort of unwelcome guest came to change the neighbourhoods of Shapira, Neve Sha’anan and Hatikva in South Tel Aviv.

More to come.