Last night right wing demonstrators, including Israeli membersof Knesset attacked African asylum seekers in the south of Tel Aviv
The statement by Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last week regarding the ‘infiltration’ of African asylum seekers via the Israel-Egypt border, is indicative not only of Israeli state racism, but also of the West’s approach to asylum seekers in general.
If Israel does not stem the flow of African refugees and illegal immigrants, Netanyahu said in last week’s cabinet meeting, ‘the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000’, threatening ‘our existence as a Jewish and democratic state, the social fabric of society, national security and national identity.’
With a population of 7.8 million, 20 per cent of whom are Palestinian Arabs, Israel is one of the few states without fully recognisable international borders. One exception is Israel’s border with Egypt, agreed in a peace treaty in 1979, separating between the Sinai Peninsula and pre-1967 Israel. Human rights organisations say more than 50,000 asylum seekers and migrants have entered Israel illegally since 2005. Yet though more than 13,500 people crossed this border to enter Israel illegally in 2010, mostly smuggled by Bedouins, two-thirds Eritrean and one-third Sudanese, only three were granted refugee status by Israel, rising to six last year – probably the world’s lowest recognition rate.
Netanyahu assured his cabinet that Israel is taking robust steps against the so-called ‘infiltrators’ – a term used in the 1950s in relation to Palestinians who were expelled or who escaped their homes during the 1948 Nakba (or catastrophe) – by constructing a 150 miles long steel fence through the Sinai desert as a deterrent to people-trafficking and drug and weapons smuggling. Israel is also constructing the world’s largest detention centre for asylum seekers and refugees, capable of holding 11,000 people. The £58m building, close to the border, will open by the end of the year.
In addition, Israel is committed to ‘the physical withdrawal’ of migrants, despite fears among human rights organisations about the dangers they could face in their home countries. Deportations are indeed seen as vital to maintaining Israel’s self perception as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ despite its poor human rights record in its treatment of Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and the ongoing siege of Gaza. Danny Danon, the Chairman of the Israeli ‘absorption committee’ announced in the press and on his Facebook page that he will chair a new extra-Parliamentary movement, called ‘Deportations Now’, to campaign against ‘infiltration’, aimed at ‘getting these people out of Israel’.
As I said, the Israeli attitude is indicative of the Western approach to asylum seekers, who are demonised and accused of causing crime and other social problems. Most African migrants in Israel are not allowed to work, live in overcrowded and impoverished conditions in southern Tel Aviv and some turn to crime. Yohanan Danino, the Israeli police chief, said migrants should be permitted to work to discourage petty crime and need to be supported in order to prevent economic and social problems. The police also said that the crime rate among foreigners in Israel was 2.04% in 2010, compared with 4.99% among Israelis.
Israeli attitudes also denote Israeli state racism. In a country where anyone with a Jewish mother has automatic citizenship rights (denied to Palestinians born on the land), the migration of non-Jews, and particularly black Africans, is seen as threatening Israeli national identity, clearly regarded as fragile. Despite the long Jewish history of persecutions and deportations, the Minister for the Interior Eli Yishai last week called for all migrants to be jailed pending deportation and told the Army radio station: ‘The migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying’.