Crackdown on Migrants Tugs at Soul of Israelis

Isabel Kershner, New York Times, June 18, 2012

One by one, immigration inspectors escorted the migrants out of a dilapidated building into an alley teeming with African-run stores and hair salons. Then, they were led onto a waiting bus, in the first steps on the way to deportation to their native South Sudan.


“It must be done,” said Mor Sheffer, an Israeli bystander, “or tomorrow we will have no country and we will have to look for another one.”

Many residents here in the Neve Shaanan area of south Tel Aviv complain of rampant crime by migrants and say that it has become “Soweto,” a reference to the site of a 1976 uprising in South Africa. At a recent protest fanned by right-wing politicians, one lawmaker described the Africans, known here as “infiltrators,” as “a cancer in our body.” Later, Africans’ stores and apartments were attacked.

But the government clampdown is also ripping at Israel‘s soul. For some, the connotations of roundups and the prospect of mass detentions cut too close to the bone.


Since 2005, about 60,000 sub-Saharan Africans have surreptitiously crossed the porous border from Egypt into Israel after traversing the rugged desert of the Sinai Peninsula.

The rising tensions caused by their presence have prompted the government to announce a tough new policy to stem the influx of African immigrants and asylum seekers. The interior minister, Eli Yishai, has vowed to clear the country of all illegal immigrants within three years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contends that most of them are economic immigrants and that they threaten the Jewish character of Israel. On Sunday, he said that all new arrivals would immediately be placed in detention.

Mr. Netanyahu told his cabinet that Israel was “building holding facilities to house tens of thousands of infiltrators until they can be sent out of the country.”

For now, most of the immigrants and asylum seekers—about 50,000—cannot be deported, in line with international conventions. They come from Sudan and Eritrea, countries considered too dangerous for their repatriation, and so they are afforded temporary collective protection in Israel. That protection was recently lifted for immigrants from South Sudan. {snip}


People can apply for refugee status, but priority is given to those not covered by collective protection, said Sabine Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority. The approval rate is negligible. Since 2009, out of 7,000 applications, 16 people were granted refugee status or asylum.


Some Israelis invoke the biblical injunction to “love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Others say they now feel like strangers in their own country.


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