Coping with Africa and ourselves

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Sep 8th, 2012
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It isn’t pretty. Israel did what it could to keep the photographers away. It doesn’t play well against the history of Jews having to move from place to place, and encountering borders closed against them. Jewish officials have problems with their own population, ambivalent about providing refuge and the prospect of suffering millions within walking distance. Human rights activists are assiduous in their views of international agreements that would encourage more of those millions to begin their journeys.

Ha’aretz is the left-wing icon of Israel’s daily press, but its cartoonist could not resist adding to the quandary. We see Africans on the other side of the newly erected fence, a soldier emptying a bottle of water into the mouth of one, and an officer saying, “Now they will ask for Cola Zero.”

The most recent story touches on a number of details that render the implementation of public policy a process that is generally less than satisfying. Coping, or managing problems that defy solution, happens across the range of issues that press on officials and citizens. The case of African migrants adds human faces, along with the tragedies of Jewish history, to render it especially problematic.

Israel began a high profile, rushed job of building a border fence along the desert boundary with Egypt during a period of monthly increases in the incidence of African migrants coming across the Sinai, led by Bedouin guides who often abused them, reports about forced organ donations where the victims were left to die, and Egyptian troops who shot to kill. Those reaching the border overwhelmed the capacity of Israeli officials to investigate claims of deserving refuge under international agreements, and overwhelmed the tolerance of residents in poor areas of Israeli cities to deal with individuals who were different, competed for menial work, and occasionally violent.

The incidence of migrants declined as the fence neared completion and the IDF increased its patrols in areas that remained open. The challenge came when a group of 21, said to be Eritreans and Sudanese, reached the fence and began to wait.

Human rights activists sought to provide them food, water, and medical assistance. Insofar as the fence is not exactly on the border, but here and there a few meters into Israel, lawyers claimed that the migrants were already in Israel, and had the right to official inquiries about their qualification for refugee status.

Israel can’t build a fence exactly on the border without personnel and equipment entering Egypt and causing a different kind of incident.

Given problems of language, documents, and various standards for verification, a process of examining claims of refugees status that would satisfy human rights advocates might last for months. Or forever in the case of those without documents claiming that they came from Sudan, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and is not likely to cooperate with inquiries or with the eventual efforts of repatriation when claims of refugee status can be denied. Even African countries with ambassadors in Israel are inclined to say that people without documents, “are not ours,” or to find other reasons for declining repatriation even when it comes along with offers of money for the individuals and for governments willing to take them.

The campaign in behalf of the 21 threatened the utility of the border fence, whose construction has already cost more than $250 million. If 21 could wait at the fence until Israel caved under their pressure, there would soon be thousands more.

Even with IDF efforts to keep the media, activists bearing food, and physicians wanting to help away from the area, the issue reached the headlines and the first minutes of nightly newscasts. The IDF said it was providing water, food, material to create shade, and essential medical care, but the sun was hot and the prospects of being left to the whims of Bedouin predators or Egyptian soldiers were well known to Israeli officials and the public.

One of the women in the group was said to have been pregnant, raped by Bedouin guides, and to have suffered a miscarriage as a result.

Among the problems associated with undocumented Africans are attacks on Israeli Ethiopians by individuals protesting the Africans. More than 120,000 Ethiopians have had a spotty record of assimilation and acceptance, despite being recognized officially as Jews, brought to Israel and provided material assistance by governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Human rights organizations initiated a suit in the Supreme Court, demanding that Israel accept the latest group of 21 migrants, at least to examine their claims of deserving refuge from persecution in their homelands. Officials argued in behalf of Israel’s rights to guard its borders, in this case against the prospect of millions coming over the desert for whom menial work, subsistence on welfare in a poor neighborhood of Tel Aviv, or even an Israeli detention camp would be better than what they had at home.

The judges heard argument and recessed the case over the weekend.

Israel pursued a typically inelegant way to cope with this cluster of migrants. It opened its gates to two women, one of whom had recently miscarried, and one youth. Egypt will deal with the remaining 18.

Friday evening’s news showed how serious is the Israeli establishment about keeping undocumented African from coming over the Sinai. Pro-migrant activists recruited Knesset Member Dov Hanin to employ his parliamentary immunity to get through the cordon that the IDF had drawn around the area of the fence where the migrants were waiting. However, the army kept him at some distance for several hours, protesting that his status allowed him to go anywhere within Israel, and telephoning up the levels of the IDF and government to get the clearance that was his due.

When the IDF and unknown others finally relented and brought Hanin in an army vehicle to the fence, the Africans were nowhere to be seen.

The Knesset Chair (Speaker) Reuven Rivlin complained about the violation of law and democracy.

Hanin is one of the brightest, best educated, and most articulate Members of Knesset. He is also the prominent Jew in the largely Arab-supported party now going by the name of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. The party’s roots and Hanin’s are in the Israeli Communist Party. Hanin’s father was a Communist activist, and Dov was active in the party as a student on the way to a law degree from the Hebrew University, a PhD in political science from Tel Aviv University, and a post-doc in political science at Oxford. In the Knesset he has specialized in environmental policy, and is well-known as a persuasive spokesman for environmental causes.

It may take a while to see how Israeli activists and judges respond to the various elements in the incident of the 21, or the 18 sent back into the Sinai.

Don’t bother telling me the problems. You can find them in the discussion above. If there is something I missed, let me know.

Hebrew University Political Science professor Ira Sharkansky evaluates the latest happenings in Israel.

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