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Israel has a refugee problem – similar to Europe’s

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Deportation is not a solution: Protests against the deportation of Liberian refugees from Israel.
Photo: sachaf/Flickr, Copyright: Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0.

June 4, 2012
Marianne Zepp
It started with some incidents of rape in the area of the central bus station in south Tel Aviv. Detained and accused for this were illegal African immigrants (for a critical analysis of the incidents see here). And everything culminated on Wednesday evening. Approximately 1000 demonstrators did not stop after verbal attacks: They attacked Africans, destroyed shops and smashed windows. Alongside this mob, immediate deportation was demanded. Thus, a topic which had already been smoldering under the surface came to public attention: Israel is, like Europe, confronted with more and more refugees from areas of crisis and distress in Africa. 

Between 60.000 and 80.000 illegal immigrants live in Israel, most of them from Eritrea and South Sudan. Social tensions are worst at the HaTikva market in South Tel Aviv, a traditionally poor neighborhood with a very high percentage of immigrants. Long-term residents struggle against the stranded Africans in their parks and slums, which formerly used to be apartments in their streets.

Politicians reacted immediately: while the chief of police demanded employment for immigrants in order to decrease the social implications, politicians from the (far) right did not hesitate to voice their opinions: Danny Danon from Likud ticked off the bomb by postulating: “Deportation now!”: Eli Yishai, minister for the interior in the Netanyahu government, talks of bugs, Likud MK Miri Regev of cancer, which eats the Israeli society. “Immigrants” and “refugees” became “infiltrators”.

The national-ethnic citizenship has increasingly been preferred over the understanding of the liberal state which was proclaimed by the declaration of the foundation of the Jewish state. The emphasis on the Jewish Character of the state has narrowed down to the ethnic and religious affiliation, that enable citizenship and with that to social and political rights. The consequences are mechanisms of exclusion and in more extremist form racist attacks as described above.

Nevertheless the Jerusalem Post, in its weekend edition pointed out, that the state should strive to preserve a Jewish majority and the character of the Jewish state, but also stated, that for historical reasons Jewish state should side with the persecuted and has a special obligation to protect them.

This is how the question of how to deal with refugees became a question of identity of the Israeli state. Israel has, - in its self-conception as a liberal state by adopting western values - signed the refugee convention of the United Nations 1967. Some commentators regard this as a problem.

Many also point to the unimaginable persecution that the refugees from Eritrea and Sudan endured before coming to Israel. The Bedouin tribes from Sinai and the Negev play an infamous role in this scenario: They have turned the trafficking of refugees into a lucrative venture, which does not care about loss of human lives.

Human Rights organizations, experts in constitutional law and foreign- and realist politicians protest. They also take into account the southern peripheries of the country: thus, MK of the Labor Party Herzog suggests bilateral agreements with Eritrea, to grant the refugees a temporary residency status.

Israel’s strategic location is much more endangered than that of Europe; it is not separated from Africa through the Mediterranean. Also the liberal Europe has no adequate answer for the distress at its borders and has made the right of refugees for protection of life and bodily harm a farce. Calamity of refugees has become a daily routine. The humans that risk their life in the Mediterranean are the disgrace of today’s Europe. The voices in Israel that look for agreeable solutions – in contrast to their government - are getting louder.