Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2012, Pages 10, 21

Special Report

An Outpouring of Anti-Migrant Racism in Israel

By John Gee

Ismail, a Sudanese migrant who was attacked by Jewish Israelis, at his home in south Tel Aviv, June 13, 2012. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

The May 23 riots in Tel Aviv against African migrants in Israel resulted in the injury of dozens of asylum seekers and the wrecking and looting of shops that served them. The riots were followed by firebombings of apartments and a nursery in Tel Aviv, as well as one firebombing in Jerusalem. The violence was preceded by incitement reminiscent of the language used by agitators on the extreme supremacist fringe of U.S. and European politics.

A thousand Israelis rallied in south Tel Aviv against the migrants' presence. There is a large concentration of African migrants in the area, where some sleep out in the parks at night. A large bus station there is also known as a place where African migrants congregate.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Likud Member of the Knesset (MK) Miri Regev described the asylum seekers as "a cancer in our body" and pledged to do everything possible "in order to bring them back to where they belong." Fellow Likud MK Danny Danon reportedly said, "We must expel the infiltrators from Israel. We should not be afraid to say the words 'expulsion now.'"

The riot occured after the demonstration broke up, fueled by the speakers' incendiary remarks. The violence took place in the context of a climate of anti-African hostility that has been particularly marked since Binyamin Netanyahu formed the most right-wing government in Israel's history in 2009. In 2010, Netanyahu said it was time "to stop this growing influx that threatens Israelis' jobs and changes the character of the state." He reiterated that point just days before the riots, saying that "illegal infiltrators" were threatening the state's identity.

In April 2010, Yaakov Katz, an MK of the National Union party and chair of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, issued an open letter to Tel Aviv residents in which he called for the declaration of a state of emergency to deal with the high number of Africans entering Israel from Egypt—where many first fled but where they cannot legally work—ignoring the fact that there has been a state of emergency in Israel ever since the state was declared in 1948. According to Katz, the state of Israel was being killed after all its citizens' hard work, and "in ten years, the infiltrators could ruin it all." He called Tel Aviv residents "dull and witless" for allowing the African presence in their city to grow.

In November 2009, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the leader of Shas, a religious party based primarily on Moroccan Jewish support, said that the migrants should not be allowed to settle in Israel because they would bring in "a range of diseases such as hepatitis, measles, tuberculosis and AIDS." In a May 3 interview with the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, Yishai said, "Muslims that arrive here do not even believe this country belongs to us, the white man." After the Tel Aviv riots, Yishai told Ma'ariv that many Israeli women had been raped by the migrants but that they did not complain "out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS." The solution to the problem of the African migrants was "more prisons and detention camps," he said, adding that they all should be jailed, "without exception," and sent home.

Visiting the new Sinai border fence, National Union MK Aryeh Eldad declared: "Anyone that penetrates Israel's border should be shot—a Swedish tourist, Sudanese from Eritrea, Eritreans from Sudan, Asians from Sinai. Whoever touches Israel's border—shot." He later conceded that this might not be possible "because bleeding hearts groups will immediately begin to shriek and turn to the courts." In other words, it is not morality that is at issue, but "feasibility." Aryeh Eldad is the son of Israel Eldad, a former leader of the Zionist underground group Lehi, known by the British as the Stern Gang, and later a prominent settler ideologist. In 1970, the elder Eldad wrote to Meir Kahane, inviting the extremist rabbi to come to Israel from the U.S. and join him in campaigning to build settlements in the West Bank. Clearly the fruit has not fallen far from the tree.

According to Israel's Ministry of Immigration, 62,000 people have crossed into the country illegally from Egypt since 2006; about two-thirds came from Eritrea and one-third from Sudan. They claimed a fear of persecution in their home countries and sought a better life in Israel. Most were assisted—for a high price—by Bedouin, and arrived in Israel destitute. They often support themselves by working illegally, but are accused by some of being responsible for much of the crime in areas where they are present.

In January 2010, Netanyahu announced that a new fence would be built along the Egyptian border to keep the migrants out. It is now well under way. Except for the border with Jordan south of the Red Sea, Israel will be surrounded on land by walls and fences to keep "infiltrators" of various descriptions out. Plans were also announced in 2010 for the construction of the world's largest detention center for migrants.

The government wants to return the unwanted Africans to their countries of origin, but it does not have diplomatic relations with Sudan.

Many Israelis and members of Zionist organizations abroad, disturbed at these developments, have voiced their condemnation of the riots and the inflammatory words of certain Israeli leaders. This was true of U.S. Zionist groups, with the notable exception of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, which maintained its usual supportive attitude toward Netanyahu and his cohorts.

The riots were widely reported in the international media, but few made the connection between Israeli hostility toward African migrants and fear and enmity toward the Palestinians. Anxieties over the dilution of the Jewish character of the state, which was established through the expulsion of most of its Palestinian Arab population in 1948, are an abiding feature of Israeli political culture. Since the 1980s, parties that openly call for Israel's Palestinian citizens to be expelled have had only very limited support, but their extremism has legitimized the expression of broader support for "transfer." It is backed by Yisrael Beitenu, the Russian immigrant-based party of Israel's current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for example.

Even the tools of repression used against migrants hark back to the Palestine conflict. The new detention center is to be located at Ketziot, which came to international attention during the first intifada, when thousands of Palestinian prisoners passed through it.

On Jan. 10 of this year, the Prevention of Infiltration Law was amended to allow asylum seekers to be detained for three years without trial, or indefinitely if they came from "enemy" states such as Sudan. Both the "infiltration/infiltrators" terminology and the law itself go back to the 1950s. Palestinians expelled in 1948 tried to return to recover possessions hidden when they left, and there were fears in Israel that some were managing to return permanently and find shelter in surviving Palestinian communities. If intercepted, the lucky ones were sent back to their place of refuge, but it became more normal to shoot them. In response, Palestinians started to come back with guns.

The Prevention of Infiltration Law was passed in 1954, ostensibly to deal with armed infiltrators on sabotage missions, but it allowed "infiltrators" to be imprisoned for five years, whether armed or not.

The latest amendment to the law provides for it to be de-linked from the state of emergency, so that if Israel one day decides to lift the latter, this law will remain in force.

The "original sin" of the dispossession of the Palestinians thus continues to be the primary source of rottenness in the state of Israel.

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore, and the author of Unequal Conflict: The Palestinians and Israel.