by Rafael Medoff
They may not wear those classic blue “kibbutznik hats,” but some Ethiopians, Sudanese, and Eritreans may soon be establishing Israeli-style communes in eastern Africa.
It’s part of an innovative project launched by young Israelis to deal with the problem of the tens of thousands of African refugees who have slipped across the Egypt-Israel border during the past several years.
An estimated 60,000 refugees and migrants from Sudan, Eritrea, and other African countries have made the hazardous journey across the Sinai desert and into Israel since 2006. Many have been kidnapped and tortured for ransom by Bedouin Arabs in the Sinai. There have also been incidents in which Egyptian border police shot at the migrants. Refugee activists estimate that several hundred have been shot dead by the Egyptians, and several thousand have been murdered by members of the “Rashida” Bedouin tribe.
“For a long time, the Israeli government had no policy for dealing with this problem,” Pesach Houspeter, 48, chairman of Dror Israel, an affiliate of the Labor Zionist youth movement, explained in an interview with JNS.org. “So the police would take them from the border area, bring them to a park in a slum area of southern Tel Aviv, and dump them there.”
The large number of African refugees and migrants living in dense South Tel Aviv soon led to conflicts with local residents. Some refugees were arrested for burglaries and, in several instances, sexual assaults on Israeli women. These incidents led, in turn, to attacks on Africans by resentful locals.
“It was a terrible situation, a guaranteed recipe for tension,” Houspeter says. “Two impoverished populations, from vastly different cultures, were suddenly pushed together, forced to compete for the same turf in a neighborhood with dwindling resources. And before long, some politicians were exploiting the situation for their own interests.”
A major part of the problem is that the Israeli government does not have a specific law for dealing with non-Jewish would-be immigrants, including those seeking political asylum. Even genocide survivors from Darfur are not granted refugee status. Although Israel is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, which requires it to grant haven to refugees from racial or religious persecution, it never previously had to deal with any significant number of asylum-seekers.
The most Israel had to deal with was a group of 66 Vietnamese “boat people,” who were admitted in 1977 by newly-elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin, as his first act in office. Another 300 were admitted in 1978-1979.
The situation has changed dramatically in recent years, with refugees from the Darfur genocide fleeing Sudan, victims of various African civil wars seeking a haven, and famine and poverty in general causing many Africans to look for a better life elsewhere. At the same time, Israel’s expanding, modern economy and technological advances have made the Jewish State much more attractive to outsiders.
The fact that there are many different types of refugees has only complicated the situation for Israel. “No country is obligated to admit ‘economic refugees,’ but every country has an obligation to accept people who are fleeing from persecution. Unfortunately, the Israeli government has not done a careful job of distinguishing between the two,” Uriel Levy, 27, chairman of the Dror-affiliated Combat Genocide Association, told JNS.org.
To reduce the number of would-be immigrants entering the country illegally, the Israeli government sped up the completion of a fence along the Israel-Egypt border. As a result, the number of infiltrators dropped from more than 2,000 in the month of May 2012, to less than 200 by August, and just seven in December. The Dror Israel activists supported construction of the fence. But they point out that a fence alone will not solve the problem of distinguishing between job-seekers and victims of genocide.
The Israeli government also began gradually repatriating some of the refugees, providing them with air transportation back to their countries of origin and a cash stipend. The majority of the Africans, however, are still in a detention facility in the Negev or in the streets and parks of Tel Aviv.
Seeking a long-term solution to the problem, Levy’s group has crafted legislation known as the Law on Treatment and Responsibility for Asylum-Seekers and Refugees in Israel. The bill is based on a study of Israel’s absorptive ability in comparison with the size of its territory, the volume and density of its population, and the scope of its Gross National Product. It calculates that Israel is able to absorb 1,750 refugees annually, up to a total of 20,000. This would also place Israel near the top of the list of countries that admit refugees.
The legislation was endorsed in January 2012 by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak and a number of prominent Knesset members. But it got bogged down in parliamentary bureaucracy, and then it stalled because of the recent Israeli election season. With Barak expected to leave office shortly, the bill’s fate is unclear.
The search for a long-term solution inspired Houspeter and Levy to conceive a project to give the refugees agricultural and other training in Israel, so that when they return to their homelands, they can build a better life. “Some of the Africans have spoken to us of their great admiration for the kibbutz system,” Houspeter explains. “So we thought – why not show them how it’s done, so they can do it themselves?”
Under Dror Israel’s auspices, several dozen young Africans in Israel are now studying community development and strategies for economic and social independence that they intend to implement on the Israeli-style kibbutzim they hope to build back home.
“They are also being educated in methods of social cooperation that will encourage them to refrain from taking revenge on those of their countrymen who harmed them or their families,” Houspeter says. Dror Israel hopes to send Israeli volunteers to Ethiopia and South Sudan to lend a helping hand.
Israel provided extensive humanitarian assistance to numerous underdeveloped African and Asian countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of that aid ended when, under Arab pressure, those countries severed their relations with Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Israel’s aid to Africa sometimes yielded unexpected dividends. The involvement of Israeli engineers in the construction of Uganda’s Entebbe airport, for example, proved crucial in 1976, when Palestinian Arab terrorists hijacked an Israel-bound Air France plane and forced it to land in Entebbe. The engineers’ familiarity with the layout of the buildings enabled the Israeli commando team, led by Yoni Netanyahu, to devise the raid that ended the siege and liberated the hostages.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington D.C.