Israelis have been observing the month of repentance (Elul). As far as their government is concerned, it is members of the High Court who should be repenting. They have infuriated the Netanyahu government with an order to shut down a detention centre for asylum-seekers within 90 days and to reduce maximum detention without trial from one year to 60 days.
It is all about what is called the Infiltrators Prevention Bill. This contained stiff measures to curb the influx of African asylum-seekers or, as the government calls them, illegal infiltrators.
Israel has an estimated 48,200 asylum-seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan. Many are fleeing genuine persecution. But some are almost certainly more interested in economic benefits than a sanctuary.
About 2200 of them have been locked up in the Holot detention centre deep in the Negev desert near the Egyptian border and the subject of the court decision. Although called an ‘open’ facility, detainees were subject to three roll calls a day and the nearest town was 65 kms away. The inmates were locked up overnight and not allowed to work.
In a 7 to 2 judgment, the court described the conditions there as ‘wretched’ and said the law ‘violates human rights in an essential, deep and fundamental way’. The judgment continued: ‘Infiltrators do not lose their right to their full dignity in coming to this country by any means necessary. They do not shed their (right to) dignity when they enter custody…and their right to dignity stands even if their arrival to the country was through illegal infiltration’.
The Israel Interior Minister, Gideon Sa’ar, said he would not accept the High Court verdict. In a TV interview, he said ‘Israelis have rights, too. The state cannot accept a situation where it has no tools to deal with illegal infiltrators’. The result, he added, would mean ‘we won’t have a Jewish democratic state because our borders will be overrun with illegal infiltrators’.
He ignored the fact that unwanted immigration had dropped to a trickle since the fence along the Egyptian Sinai border was completed in late 2012. But he did note that since the one-year detention law was introduced last December, the number of asylum-seekers leaving had tripled.
The Israeli government has so far countered the court ruling in three ways.
Firstly, it is investigating whether the Knesset can introduce new legislation, which, subject to certain provisos, could bypass the High Court. So much for the separation of powers.
Secondly, it has announced the construction of an ‘open’ detention facility elsewhere consisting of tents where there would be only two roll calls a day.
Thirdly, it has increased the payment offered to asylum-seekers willing to leave from up to US$1500 to up to $5000. But many Africans say no amount of enticement would encourage them to leave because of the fate they fear awaits them if they return home. Some say they would go if they could be resettled in a third country.
Most of the African arrivals have descended on South Tel Aviv, a poor area, where they rely on NGOs and volunteers to survive. Many of the local residents want to see the visitors move on, saying they fear for their safety.
However, the High Court justices did not offer any solution to the problem. Their sole interest was interpreting the law.
According to an article on Israel’s The Real News website, Israel has an awkward dilemma. It says it has no real means for asylum-seekers to be assessed as refugees. If an African can achieve refugee status, then what about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were expelled after the 1948 war? It is a question Israel prefers to avoid.
One asylum-seeker advocate wrote in the Jerusalem Post, ‘As Jews, we are taught we must love the stranger because we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. We must not mistreat runaway slaves because we were once runaway slaves’. But many Israelis worry that the character of their country which they regard as essentially the homeland for Jews is under threat from the arrival of non-Jews from Africa.
As it is, Israelis have had 30 years of experience of Africans living in their midst. These are the Ethiopians who fled the unrest back in the 80s, declaring they were Jewish. In a momentous airlift by Israeli planes, thousands were collected from refugee camps along the Sudan border and taken to Israel. Well before then, these Beta Israelis, as they are known, were officially declared by senior rabbis to be Jewish. Today there are 84,000 of them in Israel, many of whom have struggled to adapt to life there and the Hebrew language. But they are regarded as Jewish and therefore entitled to live in Israel without question whereas the Eritreans and Sudanese are not.
It is certain that the Netanyahu government will continue to take a hardline approach to asylum-seekers and what, perversely, is called the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom. In order to govern, it needs the support of ultra-nationalist and religious parties which have no empathy for the visitors no matter what the Torah teaches them about helping strangers.
For now, though, the asylum-seekers remain in a legal limbo held as a collective rather than as individuals. Since Israel does not investigate their refugee claims, they are not granted any rights, cannot work and thus face a future with no way forward other than backward.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.