In Jerusalem this week, an apartment in which 10 Eritrean refugees were sleeping was set on fire. Two of the refugees were hospitalized.
On the wall of the building was scrawled a Hebrew-language slogan, “Leave the neighborhood.”
This was only the most recent in a series of attacks by Jewish Israelis on African migrants, as hostility toward the refugees has risen in recent months.
This hostility has come as the Israeli government has tightened both laws and rhetoric directed at illegal immigrants from Africa, who number as many as 60,000.
Even before this year, however, Israeli asylum policies had come in for rebuke.
In its most recent human rights report, released last last month but dealing with events of 2011, the U.S. State Department criticized Israel’s asylum policies for failing to allow an independent appeal procedure for applicants, and for not allowing any access to the asylum procedure to sanctuary seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Instead, refugees from those countries, who make up the majority of those who enter Israel illegally, are given temporary residency permits, which do not allow them to get jobs.
In this week’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that while his government is working to deport an estimated 25,000 migrants from African countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, it cannot deport the 35,000 refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. Eritrea, which declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993, is considered one of the most repressive countries in the world. Reporters Without Borders has ranked it below North Korea as offering the least press freedom of any country in the world.
Netanyahu ordered the expansion of a prison in the Negev to hold tens of thousands of migrants. The government will begin implementing a law passed in January that will allow illegal immigrants to be arrested and held for up to three years. The law amended the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, aimed at Arabs who sought to cross the border to commit terrorist attacks.
Last month’s State Department report criticized the use of the term “infiltrators” to refer to the Africans, given the phrase’s incendiary connotation of Arab terrorists.”
This year, however, the anti-immigrant rhetoric has ramped up.
It reached its harshest terms in May, when Likud Knesset Member Miri Regev referred to the asylum seekers as “a cancer” at an anti-immigrant rally. At the conclusion of the rally, participants erupted into violence, smashing shop windows and beating Africans.
Netanyahu condemned the violence.
He expressed sympathy with the anti-immigrant sentiment, however, saying the influx of Africans “threatens national security and identity.”
Among those waging the harshest rhetorical battle has been Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who heads the charedi Sefardi party Shas.
Eli Yishai told Army Radio that most African migrants in Israel are involved in criminal activity – a claim he did not back up with statistics. And he told the daily newspaper Maariv last week that the migrants were committing rapes that the victims did not want to report for fear of being branded as having AIDS.
“I only sound racist or unenlightened or xenophobic, but I am acting out of a love of the country, and knowledge that I have no other country,” he told Maariv.
“The first thing we need is more lockup facilities and detention camps, because our jails will fill up very fast,” he said. “I suggest that we pardon thousands of non-dangerous prisoners, and so make room for the infiltrators who pose a much greater threat to the public peace.”
Yishai’s rhetoric has been criticized by a ministerial colleague, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, a Russian Jewish immigrant, heads the right-wing Israel Beteinu party. This week, however, he criticized Yishai, saying Yishai’s rhetoric – as well as his personal attempts at international diplomacy with Eritrea – were interfering with Foreign Ministry efforts to negotiate the return of the migrants to their homelands.
The wave of asylum seekers began in 2006. It escalated further following the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the resulting loosening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai peninusala, through which the refugees cross to enter Israel.
Advocates of the illegal immigrants depict them as survivors of genocide, civil war, prolonged servitude, torture, and rape, who risked life and limb to find safety in Israel.
The Israeli government says they are Third World migrants who come to Israel for a better standard of living and deserve no place in the Jewish state.
Israel says imprisonment and harsh treatment is necessary to deter the immigrants.
Advocates for the immigrants say that the crackdown six months ago, which included the government taking action against those who employed the illegal immigrants, exacerbated their living conditions and worsened their relations with their Tel Aviv neighbors.
At the time, the Tel Aviv municipality also clamped down on African business, closing restaurants operated by and serving the Africans. It also threatened to take away the tax deductions of church groups that were aiding the migrants.
It was this clampdown that raised the homeless population in Levinsky Park last winter.
Advocates of the immigrants say that fears that the Africans are raising unemployment are baseless, noting that more than 200,000 legal migrant workers are in Israel. Most are from Asia. And they say that the policies of the central government, which take the Africans they find in the Negev and release them in Tel Aviv without any services, are inhumane.
The Israeli policy contrasts with United States refugee policy, strongly advocated by the American Jewish community, which provides resettlement grants to refugees.
The United States has granted asylum to 97 percent of Eritreans who have sought it.
Jewish organizations in the United States have criticized the anti-immigrant riots in Israel. They have been far more mooted on the incitement, however. And they have been loath to criticize Israel’s anti-refugee policies.