Asylum Seekers In Israel Confronting an Agonizing Future

Israeli courts  deemed it legitimate for municipalities to shut off electricity and water services to African Refugees says David Sheen an independent journalist based in Dimona, Israel

Asylum Seekers In Israel Confronting an Agonizing Future

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Tens of thousands of asylum seekers living in Israel, many of them from Sudan and Eritrea, are now in a state of uncertainty about their future. The Israeli government announced a deal to deport the asylum seekers to a third country, to Uganda and Rwanda, while paying Uganda and Rwanda with cash and with weapons in order to make them agree to accept asylum seekers. When the deal was exposed and the horrible conditions to which the asylum seekers were deported to surfaced, both Uganda and Rwanda backed off the deal. In addition, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that such deportations and plans to do so is actually illegal. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced on April 3 a plan to recognize the refugee status of asylum seekers, and then backtracked less than 24 hours later. Last week the government announced a plan to open detention centres in which refugees will be incarcerated indefinitely, or until they voluntarily agree to return to their countries of origin from which they escaped.

The number of asylum seekers who are leaving voluntarily has significantly dropped 21 percent this year. Now, Denjen Brhane Menghesha spoke with Al Jazeera about the prospect of asylum seekers in Israel. He himself escaped from Eritrea, and lived in Israel for six years without being recognized as a refugee.

DENJEN BRHANE MENGHESHA: First of all, there is racism in this country. And this is a difficult disease, especially amongst the politicians. This we could have dealt with, but then there’s the issue that the government takes 20 percent of the money we make and puts it in a deposit. We can only see this money when we leave the country. This puts huge pressure on us.

SHARMINI PERIES: On to discuss the situation in Israel with me is David Sheen. He is an independent journalist and filmmaker living and reporting from the ground in Dimona, Israel. David, good to have you with us.

DAVID SHEEN: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: David, we actually today cannot even have a conversation about the plight of refugees in Israel without talking about an absolutely humiliating and awful incident involving the treatment of some young men showering on the beach, and what they underwent in Israel just a few days ago. Jonathan Small wrote in his Facebook page, this. He said, “I passed two men using the beach showers to clean themselves. They were minding their own business, not harassing or hurting anyone. After a few moments, a group of large men approached and started to harass them,” the showering men. “They shoved them and pulled their hair and made them take humiliating selfies,” wrote Jonathan Small.

Now, David, describe for us the prevalence of these types of attitudes in Israel towards the migrants that are there. And of course, then, talk about the situation of asylum seekers. Is the situation getting better or worse for them? And I, I presume it’s the latter, but your thoughts on that?

DAVID SHEEN: OK. So first of all, there’s lots of stuff happening here. One, why are black people showering at the beach? And of course, people go to the beach regularly for recreation. And of course there’s people who are homeless of every nationality, veteran born Israelis as well as new immigrants.

But the reason specifically why sometimes black people have to shower is because Israeli courts have already declared that it’s legitimate for Israeli municipalities to shut off electricity and water services to the apartments of African refugees in order to try to, you know, mayors have done this in the city. For example, the mayor of a large suburb of Petah Tikva, where the mayor shut off electricity and water service to African refugees. He was taken to court by human rights groups, and the court said no, it’s legitimate. He’s allowed to do this. This is ostensibly to kick African refugees out of town. So the African refugees who live in that town are forced to travel to the beach in Tel Aviv just in order to bathe.

So that’s one reason. That just shows you part of the, just part of the machinations that the Israeli government uses in order to make their lives miserable. That’s from an official Israeli government quote. The interior minister, Eli Yishai, said, that’s our policy, we need to make their lives miserable. And ever since then there’s been a whole bunch of policies. You heard about one earlier in which the government takes 20 percent of the salaries of these people, of these African refugees. Deposits it supposedly that they can retrieve when they finally leave the country. Of course, we’ve since found that that doesn’t even happen. The most significant way that they make African people’s lives miserable is by building desert detention centers and rounding them into these desert detention centers. Thousands of African refugees held there for years, in anticipation of a renewed push to drive the refugees out, to make their lives so miserable that they can sense, supposedly, to leave the country.

The government shut down that those desert detention centers thinking, OK, we’ve now got a deal with Uganda and Rwanda, as you’ve described earlier. But in light of that being canceled now, they’re talking about reopening it, and also, significantly, passing a new law that would curtail the power of the Supreme Court, supposedly Israel’s last bastion of liberalism, and to overrule its decisions, so that when the government passes anti-African laws the Supreme Court will no longer be able to nullify them, call them unconstitutional, say that’s an abridgement of human rights that we can’t stand. No. Now with this new law the Netanyahu government is passing, it it will allow it to pass any racist law, including rounding up refugees for an indefinite amount of time. So I know that’s a lot of stuff, but we’re looking at the government’s efforts to rule them out.

Now of course, when the government puts these policies into practice and incites racism against the refugees by accusing them baselessly of terrorism, of crime. And so all of, all of these, all this racist rhetoric, it filters down. And in the end you get a lot of vigilante violence against the community. Some of it is similar to what you described earlier. You know, a man, a white man, feeling that they are entitled to manhandle the body of an African person because they can. They know that no one will say anything or do anything. And in fact, no one did.

But of course, there’s much more serious incidents, where a man stabbed an African, a 1-year-old-African baby in the head. Where people throw dog poo into the, the kindergartens of African refugees. Where a black man was lynched in front of city hall. Petah Tikva, the Tel Aviv suburb I mentioned earlier, literally lynched, beaten to death by a group of teenagers, because they had observed him speaking for ten seconds to white women, and they were so out r aged, how dare a black man talk to white women. We talked about this not too long ago on the Real News, about the fear of miscegenation that the government instills in the people. So all this racist rhetoric, it leads to the kind of vigilante violence and anti-African manhandling of the kind that you saw in these photographs.

SHARMINI PERIES: David, let’s get back to the Supreme Court decision for a moment. It appeared to be a really good decision. Did that decision accompany some advice or recommendations to the government in terms of how to treat the refugees, and what the international obligations are in terms of resettling these refugees in the country?

DAVID SHEEN: Well, OK, let’s put it this way. It’s important to recognize that the Supreme Court is currently under attack from the government for, for the main reason that they perceive the Supreme Court as inhibiting their ability to emphasize the Jewish nature of the state. When there are two divergent interests, democracy and Jewish interests, whatever those are, however those are interpreted. So it’s up to a judge to interpret, well, which will matter more in this case? The government is frustrated that the courts rule that democracy should prevail. And so they are demanding that no, the rights of the Jewish interest, whatever that is, the government is deciding that it’s in the Jewish interest that there be as few as possible non-Jewish people in the country. So that being the case, they are, you know, offended by any efforts by the Supreme Court to curtail their ability to increase the population, or increase the percentage of Jews, and decrease the percentage of non-Jews in the country, or in any municipality.

So that being said, the courts have, you know, limited the government. But at the same time, they realize that they might very soon find themselves neutered altogether, and that they’ll still have their jobs, but in name only. And that that judicial wing of the government will essentially be unable to provide the checks and balances that it’s supposed to. And so in light of this, in light of all these threats from not just the government but the justice minister herself, the Supreme Court justices over time have kind of backed off and rescinded the amount of protection that they gave to African refugees. So for example, you know, they just a couple months ago, just before that detention center for African refugees shut down after several years, only then did they rule that those refugees are permitted to bring food into those detention centers. Like, it took them years just to decide that little thing. It’s not that the Supreme Court is some great defender of the rights of refugees. Justice moves very slowly, and it’s counterbalanced by this incredible pressure from the government to essentially, you know, remove itself and no longer provide that kind of protection.

So the government, what it did do, the Supreme Court, though, is it said, well, if you can’t provide us with a document stating that Uganda and Rwanda agree to take refugees by force, then I’m sorry, you know, we won’t sign off on this, you know, on this plan to forcefully deport them out of the country. So keep in mind, the Supreme Court says yes, you can forcefully remove them from the country although they have committed no crime except for requesting refugee status. But to do so you have to have a secret agreement, not even a public agreement, but a secret agreement with another country who agrees to essentially be the middleman to help you human traffi. African refugees out of the country, to ethnically cleanse the country of non- white non-Jews.

So they got, so again, the Supreme Court is saying, we’ll let you do it. We just need a secret agreement with these African countries agreeing to be your middleman. But it even couldn’t do that, and it couldn’t do that because of the efforts of activists on the ground here who put pressure on Uganda and Rwanda, who essentially shames them, who publicized the fact that they were already agreeing to this. And so because of that shaming campaign they backed down, and now the pressure is back on Netanyahu. But, but it’s not that the Supreme Court is some kind of, you know, shining knight who is defending the rights. It’s, unfortunately it’s one last little layer left. And activists also on the ground are doing their part. But it’s hard to say how much effect that will have, because Netanyahu’s base, and in fact a majority of the country in polls we’ve seen, consistently supports the government’s efforts to remove the refugees from the country altogether. So yes, they’re playing a role to defend those refugees, but their power is curtailed and is on the wane.

SHARMINI PERIES: David, I thank you so much for joining us, and we’ll certainly be back to you to cover the situation that the refugees are undergoing in Israel.

DAVID SHEEN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.