ARMED WITH BULLHORNS, kazoos, and heated emotions, hundreds of residents of South Tel Aviv faced off on Tuesday night in conflicting demonstrations.
One demonstration, led by Ahoti, a Mizrahi feminist activist group involved in community activism in this seedy run-down neighbourhood, together with a loosely organised coalition of students and other activist groups, opposed the government’s plan to deport tens of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers who live in Israel illegally.
Earlier in the day, they had hung up some 250 banners from porches and windows throughout the neighbourhood, with the slogan, “South Tel Aviv Against the Deportations.”
The counter demonstration, significantly smaller and seemingly more volatile, in support of the government’s plan, was organised by an ad hoc group known as “The Front for the Liberation of South Tel Aviv”.
Pitting neighbours against each other, the demonstrations highlighted the dilemmas of the refugee situation and exposed many of the underlying tensions between Ashkenazim and Mizrahi’im, and left and right within Israeli society.
“No to the deportations!” screamed the one side. “Israel wants deportation!” screamed the other, as dozens of police formed tight lines to keep them apart.
The issue of the illegals has been festering since the early 2000s, when tens of thousands of Africans began fleeing the violence in their own countries, especially Sudan and Eritrea, and crossed the Sinai desert into Israel, which is the only free country that has a land bridge with Africa.
The real goal is to create legitimacy for cleaning out the neighbourhood. They want the real estate; they don’t want us. Israel never liked blacks – not Mizrahi blacks and not African blacks.”
In 2011 alone, an estimated 17,000 people crossed into Israel illegally, according to the Population and Immigration Authority. Many of them suffered extreme torture in their own homelands and en route to Israel.
In response to the influx, by late 2013, Israel had completed a barrier, complete with cameras, radar, and motion detectors, to prevent the infiltration – and almost no one gets through illegally from Egypt to Israel. Today, it’s estimated that nearly 40,000 illegals remain here, most of them from Africa, along with others from the Philippines, Nepal or eastern Europe whose work visas have expired.
A large proportion have settled in dirty, crime-ridden South Tel Aviv, where there are few government institutions or facilities. Indeed, according to some estimates, the illegals may soon outnumber the nearly 29,000 veterans who live here, according to the municipality’s website.
Not legally permitted to work (although many do work illegally), they crowd onto the streets and public parks, or hide in hallways, supported by volunteer aid organisations. Those who do have some income live in overcrowded apartments, overpriced yet still cheaper than the tonier neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv.
Other than incarceration or deportation, consecutive governments ignored the problem and did not offer any plans to provide for the needs of these people, which include families, and, as the years go on, young children.
Although many of them are entitled to file for asylum in Israel, according to Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party, Israel has consistently refused to process or dragged its feet in processing most of these requests.
Starting January 1, the government has begun to implement a program to encourage them to leave “of their own free will.” Each individual who leaves will receive US$3,500 and a ticket to their homeland or to Rwanda or Uganda, with whom the Israeli government says it has signed agreements to accept them. According to the agreement with Rwanda, Israel will pay the country US$5,000 for each deportee that it takes in.
Several hundred Africans have accepted this offer. But aid workers report that the returnees are usually robbed of their money, imprisoned and tortured, and that some have been murdered. Furthermore, since they have no official status in either Uganda or Rwanda, they are unable to work or receive services there, either.
By March, 2018, those who haven’t left will be imprisoned, according to the government plan.
As he screamed above the sounds of the bullhorns, Yigal Rambam, 40, an activist and a leader of the Ahoti-led coalition, told Plus61J: “First, the government deliberately dumped the Africans here, without any infrastructure or preparation, because the local population is too weak to resist. Now, they will use them to foam up hatred and populist support.
“But the real goal,” he continued, “is to create legitimacy for cleaning out the neighbourhood. After they deport the Africans, they will deport the veterans. They want the real estate; they don’t want us. Israel never liked blacks – not Mizrahi blacks and not African blacks.”
Yelling above the squeals of the kazoos, Sheffi Paz, leader of the counter demonstration, said: “First we have to get rid of all these infiltrators. Then we’ll get rid of all those lefties and liberals who support them. And then we’ll demand our rights. “She holds up her sign, which reads, “Rehabilitation Begins with Deportation.”
I grew up here, but I feel like a stranger here. I don’t recognise my own streets anymore.”
Feelings ran high among locals. “These deportations are illegal, inhuman. This isn’t the way to make things better. These people have rights!” screamed Shoshi, 58, a housekeeper, who has lived here all her life.
“Rights?!” screamed back Susie Cohen, a member of the “City South” party in the Tel Aviv municipal council. “What about our rights? We have the right to live here, in our communities, the way we want. They are taking us over.”
I grew up here, but I feel like a stranger here. I don’t recognise my own streets anymore,” complained Nahum, a retired municipal worker. “All I see are black people on the streets, stores that sell foods and clothing that I don’t recognise, and churches.”
Residents who support the deportations insist that the Africans are responsible for increased violent crime, including rape, murder and theft. Many said they knew someone who had been raped or mugged.
A police spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity and refusing to provide specific numbers, told Plus61J that “there is no evidence that the Africans commit more crime than veteran Israelis.”
Few of the potential deportees participated in the demonstration. Luwam, 28, from Eritrea, who has been in the country five years, stood off to the side with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Mabel, who was born in Israel and was amusing herself and onlookers by playing with a poster.
“These people act as our mouth. We are too afraid. I am afraid that if I go back to Eritrea I will be killed. And my daughter, what will happen to her? I thank these people for speaking for me.”
Jonny, 30, from Eritrea, had no such hesitations. Wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “Love Thy Neighbor as Yourself,” he screamed through a bullhorn at the crowd calling for his deportation. “You are not Jews. Jews understand what it means to be refugees. Jews would not deport other refugees. You are racists, not Jews!” he declared.
His calls were met with obscene gestures and comments.
Jonny later added: “It isn’t my dream to live here. As soon as I can, I want to return to my country.” Quiet for a moment, his eyes welled up and he said, “I haven’t seen my parents for 9 years. But I can’t go home. I will be killed by the dictator who rules Eritrea.
“I understand that the Jewish people want their own homeland. But we will not be here forever. And even if every one of us stayed, all 39,000 of us – would our black skins destroy the Jewish state?”
“Deport, deport” the one side screamed.
“Don’t deport, don’t deport,” the other side retorted.
“Leftists, get out of here” was met with the call, “Fascists, you aren’t part of the neighbourhood.”
For two hours, the two sides stood opposite each other, gesturing menacingly, as the police scrambled to keep them apart. Inadvertently, at one point, they were even screaming the same slogan, “Shame! Shame!” in unison at each other.
All photos: Eetta Prince-Gibson