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Is Israel's right wing waging a war against Africans?

April 5, 2015 at 4:11 pm

As the Israeli government announced its mass deportation plan for African immigrants last week, many listened in dismay and anger. An anti-African position in Israel isn’t a recent phenomenon, though, and it has been getting stronger, often silently, over the past few years; Africans, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have long faced discrimination within the state.

Africans have a long history inside the Holy Land; some have well-established roots going back centuries, and even thousands of years. However, after the mass migration of Africans into Israel in the 1960s, which is commonly and misleadingly known as the “second wave” of African immigration, they were marginalised seriously. Due to the lack of welcoming care by the Israeli government upon their entry into the country, many African Jews were forced to live in absolute poverty. In civil society, they faced and continue to face constant discrimination, for being black and for being immigrants, and they have had to live in constant fear of being deported.

On 22 April 1986, armed Israeli border police entered the city of Dimona, one of the main locations of African migrants, to silence them as they tried to speak out against the injustice they were facing. Plans to hold a protest in Jerusalem in solidarity with 50 African Jews who were taken from their homes to be deported were leaked to the police, who prevented the demonstration from taking place.

Since then, left-wing Israeli parties have started to recognise this particular struggle, assist the African Jews and even welcome them as Israelis. Even though the discrimination began to lessen as a result, the attitudes of the Israeli right did not change. A propaganda campaign against African migrants was launched, which sunk to unimaginable levels when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected in 2009. The Likud Party’s interior minister spoke openly on Israeli national television about his opposition to African migrants entering Israel; he believed that their permanent residency will “bring in” AIDS, measles, TB and hepatitis epidemics into the country; he also called them criminals. Miri Regev, a lawmaker for the Likud Party referred to Africans in 2012 as “a cancer in the body of the nation” during a speech to a crowd at a protest against the presence of South Sudanese asylum seekers. The protesters went on to attack various African migrants mainly by smashing their heads, vandalising their cars and breaking the windows of the cafes with a large African customer base. A report was also conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2012, which showed that 52 per cent of the Israeli public agreed with Regev’s statement, suggesting that such sentiments were not exclusive to the protesters.

Netanyahu himself shared the derogatory views of the Israeli neo-fascists. He described African migrants in 2012 as “illegal infiltrators” who threaten both the security and the Jewish identity of Israel, after the number of reported crimes rose in mainly African migrant areas.

Although public opinion showed that the anti-African stance within Israel was disproportionately high, there were still debates on the effect of the African presence. Israeli Police Chief Yohanan Danino disagreed with the policy of forcing African migrants to live in impoverished conditions and encouraged the government to allow them to work, in order to prevent further crimes. This comment created a public backlash, as many believed that allowing African migrants to live a comfortable life in Israel will encourage more to enter the country, thus expanding the “cancer in the body of the nation”. The racist claims of the Israeli right wing were revealed again in a report by the Israeli Knesset released in late 2012, in which it was said that the crime rates amongst foreigners in Israel remained lower than the crime rate among Israeli citizens, reported the Jerusalem Post.

The vast majority of asylum seekers also have to suffer being detained when they reach the Israeli border. According to Human Rights Watch, migrants are forced deep into the Negev Desert, where the nearest city is a six-hour walk away. Their “housing centre”, as it is described by Israeli officials, is where many migrants are forced to reside; it was built by the Israeli ministry of defence. Its residents are subject to an overnight curfew, being forbidden to leave between sunset and sunrise, and are forced to sign-in three times a day to prove that they are still there. The Saharonim Centre is surrounded by a four-metre-high fence and the only immediate way to get out is to “voluntarily deport” themselves from Israel to their native country, where they may face persecution or even death. Saharonim is also a place where the Israeli government can send residents with a foreign nationality for up to three years if they can’t be deported, without any form of trial or other due process. Despite all of this, Israeli government officials refuse to recognise Saharonim as a detention centre.

Female African migrants, including Ethiopian Jews, have also reported that they were forced to take contraceptives with a long-term impact on their fertility, some without their knowledge. After much speculation on this matter, it was only when it was reported that the birth rate amongst Ethiopians had fallen by 50 per cent over 10 years that the Israeli government finally admitted to the practice in 2013.

African migrants in Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike, have been subject to much discrimination and mistreatment. For decades, they’ve been humiliated and dehumanised instead of being treated as dignified human beings. All possible measures are being taken under Netanyahu’s leadership to ensure that African migrants do not integrate into Israeli society; they are either stuck in a cycle of poverty and neo-forms of slavery by being forced to work illegally for wages that are practically impossible to live on, or they are deported. That’s some choice. The Israeli right certainly looks to be waging a war against Africans.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.