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Vol. 78/No. 3      January 27, 2014

(front page)
Protests of African refugees spur
discussions by workers in Israel

Oren Ziv/
Protests by Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel have won more attention and sympathy to their fight to stay and work in the country free from government detention and other discriminatory measures. Above, Jan. 9 protest in Tel Aviv on fifth day of strike by African workers.
“We used to be scared, but now we are united,” Filimon Abraham, a kitchen worker from Eritrea, said from Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 11, referring to protests by African refugees against detentions and other efforts by the Israeli government to force them out of the country.

“Protests will not help. Strikes will not help,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Jan. 5. “We are determined to remove the illegal infiltrators.”

Some 20,000 marched in Tel Aviv Jan. 5, the first day of a refugees’ protest strike, chanting “We are not criminals, we are not infiltrators, we are refugees.” The march was followed by daily actions over the next four days, including a Jan. 8 demonstration of 10,000 in Jerusalem in front of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Since 2006 nearly 36,000 Eritreans and 15,000 Sudanese have entered Israel from Egypt’s Sinai desert, fleeing repressive regimes in their home countries. Because it does not have diplomatic relations with Sudan, the Israeli government can’t legally deport the Sudanese. Repression in Eritrea is so widely recognized that it is politically difficult to deport Eritreans.

At first Israeli authorities issued temporary visas and gave them bus tickets to Tel Aviv.

“They didn’t give us permits to work or anyplace to live. We learned Hebrew, got jobs, paid rent on our own,” Abraham said. Hotel, restaurant and cleaning companies welcomed the Africans as a source of cheap labor. “If they hire Israelis they will have to pay them a lot more salary,” Abraham said. “That’s why they want to use us.”

In June 2012 the Knesset passed a law allowing the government to imprison migrants for three years. The government began building a 140-mile-long high-tech fence to keep the Africans out. The number of new arrivals dropped from about 2,000 a month at the beginning of 2012 to 34 in the first six months of 2013.

The Israeli Supreme Court struck down the law in September 2013, saying that three years was too long. The law that replaced it allows the government to jail refugees for up to a year and to hold them indefinitely in so-called open detention facilities, such as Holot in the Negev desert, where detainees have to be present for three roll calls during the day and return every evening.

“The government says the open detention is not a jail. If they need to check on me every couple of hours, if I can’t move where I want, then I’m in jail,” Noury Musa, a pastry kitchen worker from Sudan who works at a Dead Sea resort, said in a phone interview.

“The Knesset members from Meretz [a social-democratic political party] said from the Knesset podium that ‘nothing would happen to the State of Israel if it took in those 53,000 people,’” Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar told Hayom daily. “I disagree with people who hold that view. As far as Jewish identity and the desire to blur it are concerned, whether or not that is the intention of those who support the foreigners, that will be the result.”

The protests and latest government measures, including ordering more of the refugees to go to Holot, have sparked a nationwide debate. Hayom published a poll saying that 61 percent of Jewish Israelis want the Africans deported and only 11.6 percent think they should be allowed to live and work in Israel.

“I think half the country is for us and half don’t want the refugees,” Mohamed Salih, a Sudanese leader of the protests from Arad, told the Militant. “Students from Ben Gurion University and from Tel Aviv University say they stand with the refugees. Many Israelis have gone to Holot to bring them food and clothing.”

Salih described talking to a Jewish taxi driver who backs the anti-refugee measures. “‘The Asian workers come here with a five-year work contract,’ the taxi driver told me. ‘Then they go back home. But you Africans want to stay here forever,’” Salih said.

“If they are refugees, fine. But most come to make quick money, many are criminals,” Haim Sahar, a leader of a recently successful Histadrut organizing drive at Pelephone cellphone company, said from outside Tel Aviv Jan. 12. The detention center is a shelter, Sahar said. “Inside you have education, doctors, food. They should say ‘thank you.’”

The Histadrut, the largest union federation in the country with close ties to the government, has not taken a position on the refugee question.

“We support the asylum-seekers as a human rights issue,” Shay Cohen, an organizer for Koach La Ovdim, a union federation founded in 2007, told the Militant Jan. 13. “It’s also a labor issue. Workers without work permits are used as a weapon against Israeli workers and the solution is solidarity with their struggle for equal rights. They should be issued work visas and be able to join the union.”

Range of views

Cohen is part of an organizing drive among ultra-orthodox Jewish workers at a chicken processing plant. “They hold a wide range of views, from very hostile to solidarity with the African asylum-seekers,” he said. “It’s interesting everyone feels free to discuss these things.”

Many of the African refugees work side by side with Jewish and Palestinian workers. “Most of the workers in the pastry kitchen are Russian Jews, but I also have co-workers who are Arabs,” Musa said. “Many co-workers have called me and asked if they can help me in anyway.”

“Israel has absorbed tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews,” Hashem Mohameed, a former member of the Knesset who is Palestinian from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, said by phone Jan. 11. “Israel doesn’t need to push these refugees away, they can let them live here.”

“In our heads Palestinians all believe the Sudanese and Eritreans are right. But few of us would join the protests, we have our own problems,” he said.

After the government declared an official mourning period following the Jan. 11 death of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, leaders of the Sudanese and Eritrean community put a hold on further demonstrations.

“About 50 percent of us have gone back to work,” Salih said. “Many people have financial problems, they need to pay rent.” Some were fired when they tried to return to work, he said.

Sudanese and Eritrean workers are discussing their next steps.

“They want us to leave,” Musa said. “So to where? I am not going to endanger my life again.”
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