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The spur to its sudden centrality was a claim that Africans are responsible for a major crime wave in Tel Aviv. Anger rose to a boiling point when news broke in mid-May that Africans were suspected in two sexual attacks on Jewish Israeli women. Politicians led anti-African protests in southern Tel Aviv, and those protests degenerated into violence against the immigrants. Molotov cocktails were thrown at Africans’ homes. On June 4, the violence spread to Jerusalem, where a building that houses illegals was set alight and graffiti telling them to “Get out” was spray painted.
Government ministers added fuel to the fire by spewing a steady flow of incendiary statements about the illegals. Yishai has been the most prolific, declaring that the majority of illegals are “criminals” and that they are responsible for raping Israeli women and infecting them with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Yishai provided no evidence of either claim.
Action against illegal immigrants is undoubtedly popular. According to a poll conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute, 85% of Israeli Jews support the anti-African demonstrations. One-third identified with those protesters who turned violent toward them. More than half endorse the statement of Likud lawmaker Miri Regev that they are a “cancer” in the body of the nation (for which she later apologized). Some Arabs, too, are antagonistic toward illegals. About 25% supported the demonstrations, 23% identified with the violence and 19% agreed with the cancer statement.
The sentiment is particularly strong among less affluent and Sephardic Jews represented by Yishai’s Shas party. For them, the immigration issue is, in Lehman-Wilzig’s words, a “double whammy.” Its supporters strongly support limiting non-Jewish influences in the country, meaning that they see Yishai as tackling both an economic and cultural threat.
So far, the bark of the round-ups has been much bigger than their bite. As of press time, just 140 people had been detained, mostly from South Sudan. Unlike Sudanese and Eritreans, the deportation of South Sudanese poses no problems under Israeli law, as a Jerusalem court has approved sending them to their newly independent homeland. Some in the South Sudanese community say many people had decided to go home voluntarily before the arrests began.
Even if Israel manages to deport all the immigrants from countries other than Sudan and Eritrea, it will take just two weeks for the same number of new illegals to cross into Israel.
Before the wave of anger, the government was already building the world’s largest detention facility, which will mean that Israel has room to detain 15,000 potential immigrants. A new law permits detaining all illegals for up to three years and some indefinitely. But with 60,000 illegal immigrants already in Israel and arrivals at 2,000 per month, there will be nowhere near enough space for everybody.
A potential game changer is the border fence, which is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
The goal is to choke off the flow of immigrants. But some independent analysts are skeptical that the fence will do much to stop people who are desperate to escape poverty and oppression in their homelands.
“People suffer a lot on the journey to Israel,” said Sara Robinson, refugee rights coordinator of Amnesty International’s Israel office. “It will be just another obstacle.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org