A crime wave blamed on Africans, including two recent rapes, has stoked long-standing hostility toward the country’s estimated 60,000 illegal African immigrants and sparked an ugly wave of retaliatory violence against them.
Tel Aviv police say that on May 15, several African men sexually assaulted a woman. Two days later, authorities announced the arrests of two African immigrants suspected of raping a 15-year-old girl in Tel Aviv on April 25. A third man allegedly held the girl’s boyfriend as the rape took place, police said.
The arrests sparked a major outcry among ordinary Israelis about a supposed crime wave engineered by Africans, and a racially tinged debate about the role of immigrants in Israeli society. In recent weeks, several Molotov cocktails have been tossed at African targets in Tel Aviv, including an apartment block and a kindergarten building. No one was hurt.
After touring south Tel Aviv neighborhoods where large numbers of Africans live, Israel’s police chief, Yohanan Danino, on May 16 blamed a perceived uptick on crime squarely on illegal African immigrants.
“Every time I come here, I see the numbers keep growing,” he said. “They have caused the surge in crime.”
Harel Locker, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, accompanied Danino and said that the immigrants pose a “security and strategic problem.” Press reports quoted unnamed officials as claiming that 40% of Tel Aviv crimes are committed by illegal immigrants.
On May 22 a few dozen south Tel Aviv residents held a demonstration calling for deportation of all illegals and criticizing aid organizations that help them.
One woman who has lived in south Tel Aviv for 27 years held a banner declaring “They rape girls and elderly women, murder, steal, stab, burglarize. We’re afraid to leave home,” according to Haaretz.
Ismail Abdelrassu, who arrived in Tel Aviv five years ago from the Darfur region of Sudan, said that some Africans are frightened by the hostile rhetoric and attacks. But most are determined to stand their ground.
“People here have fled far worse things than this,” Abdelrassu said, talking about the climate of fear.
It’s not clear whether any facts back up the hysteria. Neither the police nor the Ministry of Internal Security would confirm the 40% figure with the Forward and it’s unclear where it came from.
Official police data presented in the Knesset in March indicates the crime rate among foreigners is less than half that of Israeli citizens nationwide. Foreigners committed 2.24 crimes per 100 people in 2011, less than half the 4.99 figure for Israeli citizens, the figures show.
There is no question that Israel’s African population is growing quickly. Tens of thousands of Africans have slipped over Israel’s border with Egypt since 2005. Approximately two thirds come from Eritrea, where a harsh regime continues to commit severe human rights violations. A quarter come from Sudan, where tribal violence, ethnic cleansing and human rights violations are rife.
Hard-line politicians have quickly seized on the wave of public antagonism toward African immigrants. Abstract concerns about immigration and demographics have long been a concern in a country that prides itself on being both Jewish and democratic. But the more explosive issues of race and crime have raised the temperature dramatically.
“Most of the African [immigrants] are criminals,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told Army Radio, using the common term “infiltrators” to refer to immigrants. “I would put all of them, without exception, into a prison or other holding facility, and from there give each of them a grant and send them back to their countries.” Several other lawmakers are racing to be the first to draw up legislation to mandate deportations.
The nasty rhetoric is clearly having an impact on the streets. On April 27, an attacker threw Molotov cocktails into the homes of innocent Africans and into the courtyard of a heavily African kindergarten building in south Tel Aviv. A little more than a week later, Molotov cocktails were thrown at a Tel Aviv apartment block inhabited by Africans. Less serious attacks are common, according to advocates for immigrants.
Advocates are furious with police and politicians for pointing the finger at immigrants, whom they say are mostly hardworking and law-abiding.
Sigal Rozen, of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, called the comments a wave of “incitement” and blamed officials for encouraging Israelis to lash out against Africans.
“Police and decision makers… are inflaming tensions and making people afraid to the extent that they might again and again take the law into their own hands,” Rozen said.
Rozen added that she considers most of the anti-immigrant furor to be stoked by economic and social fears, not racism.
“The feeling of living in a neighborhood where you’re told that the majority of the people around you are criminals is hell,” she said.
Nic Schlagman, humanitarian coordinator at the African Refugee Development Center nonprofit, agreed, saying the tumult is not primarily about race.
“[It’s] more by desire to preserve their neighborhoods and demographics,” he said.
Hebrew University political scientist Gabriel Sheffer, an expert on Israel’s illegal immigration, believes that the national attention on crime will permanently turn the public in favor of tougher policies on illegals immigrants. Work is under way on a fence to seal the southwestern border. In March, construction began at what is expected to be the largest detention center for illegal immigrants in the world. And while the state largely turns a blind eye to the prohibition on illegals working, government officials are promising to stop doing so.
There is another possibility, albeit a counterintuitive one: the fortunes of illegal immigrants could actually improve as a result of the outcry. Even as he denounced the immigrants for supposedly making the streets unsafe, Danino called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants to give them the right to work legally and gaing access to social benefits.
“There are tens of thousands [of illegal immigrants] already here who, if you don’t create jobs for them, will immediately go to crime,” the police chief said.
The proposal instantly provoked fury in government, with many saying it would only encourage a new wave of immigrants.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai blasted the plan as the ill-conceived work of liberal “bleeding hearts.”
“Why should we provide them with jobs? I’m sick of the bleeding hearts, including politicians,” Yishai said. “Jobs would settle them here, they’ll make babies, and that offer will only result in hundreds of thousands more coming over here.”
But police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld stood by the proposal, telling the Forward that the situation of illegal immigrants already in Israel could not be ignored for the sake of politics. He called it an urgent public safety matter that trumps long-term policy concerns.
“We are talking about an issue that is on the police’s table,” he said. “There has to be some type of social and economic support.”
Nathan Jeffay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org