Migration policy in Israel: Weapons against refugees?

First, Israel detained migrants in camps, now they are being deported to African ‚third countries‘ – possibly in exchange for weapons exports.

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At the entrance to Camp Holot in the Negev desert Foto: dpa

Since 2005, African migrants have been travelling to Israel, in small numbers at first and later up to thousands a month, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. Almost all come via Egypt/Sinai by land. Many have fallen victim to brutal torture by Bedouins in the Sinai, who demand several thousand dollars of ransom from the families of their hostages. Those with no family members face the threat of murder and having their organs harvested.

During the first years, the Israeli authorities placed refugees under a sort of group protection, which meant that none of them lodged an application for asylum. It is stated in the documents that refugees are not officially allowed to work, but in practice, the police do not actually pursue anyone who does. The majority of migrants come intending to remain in Israel. In April 2016, the number of so-called ‚infiltrators‘, as refugees are officially known in Israel, from Africa stood at 42,147 – 30,549 of them from Eritrea and 8,232 from Sudan. According to information from the Residents’ Registration Office and the Office for Foreigners, at the same time there were 14,542 illegal workers in Israel and 91,000 tourists without a valid visa. At the same time, the total population of Israel was 8.52 million citizens.

The higher the number of refugees has grown, the more nervous the inhabitants of the main contact points for African refugees have become, especially those living in the districts of Neve Schaanan and Ha´Tikva in the south of Tel Aviv, and politicians. Border facilities at the Egyptian Sinai peninsula should prevent the flow of migrants and, later, punish the ‚infiltrators‘, the official name for illegal immigrants since 2012. At that time, the Knesset (Parliament) in Jerusalem passed the so-called Anti-Infiltration Law, which enabled the immigration authorities to arrest people who cross the border illegally and send them to Saharonim, a prison for refugees, for three years. It is only now that the first refugees are submitting applications for asylum, but without much success. “Out of several hundred applicants only four Eritreans and not a single Sudanese have been granted asylum“, reported Sharon Harel of the UN Human Rights Council in Tel Aviv. During the previous year in Europe “about 90 percent of all Eritrean asylum applications and almost 80 percent of the Sudanese were approved“.

From the end of 2013, the Israeli Prison Service, which is subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior, maintained the so-called open detention camp Holot in southern Negew in which more than 3000 men were detained at the end of 2015. The refugees who are kept there are issued an ID card, on which the issuer 'Prison Services’ is printed in large lettering. „You feel like a prisoner without rights, rather than a refugee under international protection“ an Eritrean refugee told the German ‚Taz‘ newspaper, who was able to escape the prison system, showing his ID card as proof. After all, Holot is meant to be an open-access facility which the inhabitants may leave during the daytime. The nearest city is around one hour away by bus. The occupants give accounts of small rooms, each of which holds ten people. The facility was said to be poorly insulated; cold in winter and very hot in summer. Furthermore, the food was apparently bland and often almost rotten. They receive the equivalent of 15 euros per week, hardly enough for a return journey by bus to Tel Aviv.

As opposed to the closed prison Saharonim, Holot is only closed at night, and furthermore inmates are allowed to have mobile phones and can maintain contact with the outside world. Initially, the occupants had to report for roll call five times a day; later it was only three; and now it only needs to take place once a day in the evening. Anyone who misses a roll call risks being transferred to Saharonim.

‚Operation Repatriation‘

Israel’s Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, labelled refugees from Africa “a cancer in the body of the Jewish nation’, and, according to surveys, the majority of the population agreed with him. Israel's government makes no secret of its goal of removing „every last one“ of the refugees, as announced by former Minister of the Interior, Eli Ischai. The authorities award those who leave willingly, and punish those who wish to stay. Those who are willing to leave Israel are given 3,500 US dollars. Between 2013 and 2014, nearly 9000 men, women and children accepted the questionable ‚offer‘, out of which two thirds went back to their home countries, Sudan and Eritrea. However, in early 2015 the number of ‚volunteers‘ decreased dramatically. A reason for this may be the reports of returnees. A document from the Tel Aviv NGO ‚Hotline for refugees and migrants‘ includes the following account: „When I reached the airport in Khartoum, Sudanese soldiers arrested me. They interrogated me as to why I had gone to Israel, and what I had done there. They beat and kicked me when I was already on the ground.“

From the point of view of the UN representative, Israel has allowed the refugees to become a problem in the first place, due to consistent neglect. „If there had been reasonable organisation, distribution of new-incoming refugees throughout the country, as well as checks as to whether prospects for a status existed“, then, Harel suspects, it probably would not have created tension amongst the local population. With a population of approximately eight million, Israel is certainly not a big state – nevertheless, the mere 45,000 refugees in the country would not be allowed to „jeopardise the Jewish character of Israel“, as Regev warned.

The methods of the so-called voluntary return “is essentially a policy which makes life so difficult for people here, that they may ultimately have no choice but to leave“, outlined the UN representative, Sharon Harel. In August 2013, the Israeli government adopted an additional clause to the “Anti-Infiltration Law“, with which refugees were faced with the choice of either exiting to a third country or being detained in Saharonim for an indefinite period. The ‚carrot‘ that is the 3500 dollar reward is now coupled with the ‚stick‘ of the threat of imprisonment. The beginning of 2016 saw several dozen men, mainly from Eritrea, encouraged to make a decision. Israeli human rights activists are still delaying the controversial practice of ‚voluntary departure‘, with petitions before the Supreme Court and a call for a disclosure of the agreements between Israel, Rwanda and Uganda.

For a long time, it was not at all clear which countries were concerned, and why these countries were willing to accept African refugees from Israel. The only comment from the Israeli authorities was that they would not be commenting. Officially, there is a statement from the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on an agreement in principle between Kampala and Jerusalem. Rwanda, the second country from which refugees deported by Israel are reporting, denies the existence of any agreement.

A group of students and faculty of the University of Tel Aviv went before the Supreme Court with a petition calling for increased transparency and control of the conditions of refugees in Rwanda and Uganda. During the procedure, which was largely held behind closed doors in March 2016, Judge Miram Naor acknowledged that there was „something absurd in all the claims to confidentiality“. For the first time, State representatives publicly stated at least the names of the two target countries Rwanda and Uganda during the trial. „A refugee who is sent to Rwanda, must know what rights he has there“, declared UN representative Sharon Harel. „The status of the person should be clarified in advance. They should know if there is the opportunity to apply for asylum, if he can work or rent an apartment, and how much that would cost“. The approach practised by Israel „leaves too many questions open“, thinks Harel.

The close relationship between Jerusalem and Kigali is no secret in Israel. Former Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, openly called Rwanda, „Israel’s biggest friend“, and Emmanuel Nachschon, Speaker of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, referred to an „intensive exchange in the field of agriculture.“ Furthermore, both countries would have had the tragedies of the Tutsis and of the Jews in mind when holding joint events to mark both the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In contrast to the Jews, the Tutsis were not killed in gas chambers, but were instead massacred with machetes or light firearms. Their killers purchased guns, ammunition and grenades from international arms dealers. Israel was one of their main sources, according to Professor Jair Auron, an Israeli historian and specialist in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Auron appealed to a court in Tel Aviv in March 2015 seeking the publication of records from the Israeli Ministry of Defence which document Israel's arms exports to Rwanda before and during 1994. During the proceedings, he stated that Israel provided the Hutus with 5.56mm bullets, guns and grenades.

The Court rejected Auron's petition. Israel is maintaining a low profile when it comes to arms exports. Last year, Tamar Sandberg, an Israeli politician who currently serves as a member of the left-wing Meretz coalition, was unable to introduce a draft law in the Knesset (Parliament) aiming to make the Israeli arms trade more transparent. . She says: „The idea was – OK, we realise arms are traded worldwide, but when human rights are violated and war crimes are committed there are lines which should not be crossed.“ For the time being, places where arms dealing is taking place, as well as the nature and extent of it, are being held back from the public – and even from lawmakers. Only the “Department of Defence Export Control“ within the Ministry of Defence is briefed, and also sometimes the Foreign Office. Sandberg is campaigning against this „lack of transparency“ and for more control „at least for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs“.

Border and Surveillance Technology for Africa

It cannot be proven whether Israel continued to send arms to Rwanda or has been doing it since. However, it seems reasonable to assume that the Rwandan government in Kigali would not otherwise have accommodated thousands of refugees who came to the country via Israel. Demonstrators in Geneva protested in May last year against Israel's „package deal“. A poster in English stated: “If you agree to take a few poor Africans off our hands, we will give you lots of weapons so you can kill even more Africans“. The poster showed Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding a boat full of refugees in one hand, and guns and aircrafts in the other.

For parliamentarian Tamar Sandberg, there can be no doubt that “all factions involved, including the Government of South Sudan and its militias, are involved in war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations“. According to information provided by the Israeli Ministry of Defence, the supply of lethal weapons was already discontinued “at an early stage“ of the civil war. Sandberg also confirmed that since then, instead of firearms, „presumably only surveillance technology“ has been sent to South Sudan. Rwanda ordered Israeli armoured howitzers this year for this purpose. Overall, the volume of Israeli exports tripled between 2012 and 2014.

The Israeli defence industry's world-leading role in the construction and armament of border fence systems may also have played a part. The borders with Palestine, Egypt and Jordan are considered to be the archetype of advanced high-tech fences with ground sensors, infrared cameras and satellite and aerial drone surveillance. Israeli industry giants such as Magal Security Systems and Elbit Systems are now exporting this expertise. Magal is equipping, amongst others, the Kenyan-Somalian border. Based on the Israeli model, the company is set to equip the planned 682-km fence with electronic sensors, which report any movement to the border police stations. Contracts worth millions of euros. Magal had previously been awarded the contract to equip the huge Kenyan freight ports in Mombasa with surveillance technology. Elbit in turn secured the US-Mexican border with watchtowers.

Israeli companies have had important business links with Africa for a long time. Recently aerial surveillance technology, such as drones and monitoring electronics for aeroplanes and helicopters, has increasingly been finding its way to Africa. For example, in 2013, Rwanda purchased a reconnaissance drone to monitor the war-torn eastern Congo, and Ugandan pilots are trained by Israeli flight instructors. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to sub-Saharan Africa in the summer of 2016, he was joined by representatives of fence producers Elbit and Magal as well as drone producers Aeronautics.

The Israeli Prime Minister met with government representatives from Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan and Zambia. Netanyahu described the meeting with the Heads of State and Government as a „milestone“. „I believe that Israel is the perfect partner for the African nations.“ He went on to say that Israel has developed skills that, in his opinion, are important for defending the world against the global onslaught of terror. “But equally, we have significant opportunities. We have solved our water problem, even though we are a very dry country. We have solved our agricultural problem. We produce vegetables and dairy products, with high rates of productivity. We are eager to share this technology in so many areas with our African friends,“ Netanyahu said.

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