Israel, land of Jewish refugees, riled by influx of Africans
Violent riots broke out in Tel Aviv last night as a growing tide of African migrants strains Israel's ideal as a land for refugees.
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"The government has placed a distressed population on the backs of another distressed population," says Shlomo Maslawi, a Tel Aviv city council member from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, several days before the riots. "I am afraid there will be an explosion."Skip to next paragraph
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Shoe seller: 'Take them back to the border'
When Israel was established several years after the genocide of European Jewry during World War II, it was envisaged as a haven for Jewish refugees who were being turned away by countries. Few envisaged that the embattled tiny country would one day become a destination for distressed groups fleeing the blight of developing countries.
While the government says the migrants are looking to take low-end jobs to better their standard of living, human rights activists and the Africans insist that they are desperately fleeing oppression and war at home. But residents of south Tel Aviv say they feel unsafe at night and complain the Africans are starting illegal retail businesses without paying taxes.
"Take them back to the border," says Yehezkel, who sells shoes in an outdoor market in southern Tel Aviv. "Israel is for me, not also for Africa."
In south Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station neighborhood, dozens of migrants spend the days in a public park passing the time sitting on children's jungle gyms or playing soccer. They gather in the park in part because the government has stopped granting work permits.
"It’s better than Eritrea, but it's not a good life," says Thedros Desta, an Eritrean who arrived three years ago and is among the lucky migrants who got a work permit. "We don’t have any status here."
New border fence under construction
In the past year, Israel has sped up construction on a border fence with Egypt to make it harder for refugees to cross over the Sinai desert. Hoping to deter the Africans, it as also amended its "infiltration" law to call for mandatory incarceration for illegals.
But the fence is still incomplete, and Israel has yet to build a detention facility to house the migrants. Calls by Israel’s ultrareligious interior minister, Eli Yishai, to round up and deport the Africans have been challenged by others in the cabinet. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who oversees the police, called on the government to let the Africans work while a solution is found.
But even some liberal advocates who have called on the government to grant the migrants residency status are acknowledging that the sheer size of the African community is posing a social threat.
"No one except a psychotic racist would deny that the overwhelming majority of Africans here are law-abiding," wrote Larry Derfner, a columnist for the left-wing +972 blog. "But with at least 60,000 here and 2,000 to 3,000 more arriving monthly, all of them crowding into a few neighborhoods of poor, conservative, frightened Jews, they are a threat to the fabric of this society. Given their numbers, there’s a limit to how much compassion Israel can show them. At this point, we have to worry about our own first."