Netanyahu’s African quest

Why the Israeli government fears asylum-seekers

Wednesday, 21 December, 2011 - 18:54
London, UK

Shir Hever

In the hectic Israeli political environment, anything not perceived as an “existential threat” to the state of Israel is barely worth a mention. But then, “existential threats” abound. In addition to the Palestinian insurrection, the brewing war with Iran, the Arab Spring and the “de-legitimization campaign” against Israel in the world, the Israeli government now faces a new threat to its existence: “African infiltrators.”

Approximately 60% of the refugees entering are from Eritrea, and 30% from Sudan. The UN found that 90.4% of them are refugees, but Netanyahu repeated the claim of Israel’s head of the Population and Immigration Authority in Israeli, that only “one in a thousand” of those who attempt to cross the border into Israel are at risk in their home countries. In fact, hardly any of the people who cross the desert on foot to Israel – despite suffering from extreme violence, torture and rape – are recognized by Israel as refugees. According to Israeli officials, these people are pretending that their lives are at risk in their home countries.

On 11 December, the Israeli government unanimously approved a new programme with a budget of NIS 630 Million NIS (£107 million)  to deal with this “menace.” It will be used to expand the “Saharonim” prison to hold 5,000 immigrants, and to build another prison nearby, housing up to 10,000. Money will also be invested in hastening the completion of a border-fence on the Egyptian border. This is on top of the NIS 1.5 billion already spent on the border fence and prison facilities. The programme includes increased penalties on businesses that employ illegal workers, and the imprisonment of the immigrants for up to three years.

The new expenditure will require cuts of 2% across all government ministries, at a time in which the protest movement in Israel is already furious at the erosion of public services.

There are currently estimated to be approximately 50,000 undocumented migrants in Israel. Had the UN been allowed to determine the refugee status of these people and concluded that every one was a genuine refugee, the NIS 630 million budget could have been used to provide services worth NIS 12,600 (£2,142) per refugee and/or to improve social conditions for Israelis. This would have created many jobs in the Israeli economy for social workers, teachers, and medical care providers rather than for prison-guards and fences and prisons.

The Israeli authorities see the labor market as a zero-sum-game, as if every immigrant is taking the job of an Israeli. Yet in 2008 alone, Israel’s Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai authorised  118,000 permits for migrant workers to do the jobs Israelis won’t do. None of these permits apply to the refugees. Instead NIS 290 per day is spent imprisoning each one of them.

Yishai is also the head of Shas, a political party representing Jews who emigrated from Arab countries, and who were treated with racism and contempt by the Israeli authorities when they arrived. Today Yishai is on record as saying that the immigrants “carry diseases,” and celebrates the government’s decision because he wants “to guard the Jewish majority here.”

Netanyahu himself has pledged to “travel to Africa” and try to stop the problem at its source, but hasn’t mentioned any specific countries or plans as yet.

The over-reaction of the Israeli government to this phenomenon is striking. Many Israeli citizens are concerned about the cruelty towards refugees fleeing for their lives from ethnic cleansing taking place in their home countries. Most Israelis grew up with a historical narrative furious at the UK and the US for not doing enough to help Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, and some find it difficult to witness their own government’s lack of compassion.

So why is the government so edgy? Israel’s image in the West is as the successful “fortress state”. This helps to promote sales of Israeli homeland-security products to Western governments. It also helps Israel maintain its status as the darling of right-wing parties in Western countries. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is a commodity which can be exported, like the Separation Wall, along with the political legitimacy for crushing human rights in the name of security.

This image – of ethnic purity, surveillance, control – is threatened by a bunch of terrified and exhausted refugees. If the Israeli government can’t deal forcefully and mercilessly with these people, it fears lest xenophobic politicians in the West (such as Berlusconi, Gingrich, Harper, Lennon and Wilders) search elsewhere for another role-model…

Shir Hever is an Israeli economist and commentator who researches the economic aspects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

This article may be reproduced on condition that JNews is cited as its source.

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