Israel's war on African refugees is inspiring white supremacists

Israel's war on African refugees is inspiring white supremacists
Comment: Netanyahu's racist, anti-African immigration policies are bringing cheer to white supremacists on both sides of the Atlantic, writes David Sheen.
6 min read
16 Jan, 2018
Migrants in Tel Aviv protest against Israel's refusal to grant them refugee status [AFP]
During Donald Trump's first 12 months as American president, the world has witnessed an unparalleled partnership blossom between the government of Israel and the global far right. 

The first pillar undergirding this relationship has been the two groups' mutual hostility to Arabs. But the second plank of their shared platform - no less important - has been their mutual hatred for Africans.

While Israel has, for its entire existence, modelled for the world how to effectively disenfranchise Arabs, it has only now been given its first full opportunity to do something similar to Africans. Disturbingly, in its first try out of the gate, its racist policies are inspiring white supremacists all over the world to advocate adopting these policies as their own.

Although black people have always lived in the holy land, they currently constitute only a small minority of the overall Palestinian population, and have often suffered social inequality. 

But when Zionists conquered the country in the middle of the 20th century, the new Israeli parliament passed an anti-"infiltration" law to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees displaced by the conquest.

And while Israel's anti-Arab immigration policies were thus encoded into law, the state's anti-African immigration policies may have remained unwritten, but were dutifully enforced for decades, nonetheless.

To date, Israel has rejected over 99 percent of asylum requests

Euro-centric Zionist leaders purposefully prevented black Jews from joining them in Israel, both before and after establishing their sectarian state.

Successive Israeli governments rejected entry to Israelites with black skin - whether they had preserved the world's oldest known form of Judaism in Abyssinia, or had reinvented Afro-centric forms of Old Testament worship in America. 

Only after decades of resistance did the Israeli government relent and allow black Jews from Ethiopia to immigrate to Israel in the mid-1980s, and for black Israelites from America to remain in the country as legal residents from the mid-1990s. Both groups still face crushing poverty, police brutality and commonplace racism in Israel.

But the most contentious African immigration to Israel - that of Christian and Muslim refugees from East Africa - began in the mid-2000s.

At that time, around one percent of the African people fleeing political repression and horrific violence in their homelands began heading in the direction of Israel.

In recent years, the African continent has produced about 6 million refugees, and those who managed to make it into Israel before the state built a security fence to prevent the entry of any more, amounted to around 60,000.

Those refugees may have made up less than one percent of Israel's population - over 8 million - but because they're not only black, but non-Jews as well, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dubbed them a threat to Israel's Jewish "character". This bete noire has long been used to drum up opposition to the mere presence of Palestinian people and the birth of their babies.

When the Africans first arrived, Israel avoided violating the relevant conventions it co-signed and co-authored in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust. It wouldn't outright deport Sudanese back to Sudan, or Eritreans back to Eritrea. But it wouldn't grant the refugees any rights either. It just sent them directly to the slums of south of Tel Aviv, forcing some of Israel's poorest populations to absorb the Africans all on their own.

In the last five years, over a third of the African refugee community has been expelled from Israel

First for the first few years, Israel ignored all their asylum requests. Eventually, it began to examine these - but only at a snail's pace.

To date, Israel has rejected over 99 percent of asylum requests, granting status to a mere 10 Africans out of tens of thousands, making it the western world's most miserly country towards refugees, by far. In Europe and North America, the vast majority of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea receive refugee status.

The Netanyahu government proceeded to pressure African refugees to leave the country, by making Israeli society inhospitable to them. Top rabbis on the government payroll forbade Jews from renting apartments to the refugees. Top lawmakers in the governing coalition smeared the Africans as thieves, rapists and murderers spreading infectious diseases.

Read more: No saviour: Airlifted Ethiopian Jews face racism in Israel

Soon, Israelis were swearing, screaming and spitting at Africans in the streets. The knife attacks and firebombs would soon follow.

In 2013, the Netanyahu government began rounding thousands of African refugees off the streets of Israeli cities and into its newly-built desert detention centre, the largest in the world.

The government did not make much effort to hide that the jail's intended purpose was to break the spirits of these African refugees, so that they would despair of ever living normal lives in Israel, and grudgingly agree to self-deport back to the tortures they originally fled from.

From the Israeli government's perspective, the plan proved a great success: In the last five years, over a third of the African refugee community has been expelled from Israel: over 20,000 men, women and children.

But Netanyahu considers this pace of ethnic cleansing to be insufficient, and has now announced that all African refugees must leave the country within weeks, by 1 April 2018. The government is already advertising to hire security forces who will round up the resisters and drag them onto airplanes.

Reaping the political rewards of the hatred he seeded, Netanyahu is now tying his own popularity to the coming expulsion

Many of the African refugees who already left Israel's frying pan say they soon found themselves back in the fire.

The Israeli government claims that it has secret agreements with multiple African counties to take in the refugees it deports, and to grant them new leases of life.

But the governments of those countries publicly deny agreeing to any such deals, and refugees forced out of Israel say they were left to their fates, abandoned in a third African country without any refugee rights; dumped back to square one.

Many of them are believed to have since been enslaved and tortured in Libya, or drowned at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

A decade of state-sponsored incitement has helped make ethnically cleansing the country's remaining 40,000 African refugees a popular policy among many Israeli Jews. Reaping the political rewards of the hatred he seeded, Netanyahu is now tying his own popularity to the coming expulsion.

What's more, he's now unashamed to boast about it in English, encouraging Europe and the United States to embrace their own xenophobia, bringing cheer to white supremacists on both sides of the Atlantic.

If Netanyahu's anti-Palestinian policies paved the way for an Israeli alliance with the global far-right, his anti-African policies have clinched the match.

With Trump in the Oval Office and far-right parties quickly accruing power in Europe, Netanyahu will continue to crack down on Arabs, Africans, and the few left-wing Jews still resisting Israeli state racism for the foreseeable future.

But what will happen for them the moment Trump is toppled?  

David Sheen is an independent journalist originally from Toronto, Canada and now based in Dimona, Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @davidsheen

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.