Netanyahu's spiked migrant deal: A red line for Israel's racist right wing

Netanyahu's spiked migrant deal: A red line for Israel's racist right wing
Comment: Netanyahu's defunct UN migrant deal is a stark reminder of how little black lives matter in Israel, writes David Sheen.
7 min read
06 Apr, 2018
Netanyahu quickly backed out of his deal with the UN to resettle African migrants [Getty]
This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a plan to deport nearly half of Israel's remaining 40,000 African refugees to other nations in the global North, and to delay deporting the remaining half, mainly women and children, for five years, during which time the government would be committed to dispersing them across the country.

Then, less than a day later, Netanyahu called the deal off.

But why did he originally agree to this arrangement? Why was he forced to back out of the scheme so quickly? If the accord is quashed, then what fate awaits Israel's African refugees in the immediate future? And what does this say about how little black lives matter in Israel?

The resettlement proposal originally brokered by the UN refugee agency UNHCR was a far cry from Netanyahu's preferred scenario.

His government drove over 20,000 African refugees from the country in the last five years, pressuring them to accept offers of resettlement back on the African continent.

Netanyahu would not now willingly choose to redirect these refugees to Europe instead, after boasting that Israel's very existence rules out that possibility. In March 2016, he tweeted: "A strong Israel prevents the passage of masses of refugees to Europe."

The Israeli economy would actually grow by a billion dollars a year, if the government just stopped trying to deport the African refugees

But it eventually emerged that the refugees Israel was forcing out were being abandoned at their new destinations, Rwanda and Uganda, without the protected status Israel had promised them. Many of the refugees quickly fled from there to Europe, and were forced to witness horrible tortures along the way.

Now alerted to the dangers actually awaiting them back in Africa, fewer refugees were willing to accept Israel's duplicitous offers. And the African governments that had agreed to quietly facilitate Israel's expulsion of the refugees were shamed into publicly denying and denouncing the arrangements.

So Netanyahu grudgingly agreed to the back-channel deal with western nations, which would have seen the UN essentially releasing Israel from its own commitments to international refugee conventions. Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Noa Landau noted that,

"When the Interior Minister Arye Dery boasts of this being a special settlement with the UN, he is virtually admitting that Israel's policy was so bad in relation to western democracies, that it was impossible not to intervene and save these refugees."

But if Israel's refugee policy is bad, would the now-defunct UN agreement have been a big improvement?

While details of the deal were sketchy, Israel said it stipulated that the first 16,000 Africans to receive asylum in the West would not have been those refugees most at-risk – children and mothers - but rather, single men.

This provision was a capitulation to the demands of two powerful special interest groups in Israel. One of these is private human resource agencies, who arrange for the arrival - and scheduled departure - of tens of thousands of foreign workers from Asia.

The financial interests of those HR agencies - who profit by providing Israeli industries with a more easily exploitable labour force - would seem to be at odds with those of average Israelis. An Israeli TV report from March demonstrated that the Israeli economy would actually grow by a billion dollars a year, if the government just stopped trying to deport the African refugees, and instead simply let them live and work without restriction.

If this occurred, it would also decrease the demand for those human resources agencies, and significantly diminish their margins. And so their financial contributions to the very ministers leading Israel's war on African refugees serve to protect their own parasitic profit models.

But Israel's demand that the first 16,000 deportees must be male is also animated by another one of the country's powerful special interest groups, one that doesn't give money to government ministers, but rather gets money from government ministers: Israel's anti-miscegenationist movement, which strives to prevent romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews, and especially between Jewish women and non-Jewish men.

Even when their grunt workers aren't Asians, many Israelis still prefer their labourers to be Arabs, rather than Africans. These racists reason that most Palestinians, whether with Israeli citizenship or without, live in their own towns and villages, but African refugees live alongside Jews in Israel's biggest cities, increasing the risk of inter-religious coexistence, and yes, conjugal relations.

Just hours after disclosing the deal, Netanyahu announced that he had scrapped the plan altogether

"The Palestinians are not coming to live in south Tel Aviv," explained Israel's Interior Minister Ariye Deri. "They come to work in the morning and return at night."

The UN deal contained other concessions to Israel's racist right wing. In a now-deleted Facebook post, Netanyahu boasted of bargaining down the UN, and reducing by 75 percent the number of African refugees whose deportations Israel would have to delay by five years.

"In the beginning there was a demand that for every one that leaves, there would be four that would stay. I didn't agree to it. In the end, we agreed that for everyone that leaves, we let one remain as a temporary resident."

And yet, just hours after disclosing the deal, Netanyahu announced that he had scrapped the plan altogether. Why?

Even if Israel had kept its commitments under the deal - something that could not be guaranteed, and given Netanyahu's track record seems rather unlikely - his racist base would still have gotten the ethnic cleansing it had long been clamouring for.

But in their schadenfreude, far-right Israelis raged that the expelled refugees would get new leases of life in the West, instead of statelessness and suffering. So instead, they put pressure on Netanyahu until he spiked the deal.

In their schadenfreude, far-right Israelis raged that the expelled refugees would get new leases of life in the West, instead of statelessness and suffering

So what will happen now that the UN deal is off the table?

Barring any new developments, it is highly unlikely that Israel will mass-deport refugees to Rwanda, Uganda or anywhere else in Africa anytime soon. That is an important victory for the asylum-seeker community.

After backing out of his commitment to split the remaining 40,000 refugees between Israel and other western nations, Netanyahu also backed out of his commitment to invest in the neglected neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv. This is a loss for all the residents of those neighbourhoods, African and Israeli alike.

But what's worse, government lawmakers are already talking about re-opening the Holot desert detention center, where Israel had held thousands of African refugees for years, in order to pressure them to self-deport.

Over the years, a string of Israeli High Court decisions gradually reduced the effectiveness of this pressure tactic, by restricting the amount of time an asylum-seeker could be held there against his will. But Israel's governing coalition is now preparing a new piece of legislation that will exempt its anti-refugee policies from judicial appeal.

Read more: Vigilante violence reminds us how little #BlackLivesMatter in Israel

With no more need to whittle down its anti-African measures to pass the muster of the High Court, the government could now choose to round African refugees into the Holot camp for indefinite periods of time – effectively, for life.

True, the refugees and their allies have scored a significant victory. But they are also very wary of new anti-African measures sure to come from the Netanyahu government - as well as the ever-present threat of vigilante violence from everyday racists in Israel.

Again, we have been brutally reminded of how little black lives matter in Israel.

Here, any improvements in the fortunes of non-Jewish African refugees trigger tsunamis of rage. And this hatred has now proven to be even more powerful than the man most responsible for its increase in the past decade: The current, and second-longest serving prime minister in Israel's history, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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.