Tag Archives: refugees

Israeli mercenary firm proposes “violent action” against African refugees

The Israeli daily Maariv recently reported [in Hebrew] that BTS, a mercenary firm run by a former Israeli army colonel and veteran bodyguard, Beni Tal, proposed to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai a plan to violently expel thousands of African migrant workers and refugees living near Tel Aviv’s central bus station.

According to Maariv, Tal told Tel Aviv municipal representatives he would gather intelligence on the African migrant population before sending in hundreds of security guards to cuff them and ship them away on buses or trucks. “This should be a very violent action,” Tal said.

“I have never seen a place so violent, not even in the roughest parts of New York,” Tal remarked. “So we need to bring in guys who are not afraid of anything, put people on trucks, and within six months return the bus station to its residents… This population [Africans] is very problematic.”

Though the Tel Aviv municipality ultimately rejected Tal’s proposal, Maariv reported that a municipal official brought the plan up in a meeting of the Israeli Knesset’s Special Committee regarding Foreign Workers. The representative claimed he raised Tal’s proposal merely to highlight the supposed severity of the situation in southern Tel Aviv.

I have spent countless hours in Tel Aviv’s central bus station and in the surrounding Neve Shaanan neighborhood, where much of the city’s migrant worker population lives. The only people who have ever threatened me there were plainclothes agents from Israel’s Oz Unit, which routinely accosts and arrests migrants around the bus station, and who once stopped me by the bus station to demand proof I was in the country legally.

The neighborhood may be impoverished and overcrowded, but it is hardly dangerous by urban American standards. When a Maariv reporter confronted Tal with the fact that crime in Neve Shaanan was no higher than anywhere else in the city, he protested that the statistics were false, but was unable to produce evidence to support his point.

Some migrants from Africa have arrived in Israel to occupy the menial jobs that Palestinians performed before they were tucked behind a separation wall and Gaza was completely besieged. They are the glue that holds Tel Aviv together, washing dishes, cooking food, cleaning bathrooms, and changing children’s diapers so the city’s Jewish residents can enjoy the First World, Eurocentric lifestyle they have come to expect. Others arrived from Africa fleeing war and civil strife. By some estimates, 60 percent of Sudanese migrants are eligible for asylum status.

David Sheen’s devastating video documentary [above] illustrates how Israel’s draconian approach to African refugees is rooted in deeply ingrained racist attitudes and an official policy of countering demographic threats. Sheen’s report highlights how security concerns were manufactured to establish a pretext for enforcing the state’s exclusivist priorities against those condemned as “infiltrators.”

The recently passed “Prevention of Infiltration Bill,” which mandates a three year prison sentence without trial for illegal migrants, was nothing more than an amendment to the pre-existing 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law” enacted after the Nakba to prevent Palestinian refugees from reuniting with their family members inside the newly created state of Israel. As Israeli human rights activist Leehee Rothschild wrote, “At the end of the day, the justification for both the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law as well was the new amendment is one and the same – the maintenance of the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”

Last month, Israel began construction on what will be the world’s largest detention center. Labeled by none other than Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin as a “concentration camp where people are warehoused,” the prison will sit in the Negev Desert on the grounds of what was once Ketziot Prison, a detention camp for Palestinian detainees staffed by the Atlantic Magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg. The new super-jail is being erected for the sole purpose of containing migrants and asylum seeking refugees fleeing from Africa.

Describing the desert prison as a “humanitarian solution,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu justified its construction on the grounds that African refugees threaten to “change[] the character of the state.”

This was originally published at Al Akhbar English

After 1948: How Israel stopped the “outcast race” from returning home

Yesterday, the Israeli army opened fire on unarmed demonstrators seeking to reach Majdel Shams, a village in the occupied Golan Heights. When the demonstrators breached a border fence, the army opened fire, killing several of them. Among those who made it through was Hassan Hijazi. Hijazi hitch-hiked and rode buses from the border to Jaffa, hoping to find his family’s confiscated home. “It was always my dream to reach Jaffa,” he told police after turning himself in.

At the Gaza border, the army opened fire on unarmed demonstrators with tanks, injuring dozens. Israeli forces fired unusually high amounts of teargas at protesters in Qalandiya, wounding scores in the West Bank city which was completely surrounded by the separation wall. Joseph Dana, who documented the Qalandiya protest, told me a group of shabab attempted to pull down a section of the wall but failed in somewhat comical fashion because their rope was too short.

Now that Israeli forces are conducting house-to-house searches for those who managed to surmount the Jewish state’s demographic walls, the word “infiltrator” has retured to the Israeli vocabulary. The term was coined in the months and years after the Nakba when the Israeli military focused on preventing those it had expelled in 1947 and ’48 from returning to their villages, their land and their families. Israel’s search and expulsion operations, designed to maintain the demographic integrity that the Zionist militias established through ethnic cleansing, represent an under-acknowledged but absolutely crucial component of the history of the Nakba. Indeed, the Nakba did not end in 1948.

Perhaps the most comprehensive account of Israel’s efforts to prevent the refugees from returning home is Benny Morris’ 1993 book, “Israel’s Border Wars: 1949-1956.” Morris’ flaws — his crude racism, rejection of Arab historians and sources, and allegiance to Zionism — are well known. As a pure archivist, however, he is among the best. The sections in his book on infiltration depict in cold, clinical detail the Israeli military’s tactics against those who tried to return. They included detaining refugees in barbed wire enclosed camps that reminded some observers of Nazi Germany; the extraction of fingernails and other torture methods; and forced marches through the desert without food or water. Tawfiq Toubi, the first Arab to serve in Israel’s Knesset, called the search and expulsion operations “pogroms.”

Below, I have excerpted several testimonies about Israel’s operations to stop “infiltration:”

In May 1950, a woman from a kibbutz in the South witnessed Palestinian refugees being packed into trucks and unloaded at a camp [pp. 147-48]:

We were waiting for a hitch beside one of the big army camps… Suddenly two large trucks arrived, packed with blindfolded Arabs (men, women, and children). Several of the soldiers guarding them got down to drink and eat a little, while the rest stayed on guard. To our question ‘Who are these Arabs?’ they responded: ‘These are infiltrators, on their way to being returned over the borders.’ The way the Arabs were crowded together [on the trucks] was inhuman. Then one of the soldiers called his friend ‘the expert’ to make some order [among the Arabs]. Those of us standing nearby had witnessed no bad behavior on the part of the Arabs, who sat frightened, almost one on top of the other. But the soldiers were quick to teach us what they meant by ‘order. The ‘expert’ jumped up and began to…hit [the Arabs] across their blindfolded eyes and when he had finished, he stamped on all of them and then, in the end, laughed uproariously and with satisfaction at his heroism. We were shocked by this despicable act. I ask, does this not remind us exactly of the Nazi acts towards the Jews? And who is responsible for such acts of brutality committed time and time again by our soldiers?

In June 1949, Israeli forces rounded up 5000 accused infiltrators in Nazareth and imprisoned them in a barbed-wire compound. The episode disturbed then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, who worried for Israel’s international image. He complained to Ben Gurion [p. 149]:

The army did not allow anyone to remain at home. Among those incarcerated [behind the barbed wire] there were also pregnant women, babies, tired old people, and the sick. The army made no distinction between ordinary folk and notables, so that among those incarcerated was the Arab magistrate of Nazareth… All these people were held in the compound for several hours, in overcrowded conditions, and without food and water. There were outbursts of shouting and yelling by the prisoners and on one occasion the troops fired over the crowd’s heads… I heard from a Jewish member of Knesset who visited Nazareth last Saturday that there had been thefts of money from [some] empty houses [during the round-up].

On May 31 1950, the Israeli army forced 120 Palestinian “infiltrators” into two crowded trucks and drove them to Arava, a point on the Jordanian border, then forced them to march across the desert, firing shots over their heads to urge them on. According to Alec Kirkbride, the British minister in Amman, over 30 died of thirst and starvation during the forced march. The group had spent the past weeks in a makeshift detention center in Qatra that Kirkbride described as ” a concentration camp…run on Nazi lines.” One survivor, according to Morris, had his fingernails torn out.

John Glubb, the latter-day Lawrence of Arabia who had trained the Jordanian army, witnessed the scene with horror. “The Jews want them all to emigrate,” he wrote. “They therefore try to persuade them with rubber coshes and by tearing off their fingernails whenever they get the chance… I do not know whether this is the policy of the Israel cabinet, but it must certainly be known and winked at on a ministerial level… The brutality is too general to be due only to the sadism of ordinary soldiers.”

On June 11 1950, the journalist Philip Toynbee (son of historian Arnold Toynbee) published an account on the front page of the Observer based on his interviews with the survivors of the Arava incident. Toynbee, whom Morris noted was “sympathetic towards Israel,” implied similarities between Israel and Nazi Germany. He wrote [pp. 160-61]:

One member of the outcast race [the Palestinians], a heavy young man with the dull vacant look of Van der Lubbe [the Dutchman falsely arrested and executed by the Nazis for setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933], had been arrested while grazing a cow near the state frontier. The blue-uniformed [Israeli] police with almost incredible naivete…believed him to be a spy… and two of his fingernails were pulled out before they learned better. A young schoolmaster entered [Israel] illegally in order to be again with his family. He was…immediately arrested. One old mason, driven desperate by unemployment, tried to get out of [Israel] to escape. About a hundred of them collected from all parts of the State were taken from the prison camp, [and] herded into two motor trucks… The army blind[folded] them, barking at them and waving their rubber coshes.

On the long tedious journey through the burning countryside one of the victims would occasionally try to see but was hit over the face or back with a cosh…At last…they reached the remotest…part of the frontier. It was no eight o’clock in the evening and they had had nothing to eat and drink all day. A compassionate captain ordered two buckets of water to be brought, but as soon as his back was turned the soldiers spilled the water into the dust. The bandages were now taken from their eyes and they were told that three would be counted and anyone not running by then would be shot…As they ran Bren gunfire opened above and between them so that they were forced to split up into groups of three and four. This story, I know, is sickeningly familiar, and it is only the roles which have been changed. The outcast race is not the Jews and the state is not…Nazi Germany…

The frontier area is the terrible Wadi Araba…a desert valley far below sea level where only lizards and locusts can live, and where in the daytime the sand scorches the bare flesh. Since there was only moonlight when the prisoners were released, nearly all were hopelessly lost by the time the sun rose…The luckiest were picked up on the second day by friendly Bedouins… Others were wandering for four days, eating lizards and drinking stagnant water or their own urine… By the fourth day some 70 out of 1000 had been saved, but many had stories of others they had been forced to leave dying in the desert… I interviewed nine or ten of them separately…their stories coincided… I saw weals and sores caused by prison beating, scorched and swollen feet, and two almost nailless fingers of the young grazier… Nothing can excuse the inhuman brutality of their treatment.

Moshe Dayan, who was then the head of the army’s Southern Command, blamed the atrocities at Arava on “Turkish and Moroccan [Jewish] soldiers” who “lack moral fiber.” He added, “I hope that there will perhaps be another opportunity in the future to transfer these Arabs from the Land of Israel, and as long as such a possibility exists, we must do nothing to foreclose the option.”

“The days of ’48 have come again.” 15 minutes from Tel Aviv, Israel creates a new refugee camp

Inside the "Abu Eid Refugee Camp," 15 km from Tel Aviv (all photos by Guy Botebia)

Inside the "Abu Eid Refugee Camp," 15 km from Tel Aviv (photo by Guy Botebia)

On December 13, 17-year-old Hamza Abu Eid was taken out of class and summoned to the principal’s office. “The Israelis are destroying your house right now,” the principal told him. “It is best that you remain here. The last thing we want is for you to have a confrontation with a police officer.”

But Abu Eid rushed to his family’s house, hoping to salvage whatever belongings he could. When he arrived, bulldozers from the Israeli Lands Authority had destroyed virtually everything — all seven homes belonging to the Abu Eid family were reduced to rubble. A black masked officer from the Israeli yassam (the anti-riot police) prevented Hamza from entering to attempt to save his belongings. Three refrigerators and a TV set were among the appliances that Hamza’s family lost in the demolitions.

In the end, 74 people were left homeless, including 54 children, forced to sleep under the open sky during the coldest period of the year. No government social workers arrived with assistance, nor did the state offer any temporary aid. The families gathered whatever belongings they could, pitched tents like so many Palestinian refugees have done in the past, and placed a sign over their land plot that read, “Abu Eid Refugee Camp.”

Over 70 members of the Abu Eid family sleep in tents next to their destroyed homes.

Over 70 members of the Abu Eid family sleep in tents next their destroyed homes

Although the area now looks like the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza after Operation Cast Lead, it is located only 15 kilometers from Tel Aviv in the Abu Toq neighborhood of Lod. All of Lod’s Palestinian residents are citizens of Israel, however, they are treated by the state like foreigners, or worse, as a threat to the survival of Zionism.

For years, the Abu Eid family applied for permits to allow them to renovate their homes to accommodate their growing family. But the state zoned their neighborhood as agricultural land and refused their requests (for obvious reasons, applications for renovation and building permits are almost always denied to the Arabs inside Israel). Finally, the state ordered them to seek residency elsewhere because their homes were slated for demolition.

Directly beside the Abu Eid refugee camp, building has begun on a yeshiva that will be directed by an Orthodox rabbi from the United States named Yaakov Saban. And plans have been authorized to build a road directly through center of the neighborhood. Pressure of Palestinian Israelis of Lod to leave is intensifying as a result of the far-right takeover of the city’s municipality.

Widespread corruption led to the collapse of the elected municipality, enabling the Israeli Ministry of Interior to install an emergency government consisting of hand picked military officials. Because the ministry is controlled by Eli Yishai, the leader of the extreme right Shas Party (Yishai was singled out in the Goldstone Report for saying “we should bombard thousands of houses in Gaza”), the new municipality has taken the form of an openly racist cabal. “They are poor in culture, poor in behavior. No ambition,” the mayor of Ramle, a neighboring city, said of the Palestinians of Lod.

Riyadh Abu Eid stands by the rubble of his home

Riyadh Abu Eid stands by the rubble of his home

While as many as 30 demolition orders hover over the residents of Lod, and 42,000 such orders have been issued across Israel against Arab residents, Yishai has declared his intention to settle thousands of Orthodox Jews in the city. At the same time, Arabs in Lod claim they are forbidden from living in a giant new public housing complex built in the heart of the city.

I arrived at the Abu Eid refugee camp on January 25. At the end of Lod’s Helen Keller Boulevard, men sit around open fires sipping tea, while small children clamber in an out of tents erected beside piles of rubble, debris and shattered home appliances. A middle aged man named Riyah Abu Eid met me at the entrance and took me into the makeshift camp.

“This place was here before 1948,” he said. “They destroyed it because they said we had no permit. But we can’t get permits because we are ’48 Arabs. We asked many times and were denied every time. They say we are terrorists. But look around, this is the real terror. Throwing children into the street on the coldest day of the year — that is terror.”

According to Riyadh Abu Eid, many children from camp are unable to attend school because they are unable to concentrate. A nine year old girl who was especially traumatized has refused to leave her bed for days. Riyadh does not try to conceal his desperation. “We do not feel safe here,” he said. “We want to ask the United Nations and Obama for international protection from a fascist government that has proven capable of massacring the unarmed.” He added, “The days of 1948 have come again.”

The destruction leveled against the Palestinians of Lod highlights a growing trend in Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens. Increasingly, the state is replicating the brutal methods it applies in the West Bank against Palestinians across the so-called Green Line. “For years I’ve been trying to say, ‘Don’t think the Occupation will stop at the Green Line,’” Amiel Vardi, a Jewish Israeli activist who accompanied me to Lod, told me. “Now we see it’s not stopping. They’re using the same methods with the settlements, with the courts, and with the Shabak [Shin Bet] on both sides of the Green Line. Go to the Abu Eid camp or to Al Arakib and there’s absolutely no difference from what I see in the Hebron hills.”

In the unrecognized Palestinian-Israel village of Dahmash, located next to Lod, the family of Ali and Farida Sha’aban defended their home for two years from demolition. When I met them last July, the couple was camped in front, awaiting the bulldozer that could come at any time. “If there is a democracy in Israel, then why are we forbidden from living here?” Ali said to me. “You are from the USA?” he asked me. “Well, we are the Native Americans in this place.” Building plans by the Lod municipality will effectively close off all or most of the entrances to Dahmash; already a wall separates the village from a Jewish housing development next door.

Demonstrators marched to the Lod police station demanding the release of Farida and Ali Sha'aban

Demonstrators marched to the Lod police station demanding the release of Farida and Ali Sha'aban

On January 22, the Lod police violently arrested Ali, Farida, and five members of their family, accusing them of harboring illegal workers. Their detention in the city jail was unknown until Monday, when they were finally allowed to see a lawyer. A judge extended their imprisonment until Thursday on the grounds of secret evidence the Sha’aban family’s lawyer was not allowed to view — a tactic familiar to Israel’s military courts in the West Bank. Video allegedly showing the police kicking the Sha’aban’s while shouting, “Go to Gaza!” was shown during the court hearing.

Activists placed stickers on police cars mocking Israel claim to be "Jewish and democratic." They read, "Yahudit V'Gezanit," or "Jewish and racist."

Activists placed stickers on police cars mocking Israel's claim to be "Jewish and democratic." They read, "Yahudit V'Gezanit," or "Jewish and racist."

Last night, a group of Jewish Israeli demonstrators, including many from the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, joined the Abu Eid family and Palestinian activists from Lod, including members of the renowned rap trio Dam (“I broke the law? No the law broke me,” is a lyric from their song “Born Here”), in a protest march to the Lod police station to demand the Sha’aban family’s release. The demonstration consolidated Lod as a new node in the growing solidarity movement inside Israel. On Friday, the Abu Eid’s will participate in the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demo, which was joined last week by residents of Al Arakib, and has been frequently attended by Farida and Ali from Dahmash.

Back in the Abu Eid camp, I spoke to Hamza Abu Eid, the 17 year old high school student, about what his life has been like since his home was destroyed. “I get distracted when I’m in class now,” he told me. “Sometimes when I think about the aggressive way the police treated the women — one of them kicked my brother’s pregnant wife — I get so angry I can’t focus.”

Hamza said his family plans to buy trailers to live in until the state delivers them “a solution.” He said, “For now, we have no solution. I expect that I will stay in this life and it will keep going on. The government has done nothing for me but destroy my house. As a citizen, I have no rights.”

He added, “I see a future full of darkness.”

Despite being homeless and traumatized, Hamza said he is excelling in school. He told me had just received 92 out of 100 on a chemistry exam, and that he has near-perfect marks in biology. When he finishes high school, Hamza plans to pursue a career in economics or medicine.

“I know there is a hope,” he said. “I just don’t know what it is.”