Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
This week, Alpher discusses the dynamics between Israel and the Eritrean/Sudanese asylum seekers, and between Israel and the Gazan refugees; the legal and moral issues in the African asylum seeker crisis; Tom Friedman's quote in the NYT:"How can Israel turn them away? But how can Israel take them all, which will only invite more, and the supply is now endless?"; how Israel is responding differently than Europe to issues with African migrants and refugees; why the confrontation with Gaza is escalating even though the numbers of dead and wounded Palestinians are decreasing from week to week; other mid-May events; and the Iranian threat from Syria.
Q. Israel currently wants to expel 30,000 Eritreans and Sudanese who entered the country years ago illegally. And it wants to keep out thousands of Gazans who, every Friday, storm the Gaza Strip border fence. What’s the difference between these two dynamics?
A. The status of the Africans represents a legal and moral issue, one with
constitutional ramifications that could affect the stability of Netanyahu’s coalition. It is also a socio-economic
issue insofar as a large concentration of African migrants in the poor neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv has
generated widespread protests and turned this into a right-left political issue with racist overtones.
The attacks on the Gaza fence are a security issue that, because it has produced considerable dead and wounded on the Palestinian side, is inviting growing international condemnation of Israel even as, week by week, it escalates.
Nearly all Israeli Jews agree the Gazans have to be kept out. In contrast, the country is split regarding the Africans, with the right wing broadly demanding they be expelled from the country. The truly paradoxical aspect of all this is that the very Netanyahu government that is so determined to kick out 30,000 Africans and to keep out the Gazans seemingly does not hesitate to swallow up West Bank land and invoke ultra-nationalist legal measures that are paving the way for Israel to become a bi-national Jewish-Arab entity. The Africans constitute a mere one percent (!) of the three million West Bank Palestinians that Israel is coopting into apartheid status.
Q. Let’s start with the Africans. What are the legal and moral issues and why the effect on coalition stability?
A. A few weeks ago, PM Netanyahu surprised everyone by announcing that a compromise
agreement had been reached with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resolve Israel’s African
refugee issue. Under the terms of the agreement, Israel would absorb around 15,000 of the Africans. It would
disperse them throughout the country and provide job training and educational opportunities. And it would invest
development funds in the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. In parallel, a similar number of Africans currently in
Israel would be resettled in Europe by UNHCR over the next five years. Netanyahu’s own Likud party and its right
wing coalition partners instantly reacted angrily to the prospect that a mere 15,000 Africans would remain (in a
country of nine million!) and that it would take five years to resettle the others.
The prime minister, taken aback and fearing for his electoral “base” at a time when corruption indictments against him are anticipated, immediately backtracked and cancelled the agreement. He then tried, not for the first time, to persuade Rwanda and/or Uganda to accept the Africans in return for financial inducements. The two central African countries insisted they would welcome only willing migrants and not anyone forcibly expelled.
At this point, Netanyahu fell back on incarceration options that have in the past been rejected by the High Court of Justice as violations of the Africans’ human rights. To overcome this obstacle, he and his coalition have proposed that the Knesset legislate an “override clause” that gives it the power to bypass the Court when it rules Knesset laws unconstitutional. Needless to say, the High Court opposes this bypass option, even if it is conditioned on a weighted majority of, say, 65 or 70 Knesset votes out of 120.
This is where the issue stands at present. Opponents of the bypass law point out that the High Court has ruled only 18 laws unconstitutional in the course of 70 years. The Court’s authority, they assert, is one of the foundations of the democratic separation of powers in Israel and of Israel’s liberal system of government. Further, Netanyahu himself has recently discussed the issue with former Chief Justice Aharon Barak and with current Chief Justice Esther Hayut, both of whom oppose the proposed law, and it is not entirely clear what his position is and where all members of his coalition stand.
There is a strong suspicion on the political right and left alike that Netanyahu’s real objective is to leverage the African refugee issue into a Knesset standoff that enables him to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections in September or October. Such a move would be presented to Netanyahu’s voter base as revolving around the government’s right to expel African “terrorist” intruders and override the High Court in order to defend the country’s sovereignty. In reality the timing of the elections would be intended to improve Netanyahu’s capacity to maneuver around and manipulate the corruption cases against him that the Israel Police and the Attorney General are building.
Q. In his column last week, the New York Times’ Tom Friedman wrote regarding the Africans: “How can Israel turn them away? But how can Israel take them all, which will only invite more, and the supply is now endless?”
A. Friedman seems surprisingly uninformed considering that he recently visited Israel
and studied the issue. The Africans entered Israel from Egyptian Sinai at a time when the border was delineated by
a fence that was literally knee-high. In 2014 illegal entry ceased because Israel completed a formidable
Negev-Sinai border barrier. In 2017 it even upgraded portions of it. The result is that illegal entry of Africans
stopped at the 60,000 who came prior to 2014.
So the issue is not the danger of encouraging more. Rather, it is what to do with the 30,000 or so who remain, after an equal number accepted financial incentives to leave over recent years. Note that nothing is hardbound and crystal clear here. Some of the 30,000 who have left with financial inducements were duped into leaving while others regretted agreeing to dubious resettlement schemes in Rwanda. On the other hand, the government has exempted families and the elderly from its drive to expel Africans.
The vast majority of the remaining Africans are decent people who just want a decent life. They have learned Hebrew. Some have families and children in Israeli schools who know no identity other than Israeli. Many veteran and compassionate Israelis know what it meant in the past for Jewish and even Vietnamese refugees to find a home in Israel. The Netanyahu government has the means to properly absorb not 15,000 but 30,000 Africans and redevelop south Tel Aviv. That’s the moral and enlightened thing to do. Netanyahu understood this when he entered into the agreement with UNHCR. But he does not have the political will.
Q. Europe also has issues with African migrants and refugees. Is Israel behaving any differently?
A. Israel is far less inclined than some European countries to recognize the Africans as
legitimate refugees who must be given asylum. Israeli authorities interpret international refugee standards more
strictly, some would say illegally, classifying most of the 30,000 or so Sudanese (mainly Darfurians) and Eritreans
as migrant laborers. On the other hand, Israel offers virtually all a minimal degree of protection, meaning they
cannot be deported as illegal migrants against their will. But they enjoy virtually no social benefits, and can be
locked up temporarily. Then too, judging by comments from some government ministers, a degree of racism is
Frankly, the issues at stake are controversial. Many Darfurians tell suspiciously similar stories of the destruction of their villages, rape and pillaging, as if they had been rehearsed. And while most Eritrean men claim they have escaped forced lifetime conscription and would be jailed if they returned, there are a few reports by international human rights groups that argue that the Eritrean regime--a harsh dictatorship by any standard--would welcome them back and pardon them. In other words, it stands to reason that some of those who entered illegally and claim asylum as refugees did so primarily to find work and better their lives--as do, for example (via Ben Gurion Airport and with tourist visas), countless Ukrainians, including sex traffickers. Still, the UN insists that neither Darfurians nor Eritreans can be forcibly returned to their homelands, and Israel honors this determination.
As for the Europeans, some (e.g. Hungary) take an openly racist attitude, most (Italy, France) have closed their doors, many have detention camps like those Israel has tried to implement, and in several (UK’s Brexit, Italy’s recent elections) politics have been sharply affected by the migrant issue and have moved to the nationalist right. Italy is now funding the activities of a brutal secret police force based in Sudan that is charged with intercepting potential migrants before they can reach Libya and the Mediterranean.
Q. Turning to Gaza, if the numbers of dead and wounded Palestinians are decreasing from week to week, why do you say the confrontation is escalating?
A. It is escalating because the two sides’ tactics are evolving and becoming more
violent. Last Friday, following a rabblerousing speech near the fence by a senior Hamas leader in which he urged
Gazan young men to storm the fence en masse at the risk of martyrdom, they did just that. Some were armed and
opened fire, others carried explosives. This was clearly a planned attack, the most violent yet. That only four
Gazans were killed by Israeli sniper fire is a testament to IDF efforts to limit casualties.
This was a new tactic. It was bound to escalate the confrontation. What began as an independently organized mass protest in Gaza has been taken over by the Strip’s Islamist leadership, even as mass enthusiasm has waned and Friday’s overall turnout was only around 10,000 demonstrators. On Sunday night, three coordinated Palestinian efforts to breach the border fence by force of arms and explosives left three more Gazans dead. Yet another aspect of escalation is the IDF response in the form of an air attack Friday night on Hamas naval commando installations on the Mediterranean coast.
All in all, then, casualty figures may be dropping and the number of demonstrators dropping by the week--both welcome developments--but the entire confrontation is becoming more militarized. The next two Fridays, May 4 and 11, and “Nakba Day”, May 15, which is planned by Palestinians as the culmination of the Gaza fence events, are liable to witness further dangerous escalation.
Q. A few other events are happening in mid-May. . .
A. Indeed. On May 14, the seventieth anniversary of Israel’s independence according to
the Gregorian calendar, senior American officials will inaugurate the first US embassy in Jerusalem. President
Trump may come and paroled spy Jonathan Pollard may be released to mark the festivities. The embassy opening is
almost guaranteed to incite mass Palestinian protests. Two days earlier, May 12, President Trump is widely expected
to exit the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. And Ramadan, when Muslim sensitivities are heightened, begins on May 15.
The Trump-Kim US-North Korea summit, also focusing on nuclear issues, will probably follow shortly.
Between nuclear and Israeli-Palestinian issues, mid-May could be dramatic and violent.
Q. Then there’s the Iranian threat from Syria. . .
A. On Sunday night, missile attacks on bases deep in Syrian territory reportedly left 18 Iranian soldiers dead, along with an even large number of Syrians. The missiles apparently penetrated underground bunkers. This is the “other” and strategically far more significant military escalation that Israel faces. Lest we forget, it has the potential to dwarf the events along the Gaza fence and even to dwarf the events anticipated in mid-May.