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24 Jan 2014 00:00
Mass disquiet: About 10 000 African
migrants protest in Tel Aviv against Israel's slow processing of asylum requests. (Nir Elias,Reuters)
Israel is in the middle of a crisis that could threaten its self-definition as a Jewish and a democratic state. Remarkably, this crisis does not originate in the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict or even in the simmering dispute with the Palestinians.
The region's only democracy baulks at accepting droves of African asylum seekers who have fled the continent's worst war zones.
Thousands of these refugees recently poured into the squares of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with defiant pleas for their asylum requests to be recognised by the state.
Israel offers as a rationale for its decision the delicate demographics necessary to maintain a majority Jewish and democratic country. But there are other factors at play.
In major Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, thousands of African refugees languish on the margins of society. They began arriving on Israel's southern border less than 10 years ago and now number roughly 50 000. The number holds steady owing to a state-of-the-art $377-million fence severing Israel from the Sinai Peninsula, the primary entry point for African refugees into Israel.
For those who remain within Israel's borders, the reality is that most lead a parlous existence, working in illegal jobs at exploitative wages with the ever-present threat of expulsion.
Since the country's founding, Israel has recognised less than 200 asylum requests from non-Jewish refugees.
For many Israelis, the recognition of African refugees has uncomfortable associations with Israel's relationship with the African continent.
Israel has a varied history in Africa, seeking diplomatic legitimacy but forsaking democratic principles by partnering with some of the worst regimes in the world.
In the early part of the 1950s, the Israeli state invested heavily in sub-Saharan Africa, attempting to win support at the United Nations from newly independent African countries. The relationship was marked by Israeli exports of agricultural know–ledge, water technology and, in some cases, military training, in exchange for support at the world body.
"Africa was a major focus of Israeli foreign policy in the 1950s," said former Israeli ambassador to South Africa Dr Alon Liel. "Israel wanted to be a light upon the nations of Africa."
But by the late 1960s, Israel's budding relationship with apartheid South Africa cast a shadow over its relationship with the African continent. Israel began an elaborate and secretive association with the apartheid regime, marked by military collusion. In exchange for military equipment, expertise and assistance in circumventing international boycotts of South Africa, Israel received huge amounts of raw resources and cash throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s.
By all accounts, Israel would prefer its awkward history with the apartheid regime to be forgotten. Recently, Israel sought to sidestep the past when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres declined an invitation to Nelson Mandela's memorial service in Johannesburg.
With the advent of the Oslo peace process and the fall of apartheid, Israel again found itself courting various African countries with the offer of military expertise in exchange for raw resources. In 1993, it kicked off diplomatic relations with Eritrea, typified by a close military partnership and economic ties. Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki even travelled to Israel for medical treatment in 1993.
The arms trade fuels these relationships, a notion that has penetrated the Israeli consciousness, according to Sara Leibowitz, an investigative journalist with the Israeli daily Maariv.
"It doesn't matter for the Israeli public," she told me in a busy Tel Aviv café. "People here are very interested in it, but they are not placing blame on private arms dealers and the government."
Until desperate Africans began approaching Israel's borders seeking asylum, the country's murky foreign policy in Africa was a matter that could be easily brushed away.
For Israelis the presence of Africans is, in a word, unsettling. Fuelled by an aggressive government campaign to label asylum seekers as infiltrators – a designation formerly used to classify Palestinians who attempted to return to their homes after Israel's creation in 1948 – many Israelis feel unnerved by the presence of African refugees. Nationalist fervour targeting Africans in Israel has become embarrassingly commonplace.
Eli Yishai, a former interior minister and a member of right-wing religious party Shas, has become a leading voice behind the new wave of xenophobia against the refugees.
In an interview with Maariv, Yishai noted that "most of the people [immigrants] coming here are Muslims who think the land doesn't belong to us, to the white man … The infiltrators, along with the Palestinians, will quickly bring us to the end of the Zionist dream."
The refusal of Israel to grant asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan safe haven underlines the country's inability to reconcile what it means to be a democracy that privileges the rights of one ethnic or religious group above all others. But although it is tempting to argue that Israel's "ethnocracy" is the sole culprit in this tragic situation, that is not the country's sole concern.
The same business and military ties that have led other Middle Eastern countries to pivot towards Africa are brought under the spotlight in Israel because of the asylum seekers there. If Israel were to recognise their refugee status, it would expose its own nefarious relationships in Africa.
The Israeli government was not available for comment this week.
Resolving the tension between Israel's democracy and its ethnocracy will not be enough to resolve the refugee issue. Israel's robust and unsavoury military relationships with Africa's horrendous human rights abusers must also be taken into account.
Joseph Dana is eastern Mediterranean correspondent for Monocle
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