In a show of solidarity with the city’s African migrants, more than 50 Tel Aviv restaurants and venues hosted dinners, shows, and exhibitions recently in support of the migrant community. The event was the strongest backing from Israelis in the city since thousands of the illegals protested for several days in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The events in support of the migrants also came as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a historical first-time visit to Israel. Supporters of the Africans and expatriate Eritreans living abroad have said they will hold protests at Israeli embassies in Canada, Australia, and European Union countries, hoping to get them to pressure Israel to designate their status as “refugee” and grant them asylum.
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The show of support in Tel Aviv came after weeks of protests and strikes. Some 20,000 filled the streets of the city, demonstrating against Israel’s policy of imprisoning them and asking to given political asylum. In Jerusalem, an estimated ten thousand marched to the Israeli parliament.
Many of the migrants are from Eritrea and Sudan, and claim to have fled fighting and persecution in their home countries. According to an international legal convention on refugees that Israel has signed, the state is not allowed to forcibly deport them due to the dangers that they would face in their home countries. But with no long-term policy of the Israeli government in place, the migrants have been left in a legal limbo.
"In Eritrea, basic human rights are denied to us," Haile Mengisteab, a human rights activist who arrived in Israel at the end of 2010 told The Media Line. "In Eritrea, we suffer arbitrary arrest, unlimited detention and long military service, and don't have voting rights."
When asked how he felt about his treatment in Israel, Mengisteab said, "regardless if I am happy or not, I am safe here."
Shiri Assa, the owner of the Shafa bar and restaurant in the trendy flea market area in Jaffa, employs eight African migrants. On a recent evening, she hosted a communal event with native Israelis and migrants sharing traditional food, music and dance.
“I think that they have a basic right to live without a constant threat to their freedom,” Assa told The Media Line. “They escaped war, racism and prison to come here for a better life. “I am very close and personal with them. They work here, but we go to their parties and their homes. I see them as friends, as people I trust."
More than 100 people – about half of them Africans and half Israelis – were sitting together at long tables and enjoying Eritrean stews. All of the proceeds from the evening were being donated for medical care for an Eritrean child in Israel.
Yonas Abraham, one of Assa’s employees, fled from Eritrea with his wife and entered Israel illegally almost four years ago. He says he left because he was about to be drafted into the Eritrean army for a minimum of 12 years. He is grateful for his warm welcome in Assa’s bar.
"She’s like a mother to us. They are all very generous to us,” Abraham said of Assa and the other Israelis he works with.
Many of the 60,000 illegal migrants in Israel work doing menial labor – they are cooks, dishwashers, and construction workers. According to the law, they are not allowed to work in Israel, but in practice, the Israeli government often looks the other way if the asylum-seekers have jobs, realizing that if they do not have gainful employment they are more likely to turn to crime.
The event at the Shafa bar also attracted protesters from the neighborhood who oppose helping the migrants. With black tape over their mouths and waving signs that read “Freedom for the residents of South Tel Aviv” and “Imprisoned at home without a trial,” about two dozen local residents, flanked by ten policemen, marched through the event.
As a low income neighborhood rife with crime, many residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the Africans have settled, believe that the migrants have made the situation worse and that ordinary Israelis have been forgotten in the controversy.
“This organization never came to help us or support us, but they help these illegal immigrants. Why?” Or Levi, a 26-year old student asked The Media Line. “They help them but they won’t give help to the poor people who already live here.”
Several high-profile crimes have shocked Israelis, notably two separate cases of rape in early 2012 perpetrated by migrants. The rapes sparked race riots in South Tel Aviv against the African community, leaving dozens injured.
"Many of them rape Israeli girls," Hannah Ponak, an event planner in Jerusalem told The Media Line. "As a woman, I am scared if I see a black person behind me."
There have been other protests against migrants. In upscale north Tel Aviv, a group of residents are protesting plans to build a cluster of pre-schools, citing parking problems and other pressing issues. In a letter sent to residents this week, the citizens worry that the new school will "mostly serve parents from outside the neighborhood, including the children of foreign workers instead of a green garden."
Many of the African migrants are recent additions to Tel Aviv, arriving between 2005 and 2012, when the border along the Egyptian Sinai peninsula was sealed. Since the migrants began streaming across the southern Negev desert, the Israeli government has been unable or unwilling to create an effective policy towards the asylum seekers.
The latest attempt to solve the issue has been the creation of the "open" detention center called Holot in the Negev. The center is described as open because migrants are allowed to leave during the day.
But activists claim that Holot amounts to a prison, with three daily roll calls, the inability to work, and a curfew during the night. A violation of these rules could be punished by jail time at the Saharonim prison.
Some of the migrants transferred to Holot took matters into their own hands when they left the detention center and embarked on a three-day, 100 mile march- and bus-trip to Jerusalem. Once they arrived, 300 Africans protested their conditions before most of them were arrested and sent back to Holot. This demonstration sparked weeks of protests against the government's treatment of the migrant community.
When asked what she would say to Israelis who oppose the migrants, Assa of the Shefa bar, said that she would "tell them to exchange hatred with love and compassion, and to open their eyes and stop living in fear."
Article written by Rye Druzin
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line