Among the issues recently dominating the front pages of Israeli newspapers are the tortured negotiations to form a coalition that will govern the country while the growing riots and demonstrations on the West Bank might be the opening salvos of a new intifada as hope for freedom among Palestinians dwindles to zero. These daily stories appear against the backdrop of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes, a recently arrested Palestinian who died while undergoing interrogation by the Shin Bet (amidst allegations of torture), more threats about Iran, Israeli forces on the move in the Negev demolishing Bedouin homes, and the racially-motivated beatings of Arabs by violent mobs on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the aftermath of Purim festivities, events that are no longer aberrations.
One item that caught my attention was a controversy around the pending deportation of 25 African refugees back to Eritrea. Eritrea is one of the most oppressive regimes in the world where there is a universal, lifelong conscription of young men into the army. Draft dodgers are severely punished with torture and often death. Their plight reminds me of the multitudes of Jewish men who fled Czarist Russia back in the 1800’s which is why many found their way to America and some even to Palestine at the time.
Needless to say, these Africans have not found a warm welcome in Israel as I have written about repeatedly. The new law passed last year criminalizes these asylum seekers with an automatic three-year prison sentence with unlimited extensions. There is no trial or appeal. Apparently these 25 refugees opted for “voluntary repatriation” when faced with the threat of indefinite imprisonment. Human rights groups were up in arms over the pressure brought to bear on these helpless people who would face a guaranteed brutal reception when they landed in Eritrea. So this controversy was simmering in the background of all the other news.
But then the blockbuster story appeared yesterday. Splashed across the front pages of the Haaretz newspaper was the scoop that Israel has already “voluntarily deported” 1,000 asylum seekers back to Sudan. Many of these refugees fled genocide in Darfur and more recently from the Nuba Mountain region where the government has conducted a brutal campaign against the civilian population including aerial bombings, the destruction of entire villages, mass arrests of thousands, and a government initiated famine. (Click here and here for articles written last year by Nikolas Kristof in The New York Times about this genocidal war).
This deportation is a blatant violation of the UN Refugee Convention that Israel helped develop in the 1950’s in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative stated, “…deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed.” Although Israel claims the deportations were voluntary, the UNHCR stated there is no “freewill from inside a prison.”
Sudanese officials have consistently warned that it is a serious crime for any citizen to go to Israel and offenders would be punished. Let’s remember these people were already fleeing slaughter.
Trying to defend itself, Israel states that it is not deporting the refugees directly to Sudan but, by prior arrangement, they are being deported to a third country that, in turn, deports them to Sudan – as if this strategy will not quickly be discovered by the Sudanese authorities.
One Israeli human rights activist, Reut Michaeli, summed up this stunning news perfectly.
“The ease with which the State of Israel is willing to force people to return to a place where their lives are in danger…shows that we have become a society that sanctifies Jewish demography and gives it priority over humanistic Jewish values.
[Sudanese] who hear from [Israeli] government representatives that the law enables them to be held in prison forever without trial, and without their being able to apply for refugee status, despair. They are even willing to endanger their lives to gain a slim chance of freedom.”
Israeli officialdom has been mum about this development. Silence reigns from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Except that we know Netanyahu’s attitude given his government’s long record of incitement against the refugees. Just a few weeks ago, in a Jerusalem speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he repeatedly labeled all African asylum seekers in Israel “illegal job immigrants.” This while his government was sending 1,000 people back to their probable imprisonment and death in Sudan. And, of course, those paragons of virtue in the audience gave him adulatory ovations, having forgotten they owed their own freedom to their ancestors who fled to America to escape similar bloody persecution or genocide.
ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, issued the following statement in Tel Aviv, “In deporting [people] to Sudan, Israel has crossed a red line and is not only violating its most basic obligation under international law, but demonstrating cruelty, hard-heartedness and indifference to the fate of human beings.”