“A society will be judged by how it treats its weakest members.”
- Harry S. Truman
CNN has recently shown the horrifying story of Tegisti Tekla, a young Eritrean woman tortured and raped by Bedouin traffickers in Egypt’s Sinai desert. Tegisti eventually made it to Israel; she is now in a shelter in Tel Aviv, recovering from an abortion.
Well, Tegisti was relatively lucky. Obviously luckier than the 18 asylum seekers Israeli soldiers let starve on the border-fence before pushing them violently back to Egypt, but also luckier than her compatriot “Zebib” (story in Hebrew). Zebib was abducted to Sinai on her way to Sudan, where she was to reunite with her husband, who had defected from the Eritrean “army” (that is, from life-long forced labor). Unlike Tegisti, she was not raped: instead, to facilitate the extortion of ransom, her traffickers abused her now 15-month-old baby. Her family back in Eritrea sold all their belongings to raise the $25,000 ransom, and Zebib was released and made it to Israel, where her starved baby was taken to hospital for rehabilitation. But whereas Tegisti is now free in Tel Aviv, Zebib and her baby have been sent to prison for three years, without any charge and without a trial.
Indeed, the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (which Israel confirmed) stipulates that
Contracting states shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened … enter or are present in their territory without authorization….But Israel is untroubled by such trifles. “No spirit of Geneva here,” as a well-informed former Canadian asylum judge mildly puts it. Since last June, Israel automatically sends the so-called “infiltrators” (i.e., those who entered Israel without authorization) for three years of administrative detention.
Israel’s New Oasis
“Concentration camp: a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc.”
- Random House Dictionary
Resorting to bitter irony (an inevitable weapon of self-preservation under authoritarian regimes), Alon Idan of Ha’aretz hit the nail on the head while describing Israel’s internment camp constructed close to the Egyptian border (July 6, 2012, Hebrew):
From the uppermost window it looks like a concentration camp. Of course, it’s not a concentration camp. Four columns of tents surrounded by a fence; 23 persons in each tent; 3.94 sq. meters (42.4 sq. feet) per person; one lavatory per 10 persons. It’s not a concentration camp, it’s obviously not a concentration camp, but from the uppermost window it just looks like a concentration camp.Hosting up to 10,000 asylum seekers, the Israeli camp will be the world’s biggest, easily beating the (now closed) Willacy Detention Center in Texas with its capacity of 3,000. Idan might be exaggerating, though: other reports (Hebrew) mention just 2.5 sq. meters (27 sq. feet) per person. (The standard for Israeli prisoners is 6.5 sq. meters, or 70 sq. feet.) The camp’s excellent location — close to the Egyptian border “to reduce transportation costs,” an hour’s ride from the nearest town, 2.5 hours from Tel Aviv — should keep it far from eye, far from heart. NGOs like the Hotline for Migrant Workers have already started fundraising to finance trips of staff and volunteers to the remote desert location.
That’s where 23-year-old Zebib now raises her little baby, locked up in a tent in the unbearable desert heat with six other women and their six children. That’s where yet another compatriot is held, who told Israeli officials her following story (Hebrew):
I am 18 years old and single. I quit my studies in 2011. I first infiltrated into Sudan in 2011 but was deported. Following that escape I was jailed in Eritrea for eight months. Last May I infiltrated to Sudan again. I experienced harsh sexual abuse by the traffickers, who raped me numerous times. First they took me to work and then the raping started. All of them raped me. I was raped every day. I’ll never forget the 3.5 months in Sinai. My family had to pay $30,000 to the traffickers to release me.Those Already Here
And that’s not all. There are some 60,000 African asylum seekers who arrived before the camp was constructed and were therefore set free to live and prosper in Tel Aviv (with no work permit, without any support, and without medical care). Police raids and mass arrests on the streets have not started (they’re expected after Oct. 15) — though several individuals have been arrested downtown and jailed — but a new regulation confirmed at the end of September stipulates that asylum seekers who are “suspected of committing a crime, but not charged due to lack of evidence” (in other words, innocent people) will be kept in administrative detention for an unlimited time (see the report here in Hebrew). Indeed, the Knesset did not confirm a suggested amendment that stipulated that any “infiltrator” charged with a property crime would be sentenced to life (sic!), but Minister of “Justice” Ne’eman has now found another way to throw innocent Africans to jail for ever. “We will make the lives of infiltrators bitter until they leave,” pledged Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai, whose own parents were Jewish immigrants — or even “refugees,” as a new anti-Palestinian campaign will have it — from North Africa.
We now have a new comprehensive report on human trafficking in the Sinai Desert. The crimes and atrocities it reports — perpetrated by Egyptian Bedouins and their Eritrean, Sudanese, Palestinian, and Israeli collaborators — are beyond imagination. Thanks to this report, we now also know that many of the Africans who arrive in Israel were abducted in Sudan and Ethiopia and had no intention to come to Israel in the first place. Africans who were thus abducted and abused, and others who hoped to find in the Jewish state a temporary safe haven from the horrors of Africa, as well as other migrants who might “merely” be fleeing economic predicament, were dumped until recently in Tel Aviv, and are now jailed without trial for years on end. Israel fails to look into their asylum requests, determine their status, and grant the true refugees among them their rights according to international conventions.
Just a few years ago, in a coordinated effort of legislation and enforcement, Israel virtually eradicated trafficking of Eastern European women through Sinai. If, instead of spending billions on a border fence and internment camps, Israel had joined forces with the international community and with its neighbors to crack down on human trafficking in Sinai, the atrocities could have been minimized. Instead of expanding the quotas for migrant workers from East Asia (details in my previous column), Israel should employ the African asylum seekers already here. And above all, before any other consideration, Israel must open its gates, widely, to each and every person who claims to be persecuted, check their claims, and treat them accordingly. That’s the minimum to be demanded from the very country that points a finger at every nation that behaved otherwise toward Jewish refugees before, during, and after the Second World War. Israel’s present policy toward asylum seekers is both criminal and a moral stain, reflecting its ever-increasing contempt toward minimal democratic standards and human rights as perceived in the “free world,” of which Israel claims to part.