‘Oz’ retreats (the outcry against expulsion of African refugees in Israel)

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African asylum seekers participating in a "human chain" in Tel Aviv this weekend. Photo by Keren Manor, courtesy of Activestills.org.

July was not an easy month for African asylum seekers and migrant foreign workers living in Israel.

At the peak of the hot, humid Tel Aviv summer, foreigners living here were forced to hide from a manhunt conducted in broad daylight on the city streets. However, in response to an intense public backlash, the government has decided to back down on some of its anti-foreigner policies.

As I wrote here last week, July saw the inauguration of a new Interior Ministry unit, called “Oz,” with a mandate to arrest and imprison “illegals” – meaning migrant workers without a valid visa, the children of these workers, Palestinians living illegally inside the Green Line and African refugees living in the center of the country.

The latter are refugees from disaster zones such as Darfur, South Sudan and Eritrea who seek temporary asylum in Israel. An Interior Ministry policy dating to early 2008 (which until July was only loosely enforced) prohibits them from living in Greater Tel Aviv.

Beginning July 1st, Oz’s inspectors, accompanied by police, began descending daily on neighborhoods known to be populated by foreigners, arresting people wholesale. Refugees from Africa were also arrested, and ordered to leave Tel Aviv for the country’s periphery. Many of them did, leaving behind jobs, apartments and community.

The move, however, provoked a huge public outcry. Protests were organized, a media campaign was launched, and a handful of dedicated activists even took it upon themselves to conduct anti-expulsion patrols, keeping an eye on Oz’s movements and warning potential detainees and other activists ahead of raids.

(Barely a day went by last month when I didn’t receive a text message from these volunteers saying something along the lines of: “Arrests at the corner of X and Y Streets, please come help if you are in the area.”)

Adding to the public pressure against the expulsion from Tel Aviv, mayors and residents of the outlying towns that were forced to absorb the refugees often reacted with undisguised hostility (). Meanwhile, the Tel Aviv Municipality, perhaps embarrassed by reports that it had pressured the government to expel the refugees, softened its stance on the issue.  

The Jerusalem Municipality, for its part, publicly stated that Oz inspectors were not welcome in the Holy City.

Then, to the surprise and relief of many, Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced late last week that his ministry was suspending restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement, and that they would be allowed to return to Tel Aviv. At the same time, he announced, the next phase of the operation, in which migrant worker families with young children would also become candidates for immediate expulsion, would be put off for at least three months.

In the meantime, the government will finally sit down and hammer out a coherent policy regarding non-citizen populations living in the country. And a new idea is now making the rounds: the construction of another wall, this time along Israel’s desert border with Egypt.

Yishai made the announcement on Tisha B’av, a somber Jewish fast day which commemorates a series of historical disasters (including more than a few expulsions) that befell the Jewish people. Yishai, a religious Jew, must have been aware of the irony.

The activist community, emboldened by the victory, vowed to keep up the pressure. Following the announcement, a demonstration was held demanding the release of several hundred African refugees still being held in prison for violating the new-defunct policy. On Saturday evening, thousands of Israelis, Africans and migrant workers formed a human chain around a south Tel Aviv park, calling for a law against expelling children from the country.

That same night, Oz hit the streets with a vengeance. Once again, activists reported violent arrests and inspectors breaking down doors in neighborhoods populated by foreign workers. While African refugees and families with children had won a reprieve, for now anyway, “illegal” migrant workers continued to be forcefully deported.

Meanwhile, for Africans seeking asylum in Israel, the daily struggle continues. Thus far, at least, there hasn’t been a mass return to Tel Aviv, and thousands now find themselves living outside of the center, with new landlords and new neighbors – but not necessarily with new jobs to pay the bills.

Jesse Fox is an urban planner, freelance journalist and activist living in Jaffa. He runs a volunteer organization called Fugee Fridays, and blogs at www.sustainablecityblog.com.

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