It’s high noon at Tel Aviv’s central bus station. By ten-thirty in the evening the Magav, a Special Forces unit of Israel’s border police usually on patrol for riots not public transportation passengers, was at its new post. In one busy corner Israelis in stereotypical fashion shoved each other as they dogged the uniformed men.
“We are required to put the light there so other police can see we are here,” said an officer standing next to a post that looked like something to hang a coat on, except for the rectangular blue light at the head. It was a mobile, fold-able siren beam. His M-16 dangled between his legs like it was a sacred ornament from birth. Five other seemingly uninterested Special Forces paced nearby. But blocks away there were more Magav police, only they were on horses trampling African refugees. A money exchange transaction had gone awry. An Israeli employee ripped off an African for 8,000 Shekels, or so said guys in the street rubbernecking at the protest that had mounted outside the shop.
The troopers who were then called to rein in calm are part of the new 550 police Benjamin Netanyahu ordered to stand guard in African asylum-seeker neighborhoods at least until the end of the year when an estimated 3,920 will be deported. Maybe they will go to Uganda, where Israel has struck a deal with the African nation to take the refugees in exchange for financial compensation, weapons, and agricultural training for the new residents of Uganda, or maybe they will go back to their countries of origin.
Yet the amplified pseudo-military presence isn’t just real-life reenactments from Israel’s version of Do the Right Thing. Most mornings the young officers line up behind the bus station and practice calisthenics. And inside the concrete walls shops sell high heels for around $5, packages of thongs, and savory pastries. It’s a mini-village. There is a pharmacy, one sex-toy shop, and a McDonald’s. In the afternoon elderly men gather at the tables in front of a booth that makes standards like schnitzel and meatballs. And everyone smokes inside, ashing on the floor. But beyond the doors with police checkpoints and metal detectors, the bus station has become both the Magav training and operating ground.
Adding to the atmosphere of bus station siege, over the weekend the Israeli government said it would offer heftier incentives to urge African self-deportation. “We are determined to deport the tens of thousands of illegal migrants who are here after having reduced to zero the number of illegal labor migrants who enter Israel’s cities,” said Netanyahu at the Sunday meeting. He continued, “The steps that we unanimously approved today are proportionate and necessary for maintaining the Jewish and democratic character of the state and will restore security to Israel’s citizens.”
In the past asylum seekers could receive $1,500 if they returned to their home countries. But on Sunday that number jumped up to $3,500. And for those that don’t self-deport, a desert detention facility is being constructed in the Negev. The total operation will end up costing the state $124 million to compel the emigration of approximately 60,000 Africans. That’s about $2,000 per African.
But the African detention center is not a jail. It’s a warehousing outpatient center. Refugees can come and go during the day so long as they show up for a roll call administered three times daily. Furthermore, working is forbidden. The goal is to move all of the refugees out of the country and for those who have legal standing, kick them out of Tel Aviv and dump them in the desert.
Israeli activist Maya Paley wrote in the Forward yesterday that the Israeli high court already ruled against this type of detention without change, but the state is moving forward with it anyways. “The judge even quoted Deuteronomy” in her decision, wrote Paley:
This ‘open facility’ will be run by the Israeli Prison Service and detainees will be required to report to the facility three times a day in order to ensure that they are not working, which they are not permitted to do, or fleeing detention. On top of all that, detention will once again be indefinite, as the legislation sets no limit on the length of residence in this ‘open facility’.
Despite the violation to Israel’s high court ruling, Israelis are not decrying the detention facility or the Magav troopers. The lunch counter men, the vendors of the bus station went on with their business as if the Magav were not there.
Yet the same night where I first saw the bus station clad with police, elsewhere in Tel Aviv angry Israelis did spar with officers. “Yossi, Yossi, Yossi, come join us for a drink,” shouted enraged Ashkenazim in a bar off of Allenby St. The police had shown up at the Bulgarian beer garden to confiscate a sound system. A few blocks away a similar operation was underway. The Bulgarian bar did not have a permit for music, but the Israelis happy for their night out wouldn’t stand for it.
“This is not a police state!” chanted the entirety of the patio in unison. Two young women pulled out camera phones and recorded the police—they’re not going to get away with this, we’ll show everyone, the whole world is watching, their filming seemed to say.
“Yossi, Yossi, Yossi, we don’t want a police state!!” bewailed the Tel Avivians to the Mizrachi officer, until finally, the speaker was returned. Everyone clapped and jeered. The camera girls put away their phones and sat down for a drink.