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African migrants spark debate in Israel

By Vita Bekker,

TEL AVIV — A shattered refrigerator door and a hand-size hole in the wall are the only visible reminders of an attack on Helen Bereket’s store in Tel Aviv last month. But the incident continues to haunt the 23-year-old asylum seeker.

Five Israeli men ransacked Bereket’s corner shop in late May, following a violent protest against the rise in illegal African migrants living in the area.

After one of the attackers threw a concrete block at Bereket, she hid in a bathroom until the men left. She emerged to find broken bottles and costly Eritrean spices strewn on the floor. The damage was estimated at $10,300.

“I now get scared whenever I hear people outside my store,” she said.

Human rights activists say a pattern of violence against Africans has emerged as tensions rise between Israeli locals and African newcomers who have settled in a working-class area of southern Tel Aviv.

The hostile mood has grown following the arrests of several Africans on suspicion of rape and fiery warnings by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the influx of migrants will damage Israel’s Jewish character.

One politician has compared the migrants to “a cancer in our body.” A poll last week showed that 52 percent of Israeli Jews agree. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox interior minister claimed that many of the the migrants are criminals.

Some 60,000 Africans — mostly from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan — have crossed illegally into Israel in recent years through the country’s porous border with Egypt in an attempt to escape poverty, war or authoritarian governments at home.

The issue has sparked a fierce debate in Israel on how much it owes to the impoverished migrants — a particularly sensitive matter for a state born as a haven for refugees from Europe after the Holocaust. It has also spurred accusations that Israelis are becoming racist and intolerant.

Yossi Sarid, a former government minister and a prominent left-wing commentator, said: “Israeli reactions have been a very painful disappointment. This is a state of refugees, and Israel should be more forthcoming in recognizing that these people are refugees.”

Analysts said Netanyahu’s warnings on the migrants were aimed at deflecting attention from his expansion of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and from growing public dissatisfaction over economic conditions.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said, “He is focusing public frustrations on the Africans when in fact the real danger to Israel’s Jewish character is his settlement policy, which is gradually attaching 3.5 million non-Jews to Israel.”

In southern Tel Aviv, residents accuse the newcomers of engaging in crime, hoarding rubbish on streets and relieving themselves in parks, playgrounds and back yards.

However, police data contradict claims that Africans’ crime rates are higher than those of Israelis.

The migrants say they are driven to low-paying illegal work because Israel refuses to examine their asylum requests or give them rights that would be given by many other Western countries during the asylum application process, such as housing aid and job permits.

Israel approved only one asylum application last year out of a total of 4,603 received, the U.S. State Department said last month.

Israeli officials concede that they do not even review applications from Eritreans, Sudanese and South Sudanese because those nationalities have been granted a “collective protection” from deportation. However, that does not include a work permit or any aid.

Even this protection may be shortlived. An Israeli court last week cleared the way for the possible expulsion of some 750 South Sudanese, rejecting a petition by rights groups arguing that South Sudan was unsafe despite gaining independence last year.

Immigration authorities said Wednesday that they had rounded up dozens of South Sudanese and were preparing to detain the remainder and begin deporting them as soon as next week.

In the rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikvah, Hebrew for “The Hope,” locals say they feel insecure because of the Africans.

A 50-year-old secretary, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of what she said were concerns for her personal security, showed a tear-gas pistol that she had bought for herself. “I’m worried my daughter will be the next rape victim,” she said.

Some blame the government for the troubles. Moshe Ben-David, a 54-year-old who sells eggs at Hatikvah’s food market, said: “The government allowed them to enter Israel, so it should also let them work. That way they won’t steal.”

He added, “I don’t hate them — we Jews were also refugees for 2,000 years.”

— Financial Times

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