Unknown attackers set fire in Jerusalem Monday to an apartment housing Eritrean migrants. No one was killed, two were injured, but spray-painted on the wall was the threat, "Get out of the neighbourhood." It was the latest in a series of sometimes violent protests against the presence in Israel of a large number of African asylum-seekers.
Israel is looking at an influx of an estimated 60,000 people from northeast African countries, most of whom arrived in the country illegally from Egypt's Sinai desert. It has been enough of a flood to trigger ugly race riots by worried citizens, and legislation that threatens lengthy prison terms to anyone who assists "infiltrators."
Israelis are hardly alone in expressing xenophobia. Last year, Italy and France pushed for military action against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi as much to ward off flotillas of refugees as to protect the Libyan people from their violent dictator.
About 35,000 of the 60,000 asylum-seekers in Israel are from Eritrea and Sudan, and have been given collective protection from expulsion by the Israeli government. In the case of Eritreans, the United Nations has declared they must not be returned to their native country as their lives will be endangered by the current dictatorial regime. In the case of the Sudanese, Israel realized that if they were returned to Sudan – a declared enemy of Israel – the people could be considered traitors and be imprisoned or executed.
Most of these people have been given renewable visas to live in Israel but have not been given the right to work nor the benefit of any social services other than schooling for their children. They crowd together in cheap housing in low-income communities and work illegally, usually in restaurants and hotels. The Benjamin Netanyahu government made it clear it will not punish employers who put any of the migrants to work.
Another 25,000 Africans are from countries such as Ethiopia and South Sudan, countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations and whose lives would not likely be at risk if they were returned. They, too, have sought asylum and Israel has, to date, assigned few case officers to consider their claims. Many, but far from a majority, have been placed in holding tanks in southernmost Israel. The rest can be found in the tenements of South Tel Aviv and elsewhere.
That's where Israel's cultural crisis is most acute: Israelis who encounter the visible minority spilling into local parks and crowding round the bus station have become unsettled, uncomfortable both with the migrants' restlessness and concerned that their non-Jewish presence could become permanent.
At a time of economic stress and with great demands being made on the country's housing and health facilities, the question arises whether Israel can afford the addition of so many needy people.
After months of unease, things turned violent recently when a young Jewish woman was raped in Tel Aviv, allegedly by a group of African refugees. Riots erupted in the neighbourhood, which had seen a large increase in the African population, and many Israelis demanded the asylum-seekers be removed.
"The Sudanese are a cancer in our body," Likud member of parliament Miri Regev declared before a veritable mob of hundreds of Tel Aviv protesters two weeks ago. "We will do everything to send them back where they came from."
Such rhetoric took immediate effect. The crowd proceeded to smash windows and loot stores; they beat up Sudanese people they encountered, threw firecrackers at police horses and chased activists and journalists.
"The people want to expel the Sudanese," they shouted.
Some accuse the African migrants of causing a rise in crime. Israeli media quoted an unnamed police official saying "asylum-seekers are involved in some 40 per cent of the crimes committed in the Tel Aviv area." The notion went viral.
Days later, however, Gilad Natan of the Knesset's Research and Information Center said there was no basis for such a statement. Less than 1 per cent of criminal files opened by police in Tel Aviv in 2010 were against Africans, he said. And, last year, nationwide, slightly more than half of 1 per cent of criminal-court cases or extensions of remand were against foreigners of any description.
Nevertheless, responding to public pressure, Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered Sunday that the deportation of the 25,000 asylum-seekers from Ethiopia and South Sudan be expedited and that holding facilities for the 35,000 other African migrants currently in South Tel Aviv and elsewhere be built in the Negev desert as quickly as possible.