Image: © AP Photo/ Oded Balilty

By Steven Martin Kensington

Israel, Immigration –  The Israeli government announced on Monday that they had reached a deal with the United Nations High Commissioner to deport around 16,250 migrants to Western countries like Canada, Germany, Italy and Scandinavian countries, most of which are from Eritrea and Sudan, a plan they intend to implement over the next five years. They also promised to keep 18,000 of the migrants themselves, and to offer them temporary status in Israel, which they contend will be reevaluated after the five years have passed.

This deal changes the circumstances dramatically from Israel’s initial decision to start mass deportations of the Africans to countries like Rwanda and Uganda on April 1 along with $3,500 – a highly controversial proposal as many of the immigrants fleeing war and abuse also finds problems in other countries in Africa, and right groups have argued that this would only endanger them further. More specifics about the inadequacies of Israel’s former plan has been provided by U.N.’s refugee agency, who said that the migrants relocated in the other African countries the past few years had been subjected to abuse, torture and even death, and called the Israeli government to reconsider its position – something they have now done. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted this at the press conference of the announcement, where he admitted that ‘legal constraints as well as political difficulties on the part of [Uganda and Rwanda]’ led to the cancellation of the original deportation plans.

It was even worse earlier this year. In January, for instance, the Israeli government warned the Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants that they would have to get out of the countries within 90 days or get imprisoned. The month after, Netanyahu announced that the 40,000 undocumented migrants from Africa would face indefinite detention if they didn’t leave voluntarily – a plan which the High Court (Supreme Court of Israel) temporarily suspended on March 15 until the revision of an anti-deportation petition. The Israeli government claims to have no obligation to keep these migrants, most of whom are job seekers. They have said previously, however, that women, children, families, and those escaping the genocide in Sudan’s western region of Darfur would be exempted from deportation. A 28 year old university student in Jerusalem, Monim Haroon, who escaped from Darfur five years ago, said that ‘as asylum-seekers we don’t care where we are going to be as long as it is a safe place, and these countries are willing to protect us and we can live with human dignity. If we will get status here in Israel there are a lot of things we can learn about how to build our country when we are able to go back. Israel is like a school for us.’

The complications regarding Israel’s immigration policies have arisen following criticism by nationalist Jews, who demands the right-wing government to be skeptical to immigration as they want to keep their ‘promised land’ and national home to themselves. Other Israelis, however, are open to such immigration, creating an ambivalence and moral dilemma for the government to make decisions on the issue. Netanyahu has stressed his position, asserting that too much African migration to the country would ‘endanger [Israel’s] Jewish and democratic nature.’

The significance of African migration to Israel is most commonly observed in southern Tel Aviv, which has come to be called ‘Little Africa’ due to its high concentration of African migrants. Netanyahu vowed that he would prioritize the rehabilitation of the neighbourhoods in this region in the actualization of the deal. His office has already created a special committee, headed by former Kadima MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, which aims to improve the quality of life in this region.

The deal has been widely commended in Israel, by all from members of the opposition Zionist Union to the left wing Meretz party. Shelly Yamchimovich of the former party, for instance, tweeted that the agreement was ‘a great victory of civil struggle and the voice of morality and reason against racism and xenophobia. The roadmap seems to be a moral, international, and worrying face, for the first time, to residents of the southern neighborhoods [of Tel Aviv].’ Tamar Zandberg, the new head of the Meretz party, agrees, calling it ‘simply an amazing and inspiring achievement of a determined and just civil and public campaign.’

Israel has built a fence along its border with Egypt over the past years, but about 64,000 Africans have still managed to get across the border illegally since 2005, though many thousands of them have left since then. This description by NBC News, however, is misleading. As Aron Heller points out in his article for ABC News, the influx of tens of thousands of African immigrants stopped after Israel completed the barrier in 2012, but Israel succeedingly ‘struggled with what to do with those already in the country, alternating between plans to deport them and offering them menial jobs in hotels and local municipalities.’