When Justice Ministry officials began to draft a law that would ban Africans migrants from sending money from Israel to their relatives at home, they were not surprised to discover that hundreds of thousands of shekels from the foreign workers' salaries find their way overseas every week. What stunned the officials, however, was the discovery that a fair portion of this money is used to finance terror organizations. The migrants are used by these organizations to overcome the difficulties of moving cash in and out of Israel and into the West Bank.
In a routine analysis compiled recently for background information to the proposed law, Shin Bet security service agents and officials from the police unit that investigates international crime detailed how the African migrants transport money. One report, entitled "Money transfer via unofficial means, in ways that pose a threat to Israeli security," found that some of the funds that the migrants think they're sending to Africa are actually being laundered by terror groups.
According to the report, the migrants give the funds to intermediaries, who then pass them on to other intermediaries, who in turn give them to Palestinians in the West Bank or Arab residents of East Jerusalem. That money ultimately reaches the coffers of Hamas and other organizations and stays in those coffers. This is extremely helpful to these organizations, which normally have a hard time getting cash into the West Bank.
Delegates of Hamas and other organizations who live overseas – often in Iran, Lebanon and Syria – then send commensurate sums of money to cohorts in the African countries that sent the cash, who finally bring the funds to the original sources. This system does not involve electronic transfers from Israel overseas, making it impossible for Israeli officials to measure the scope of the money circuit and the amount of money that passes into the West Bank via its tributaries.
Data presented Monday by Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser indicate that NIS 600 million is transferred out of Israel each year. Of this sum, only NIS 500 million is moved overseas via legal channels. Legal authorities, Hauser said, believe that a large portion of this unaccounted-for money ends up in the hands of terrorist groups in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula. The government has instructed security officials to make monitoring this money trail the "highest priority."
Statements made by African migrants to Haaretz suggest they simply find the system convenient and – as Israeli officials believe – are unaware that their money is reaching the wrong hands. The migrants insist that although there are no records of their money transfers, they are certain that the cash they send home is going directly to their families.
"Every few weeks I send between $1,000 and $2,000 to my family in Eritrea and to my brother, who lives in Swaziland," he says. "I give the money to an Eritrean here in south Tel Aviv ... he gives the money to another African who has lived here in Israel for four years. That person gives the money to some Arab who lives in some village, and from that village, the money is sent to Africa."
V. is a regular user of this money circuit. He says he has never had problems with the system and that none of his transferred money has disappeared. But he also admits that he doesn't know how the intermediaries move the money out of Israel.
"I give them dollars, and they convert the money to local currency," he says.
According to V, he does not pay high commission fees through the money circuit. The commissions do not exceed rates charged by corporate currency deliverers, such as Western Union and Moneygram.
"The Eritrean I know takes 15 NIS out of each $100 I send," he says. That comes out to 3.8% - or NIS 300 for each relatively large transfer of $2,000.
V explains the advantages of using this money circuit, saying, "If I were to go to a bank, they'd ask for a wage slip, a permanent address and identity papers. Everyone I know prefers the [off-the-books] money transfer system."
Migrant workers' statements indicate that many Eritreans prefer to use this transfer circuit because of currency-monitoring in their native country. Eritrea slaps high taxes on money shipped into the country.
Meanwhile, the proposed law being drafted by the Israeli Justice Ministry officials would likely only amplify this trend of illegal money transfer. As far as the migrants are concerned, they have to ship wages back to their home countries, since they have no safe place to hide or deposit their savings in Israel.
As one migrant worker put it, "Were I to put my money somewhere in my apartment, it would be stolen, and opening a bank account is too complicated. So what should I do with my money? Keep it in my underwear?"
Many people familiar with the plight of migrant workers in Israel believe that policies that complicate the shipment of money overseas drive the foreign laborers to crime. According to Yohannes Bayu, of the African Refugee Development Center, migrants are driven into the hands of criminals "because of the system."
He explains, "Since there is no orderly government policy, [migrant workers] turn to shady characters, and give them their money."
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