African asylum seekers stage protest
African asylum seekers stage protest Photo by AFP
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“Protests and strikes won’t help. We are determined to deport those who managed to enter Israel before we closed the border [with the construction of the border fence].” That’s how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described his position in response to the strike of tens of thousands of African asylum seekers and the demonstration that some of them held earlier this week at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. In so doing, he made it clear that his government has no intention of taking seriously its obligations to refugees who have fled murderous regimes.

More than 50,000 asylum seekers, most of whom are from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan, have been attempting in vain to invoke a United Nations convention to which Israel is a signatory and which defines their status as well as the country’s obligations toward them. In Israel, however, the protection accorded to refugees around the world by the international community constitutes the basis for formalistic manipulation that empties the UN convention of its content.

It’s difficult to believe that the prime minister, the head of the Likud party, is the one standing behind the dirty ruse that Israel is playing on the asylum seekers. The government doesn’t dare deport them, so as not to blatantly violate its obligations under the convention in full view of the whole world. But it is also refusing to give them the refugee status to which they are entitled. To that end, the government is making use of despicable arguments such as the contention that desertion from the army of Eritrea, where military service is for life, does not provide the basis for an asylum request.

Because the government is depriving asylum seekers of the sanctuary to which they are entitled based on the UN convention - but cannot deport them - it is instead exercising cruel measures against them: imprisoning them without any criminal basis; depriving them of their ability to make a living; and erecting a bureaucracy that is preventing them from obtaining permits to remain in the country. The aim is motivate them to run the risk of “voluntary” repatriation to their home countries so that Netanyahu and Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar can wash their hands of the matter. They haven’t deported a single soul, they will point out.

Israel closed off its southern border with Egypt and new asylum seekers are no longer coming into the country. The number of asylum seekers in Israel is small, and the unemployment rate here is lower than ever. But at the same time, Israel is bringing hundreds of thousands of foreign workers into the country to do the kinds of work that Israelis have been avoiding. The asylum seekers could be doing that work until the outrages in their countries of origin subside.

What is lacking is the determination to comply with Israel’s obligations under the UN convention, and no less importantly, the obligations required by Jewish moral values. Netanyahu, who speaks incessantly about the nation-state of the Jewish people, has forgotten what it means to be a Jew.