Migrants demonstrate against their planned expulsion from Israel.
Migrants demonstrate against their planned expulsion from Israel. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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On August 29, as a summer of simmering tension between the Israeli government and African asylum seekers was coming to a close, Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced that he had instructed the country's immigration police to begin detaining Sudanese asylum seekers from October 15. The thousands of detainees, including survivors of the Darfur genocide, victims of human trafficking, children, and newborn infants, were to be held in hastily constructed detention centers and tent camps with subpar facilities, in the Negev desert. Seemingly, this was Yishai's last-ditch effort in his populist campaign to rid Israeli cities of - to use the government's own term - the "infiltrators." If he could, he would have organized a mass deportation. However, due to absence of diplomatic relations between Israel and Sudan - the two regard each other as "enemy states" - this option was rendered impossible from the start.

Although the legality of such a sweep is dubious, Yishai, until recently head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, argued that it is feasible under the freshly amended Prevention of Infiltration Law (1954 ), which gives authorities the power to detain illegal immigrants for up to three years. Fear and panic immediately spread through the Sudanese community, as well as the rest of the approximately 60,000 African asylum seekers in the country. People scrambled to find a way out by any means, some risking their lives to return to Sudan through illegal channels. As coordinator of relocation at the African Refugee Development Center, I was overwhelmed by a steady flow of people coming to my office seeking an escape.

Israeli human rights groups, the ARDC included, swiftly condemned the announcement and rushed to petition a Jerusalem court to prevent the roundup, calling it a "hysterical and barbaric decision." On October 11, just four days before Yishai's orders were to go into effect, the court responded with an injunction barring the state from detaining the asylum seekers until a final ruling is made on the issue. In an absurd twist of plot, on October 25, Israel's state prosecutor weighed in on the petition, revealing that, in fact, the interior minister never ordered the Population, Immigration and Border Authority to detain the Sudanese in the first place.

To those of us invested in the protection of this vulnerable group, this revelation was shocking for obvious reasons. Akin to yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater, Yishai's irresponsibly deceptive proclamations instilled fear of persecution in an already disenfranchised community and led some of its members to flee in desperation. This, of course, was the minister's intended outcome, evinced by his unabashed public pledge to make asylum seekers' lives "miserable."

But Yishai's nefarious conduct also highlights a sad reality in Israeli politics. Israeli officials are often free to act with impunity as long as the stated objective of their actions is the preservation of Israel's ethno-religious Jewish majority. On such occasions, the credibility and legitimacy of public institutions and the sanctity of democratic governance are compromised for the political gain of a few. Indeed, during a recent inner-party squabble, the Interior Minister vocally admitted to "counting on it [the African asylum-seeker issue] for votes" for Shas in the upcoming general elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's participatory role has varied throughout, at times giving tacit approval through noninterference, at other times offering explicit endorsement of Yishai and Co.'s campaign to feed on the fears of the Israeli populace.

And while the government's record of truculence vis-a-vis the African asylum seekers is by now extensive, these recent events represent a new low. Lying and fear-mongering of this fashion are a gross violation of power that erodes the democratic character of this country. Truthfully, such exploitation of the public interest is typically characteristic only of ersatz democracies. One perfect example comes to mind: Sudan.

If we are to maintain our conviction that ours is a land of freedom and democracy that distinguishes us from our professed enemies, we must not allow our elected representatives to abuse the power we have vested in them in good faith. As we approach the January election, this is something all Israelis should keep in mind, regardless of the position one takes on the country's African asylum-seeking community.

Edan Johna is the relocation resource project coordinator at the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv. He holds an MSc in development studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.