10,000 Africans Rally in Jerusalem, Knesset Speaker Thwarts Talks With MKs

Three MKs initiate meeting with representatives of African community, but Knesset speaker denies their entry; Israeli author David Grossman joins the protest and says: 'I feel embarrassed and ashamed that we have reached this situation.'

An estimated 10,000 asylum-seekers protested Wednesday in the Wohl Rose Park across from the Knesset, as their nationwide strike entered its fourth day.

Representatives of striking African asylum-seekers tried entering the Knesset for a pre-arranged meeting with MKs, but were barred entery .

Explaining his decision to refuse entrance to the Africans, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said he was concerned that “the infiltrators’ entrance into the Knesset would cause a provocation and could lead to violence and disturbances.”

MKs Michal Rosin (Meretz), Shimon Ohayon (Yesh Atid) and Dov Khenin (Hadash), who had invited the activists to a meeting, blasted Edelstein’s decision as narrow-minded.

The protest was joined by author David Grossman who, in a spontaneous speech in English, said that for him the concept of Israel encompasses the idea of people seeking shelter. The African migrants are not criminals but regular people caught in an irregular situation, he said.

“I look at you now, all the tens of thousands of people, and I feel embarrassed and ashamed that we have reached this situation. Israel has not created this problem but there is a problem now and we have to struggle with it and to solve it in the most humane way. You are normal ordinary people who are trapped in an abnormal and very extreme situation.”

Other speakers gave speeches in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Tigrigna. They called on the government to revoke a recently-passed legislative amendment that provides for their imprisonment, stop arresting asylum seekers, release those in detention and recognize them as refugees.

In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the migrants requested that their voices be heard and called on the government to speak directly with them to find a solution. They added that the government should consider each and every asylum request.

MK Rosin called on other Knesset members to join the dialogue with the African protesters: “The asylum seekers called on the prime minister to hear them out,” she said.

“A government at peace with its policies would respond in kind, but since this is not the case, we have called on MKs to come to a meeting and talk with these representatives, listen to their problems, ask questions and get answers. They are human beings, and it is high time the government treats them that way,” Rosin said.

Edelstein’s decision to bar the representatives of the protesters was in response to a demand by Likud MK Miri Regev, who sent Edlestein a letter saying that letting the Africans in would “demonstrate disrespect toward the Knesset and infringe on the rule of law.” She also said it would give “a tail wind to the struggle against Israel, intended to harm Israel’s image and portray it as a state that violates human rights.”

“This is a narrow-minded decision on the speaker’s part, in response to unenlightened MKs who want to spread incitement against the asylum-seekers,” Rosin said at a news conference.

“Communication and discussion are the heart of democracy. We see here a serious deterioration of Israeli democracy in preventing MKs from meeting people they want to talk to. That’s all they’ve asked for – to talk,” Rosin said.

MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) joined the conference and said she objected to the move to ban the migrants’ entrance to the Knesset, although she did not agree with their demands.

“Although my opinions are the opposite, I see nothing wrong with sitting and talking to them and telling them why they must leave Israel for a third state and that Israel is treating them humanely,” Shaked said.

Khenin called for a tent to be set up at the entrance to the Knesset, in which MKs could meet people and groups who were not allowed into the House.

A few weeks ago, Edelstein barred entry to the Knesset to a group of women prisoners who were due to perform a play for the MKs, said MK Merav Michaeli (Labor.) The event, which had been arranged with the Prison Service, had to be moved to another location.

MK Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beiteinu) said “the speaker did well to ban the infiltrators. The Knesset passed a law that they should be held in the Holot detention center. It would be absurd if they were allowed in.”

MK Khenin said that “inviting the representatives of the asylum-seekers was intended as an opportunity to meet them, hear their stories and understand their distress. The rightists are afraid to look at them and hear what they have to say. They’re afraid to find out there are solutions instead of all the incitement and imprisonment.”

“Banning the migrants’ entrance is intended to thwart this vital move. In banning their entrance the speaker has overstepped his authority… he is infringing on our ability as MKs to have discussions on controversial issues,” he said.

Representatives of the African migrants have been taking part in Knesset committee discussions on their plight in recent months.

Emile Salman
Emil Salman