The phone calls from reservist soldiers repeated themselves with a depressing regularity. Every three weeks, almost immediately after the reserve battalions were rotated on the border with Egypt, they got home, took off sweaty uniforms, spent a few hours with their families and then some of them felt they had to unburden themselves with a call to a journalist.
“It’s unbelievable what’s happening on the border every night, dozens of Africans coming over,” the conversations began invariably. They were all conflicted, between their duty to protect the border and the feeling that something had to be done for this tide of human misery washing over the few strands of barbed wire covered almost entirely by the desert sand. In some cases, the migrants failed to reach the Israeli side, and the reservists recounted how they had heard and seen Egyptian soldiers beating them up, and in a few cases even shooting at them.
When groups made it safely over, the outcome varied. In some sectors, the directive was to carry out “hot return” — illegally hand them over back to the Egyptians, consigning them to an uncertain fate. (The Israel Defense Forces officially discontinued this policy following a court hearing, but it persisted for a while in some sectors). Other times, the Africans were forced to remain by the fence, exposed and without food or water, in the hope they would leave on their own accord. This rarely, if ever, happened and they would eventually be taken to a detention center.
Some of the stories were heartening. Many reservists refused to take part in “hot return,” one senior officer even formally notified the division commander that “no one in my battalion is going to force anyone back into Egypt.” They insisted on providing them with water, rations, medical attention, often taking them into their outposts and buying them food until headquarters got around to providing transport.
Intense arguments took place in these intimate units of grown men who come together for a few weeks each year. Some objected to their friends’ actions, warning that the country is being “swamped by Africans.” From my conversations with those serving in reserve battalions on the border over the space of three years, I got the clear impression that the majority were in favor of helping them and that they were not confined to any specific demographic — they included left-wingers and rightists, many were religious and some also settlers.
Not for the first time, the IDF’s reserve soldiers contributed not only to the country’s military security, but served also as a safety valve protecting what’s left of its moral integrity. In the same way, nine justices of the High Court of Justice reined in the government and Knesset, ruling on Monday that the law allowing for the incarceration of asylum seekers and migrants without permits for up to three years without trial is unconstitutional and a disproportionate infringement of their basic human rights, wasn’t just a rare intervention in the legislative process but an urgent wake-up call to all Israelis.
Reservists and regular soldiers are no longer faced with this moral quandary. The new 240 kilometer-long, six-meter high border fence was built for security reasons and greatly speeded up following the August 2011 terror attack north of Eilat. So far though, its main result has been to reduce the stream of migrants crossing the border to a tiny trickle. In January 2012, 2,295 migrants made it in from Egypt, 12 months later only five succeeded in crossing in one month. For now, the influx has stopped but 50,000 migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, remain in the country and they are not about to go away.
The Pavlovian attacks from right-wing politicians against the High Court for usurping the democratically-elected Knesset and ignoring the dire situation in south Tel Aviv around the central bus station where most of the Africans live and try to find work are disingenuous. It was the same court that in January 2012 turned down a petition by human rights groups to allow “family reunification” for mixed Israeli-Palestinian couples, accepting the government’s position that it could be ruinous for state security.
Monday’s unanimous ruling came from the court of President Asher Grunis, who was appointed after considerable maneuvering by the right. They favored Grunis because he is no fan of judicial activism and believes that the courts should be extremely wary of crossing the boundary between the branches of government. If a forum of nine Supreme Court justices presided over by Grunis unanimously voted to strike down the detention law, then even a Likud minister or a Habayit Hayehudi MK should realize there is something particularly abhorrent about keeping a human being in prison for three years without trial.
The court’s detractors are trying to portray them as detached elitists, living far away from the African ghettos, but it is the police and the Interior Minister who have colluded to concentrate the migrants in one disadvantaged area, rife with crime and prostitution. The government’s continuing refusal to allow them to replace some of the foreign workers currently in Israel on temporary work visas is the main obstacle to a more reasonable dispersion and the reduction of the crime levels, which will rise among any group forbidden from pursuing legal employment.
It hasn’t happened because successive governments have opposed doing anything that could alleviate the migrants’ situation, preferring to ramp up the pressure on them to leave and, of course, the rapacious agencies that make millions in importing workers wield considerable influence over the relevant politicians and will go a long way from allowing this humane and sensible outcome.
But whatever punitive or helpful measures are taken, they will all remain temporary. The human rights situation in Sudan and Eritrea is not about to improve, forcing the migrants to “voluntarily” leave for a third country, as the government is trying to do now with Uganda. This is impractical and likely also illegal. The only moral solution — and this is something that the High Court cannot force the government to do — is to finally overhaul our outdated immigration laws and give these people some kind of permanent status that allows them to live with dignity, and perhaps eventually a path to citizenship.
The tendency in some circles is to see the hapless way that Israel is dealing with this issue as yet more proof of the Jewish state’s inherent racism, but this is a just one more example of holding Israel to a higher standard than the rest of the Western world. Few, if any, other Western countries have a stellar record in dealing with immigration, and the fact that detained migrants in Britain are about to be deprived of state-funded legal aid doesn’t mean Britain is a racist nation.
We have to treat migrants in a humane fashion because it is our duty as humans and as Jews, not to win some hasbara competition. If we still believe that it was a justified venture to build a sovereign sanctuary for Jews, then we have to find also a moral path for all those who have found themselves in this haven.