One of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proudest achievements in office has been the new border fence with Egypt. He may have been exaggerating when he described it in 2013 as “one of the greatest engineering feats ever achieved in Israel.” Still, it has certainly worked and actually proved one of his least controversial actions.
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Replacing the old, ramshackle barbwire fence, the new 5-meter (16-foot), reinforced steel barrier has made it much more difficult for Islamist groups to launch cross-border terror attacks like the one near Eilat in August 2011, when eight Israelis were killed and the impetus to finally build the fence was provided. It has also severely hampered the smuggling of arms and drugs, and, most importantly, cut off the Sinai’s human-trafficking route. Since the fence’s completion in 2013, the Bedouin gangs that trafficked in Eastern Europe women (to be forced into prostitution) and African refugees – fleeing repressive Sudan and Eritrea – have had to look elsewhere.
But cutting off the smuggling channels was not enough. In the seven years before the barrier was up, some 50,000 African refugees had paid the Bedouin’s exorbitant fees and reached Israel. Denied status and unable to work legally, most of them ended up in cramped accommodations in south Tel Aviv, where odd jobs were available and a community of sorts emerged.
A toxic combination of authentic complaints and unsubstantiated allegations of crime and epidemics made the plight of south Tel Aviv’s veteran residents a rallying point for far-right activists – including members of the outlawed Kahanist groups – and Netanyahu has for years been trying to work out a deportation solution.
With record low unemployment rates and a growing demand for foreign workers, a comprehensive plan to “legalize” the asylum seekers and resettle them across Israel would have been the humane and efficient solution. But incitement against the “infiltrators” – as the government calls them – by nationalist politicians and pundits has turned it into a challenge from the right-wing base that Netanyahu could not avoid. Deportation was the only way out. Anything less would be seen as a sign of weakness.
There was no way the High Court of Justice would allow the government to deport the Sudanese and Eritreans back to their homelands. Quiet negotiations were conducted with various African countries to serve as “third countries,” and eventually secret deals were reached with Uganda and Rwanda.
A few thousand asylum seekers were prevailed upon to leave “voluntarily,” with a few thousand dollars in their pockets. But news of how they were mistreated upon arrival soon filtered back – and then no one was prepared to volunteer any more. However, egged on by his cheerleaders, Netanyahu refused to back down and together with Interior Minister Arye Dery, who holds the immigration brief, made dramatic visits last year to south Tel Aviv, where he was received rapturously.
The main problem was not having sufficient leverage against the refugees. The High Court refused to let the government incarcerate them for more than 60 days. But a breakthrough came for Netanyahu last December, when the High Court approved deportation to “third countries” of any refugee whose asylum request is not pending. The fact the Interior Ministry has made it extremely difficult to request asylum – and that of 12,000 requests, only a third have been cursorily processed, and of those only 10 approved – failed to sway the justices.
The orders were given to expedite the mass deportation plan. Dozens of planes were to be chartered, the refugees given the stark choice of leaving voluntarily with $3,500 in cash or facing indefinite detention. The Rwandan government was to receive $5,000, or some other form of goods or arms, for every refugee they accepted.
Only a few weeks ago it seemed all over. The small band of activists who had fought for the refugees’ rights were conceding defeat and trying to at least save the unaccompanied children among them from deportation.
But even as the first notices were being issued to the refugees, the wheels were coming off from the plan. It had been drawn up too hastily, without due consultation with the various agencies involved. The Israel Prison Service, already suffering from massive overcrowding, made clear it had no space for the thousands of expected detainees. The refugee groups made clear they would not accept the financial inducements and when the government threatened to deport them by force, legal advisers made clear to the High Court they would almost certainly accept a petition against forcible deportation.
No less important, the small circle of activists supporting the refugees had rapidly begun to grow. A series of petitions circulated, with the signatories committing themselves to hiding refugees in their homes if necessary.
At first, it was easy for the government’s supporters in the media to deride these groups as anti-Zionist, far-leftist, elitist NIMBYists who didn’t care for the poor residents of south Tel Aviv. But still the protests grew, with petitions signed by over 1,000 doctors and medical staff; 100 air crew refused to man deportation flights and called upon their colleagues not to do so either; and, perhaps most damagingly, a personal letter was sent to Netanyahu, signed by 36 Holocaust survivors.
The publicity has already caused Rwanda to announce it has no “secret” agreement with Israel and that it will not accept refugees deported against their will. Whatever deal President Paul Kagame’s government has with Netanyahu, it doesn’t seem to be worth the adverse publicity in Africa.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. The survivors’ letter is now the main Holocaust-related news coming out of Israel just in time for the one date in the calendar when most of the global media is looking for stories on this issue: International Holocaust Remembrance Day, this Saturday.
It hardly seemed necessary, but apparently even Israel’s ambassador to the United States and one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers, Ron Dermer – certainly no liberal – has been warning the prime minister of the PR disaster being caused by reports about the deportations.
Is the leaking of Dermer’s concerns the harbinger of a government climbdown? It’s too early to say. Either way, Netanyahu will seek to blame the south Tel Aviv-hating left for sabotaging his “humane and just” deportation and furthering their goal of swamping Israel with aliens.
There are valuable lessons here for embattled Israeli human rights groups on how to actually win a campaign despite what seem at first like insurmountable odds and public indifference.
It is still way too early to declare victory. But even if Netanyahu succeeds in salvaging his plan, the self-inflicted damage has been done and the deportations, if they take place, will be accompanied by a great deal more lousy publicity for him. What seemed imminent a few weeks ago now looks improbable.