Asylum Seekers Prevented From Speaking at Knesset Hearing About Asylum Seekers

'I felt like a cockroach,' says Eritrean whose request to speak during the hearing was denied. Committee chair insists meeting was about hearing from the interior minister, yet residents seeking the refugees' expulsion did have their say

Asylum seekers protesting outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, January 26, 2017.
Emil Salman

Asylum seekers were prevented from speaking at a discussion at the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee on Wednesday.

The committee had convened to discuss “consolidating a policy to handle the problem of infiltrators in south Tel Aviv.” Committee chairman David Amsalem barred the asylum seekers who were present from speaking, although they had signed up in advance to say their share. Interior Minister Arye Dery acknowledged that refugees from Sudan, an enemy state, were being persecuted there, even as he referred to the bulk of asylum seekers as "labor infiltrators." Amsalem later said that the purpose of this meeting was not to hear the refugees but rather from Dery about policy.

Amsalem gave the right to speak to members of the “Front for the Liberation of South Tel Aviv,” a movement seeking the expulsion of African asylum seekers from south Tel Aviv, for 30 minutes of the 75-minute meeting. Movement members even played a clip several minutes long before the committee, showing brief, edited segments of Africans cursing, and saying that have the right to remain in Israel. “These are the infiltrators,” said one of the activists, Sheffi Paz.

After the discussion was adjourned, Johnny of Eritrea, one of the asylum seekers who had been present in the chamber, asked to say a few words. “My dream is to go back to Eritrea,” he said. “I don’t want to be here.” Most of the people had already left, though, and few heard him.

“At the moment we can’t go back to Eritrea,” he told Haaretz. “The situation there is very hard. It’s death for our children and for us, too. We have to wait. It’s just temporary.”

MK David Amsalem, left, with Interior Ministry Arye Dery at the Knesset Interior Committee meeting on asylum seekers in Jerusalem, June 21, 2017.
Emil Salman

On the discussion today, he said, “I felt like a cockroach. Why? I’m a human being. True, I’m black. So what? Don’t I have a mind? Don’t I have human rights?”

Amsalem kicked off the debate by allowing each of the Knesset members on the committee to speak briefly, in order to leave time for the south Tel Aviv residents. Afterward, the discussion participants heard remarks by the residentsv and right-wing activists, who spoke at length.

“What about hearing a little from asylum seekers?” a woman called out. Amsalem ordered the Knesset ushers to expel her from the chamber immediately. Another asked Amsalem to enable at least one asylum seeker to speak briefly. In response, he ordered her removal, too.

“I hear the same nonsense time and again,” Paz said. “Everybody lies to us. The government lies to us when it says it wants to solve the problem. The Knesset lies to us, the opposition lies to us, all the nonprofit associations claiming to care about the people of south Tel Aviv are lying.”

She was seconded by Oved Hugi, a Likud member and south Tel Aviv resident. “You’re dissociated from reality. You’re talking nonsense,” he said.

Aviad Issaschar, who also dwells in south Tel Aviv, said that today the chidren of the “infiltrators” are aged 13 and 14. “What will you do with 20,000 angry 18-year-olds running around the streets who hit back at you after the lies you tell them, that they’re going to be citizens here?” he asked. “How do you think they will get their revenge? What will they do to your daughters?”

The representative of the police at the debate, Tzachi Sharabi, said forces would be beefed up in south Tel Aviv. They already have three times more policemen in the area 24/7, based on the notion that prevention is better than arrests after an attack, he said.

Amsalem, however, cut him off before he could provide more data. “Leave the numbers out of it,” he said. “Is the level of crime in the area a little higher than around it?”

“That’s no secret,” Sharabi answered, adding that the higher crime rates are spilling over from the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv to additional ones around them. But he pointed out that south Tel Aviv is a hot spot not only for “foreigners” but also for junkies and drug dealers, which are the target of most of the police action. He offered to provide statistics but Amsalem thanked him and turned over the floor to Minister Dery.

“To this day I have retained the traumatic impression I gained from touring the neighborhood there,” Dery began. “The sights of the synagogues, the public spaces, all has changed. I grew up there, in Bat Yam. It’s a completely different country now. It’s impossible to believe that two such different countries exist just two or three minutes away from each other.

“The sense of security and the feeling that, call them what you will, infiltrators or otherwise have taken over, makes us or the residents feel like guests there. When I toured there they made me feel like I was bothering them. You feel that you were a foreign visitor in your country, in the center of Tel Aviv. “

Dery rejected opposition suggestions that the government has no policy for asylum seekers. “The policy is clear,” he said. “This is not a policy of ignoring them. The State of Israel does not have the resources to accept labor infiltrators. Aside from the issue of the Darfourians, whose status is different, we treat them as labor infiltrators. That is the policy. A policy of labor infiltrators is to send them back home. They entered illegally. As interior minister, it's my job to deport everybody who enters illegally.”

During the first five months of 2017, Israel expelled 2,227 Africans, Dery reported, versus 1,738 in the same period of 2016. More are expected. The High Court of Justice is now reviewing the policy of deporting asylum seekers to Uganda or Rwanda. Dery said he anticipates its ruling within two or three months, after which the policy could be implemented more strongly. “The government cannot do everything it wishes because of restrictions by the court,” he said. “I am not complaining, but that’s the reality.”

He was interrupted by Anat Berko of Likud. “Sudan is an enemy country," she noted. "Why are we accepting [asylum seekers] from an enemy country?”

Dery answered that during the last year, 18 infiltrators had arrived, none of whom were from Sudan, while more than 5,000 had been deported. He also pointed out that while Sudan may be an enemy country, the people who came to Israel from there were being persecuted there.

In response, Amsalem commented that the discussion was the committee's fourth on the topic. "In the past we let them respond," he said. "The purpose of this current discussion was to listen to the interior minister and hear about policy and directions of action. I think you're confused. As chairman of the interior committee, I view my role as helping the citizens of Israel who are in difficulty because of the infiltration of tens of thousands of labor infiltrators."