Flouting Lieberman’s Orders, Soldiers Are Still Playing With Asylum Seekers’ Children

While soldiers volunteer in many organizations, Israel defense minister says playing with asylum seekers' children should be stopped because 'it involves activities with a population that isn’t residing here lawfully.'

Soldiers in Tel Aviv. (Subjects in this photo are not featured in the article).
Eyal Toueg

A military unit recently asked to volunteer to work with asylum seekers’ children in south Tel Aviv, Haaretz has learned, despite Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s recent order to stop such volunteer work in the army.

While soldiers volunteer in many organizations, Lieberman said last week that volunteering with the children of asylum seekers is controversial.

Nevertheless, after Lieberman’s comment, a unit approached the NGO Elifelet: Citizens for Refugee Children, asking to volunteer. When the organization’s staff updated the soldiers about recent developments, they said that they had received the approval of their unit’s senior officers.

In fact, except for a decision last week by the commander of the Intelligence Corps training base to suspend his soldiers’ work with Elifelet, there have been no official decisions by the military regarding working with the organization. Chief Education Officer Brig. Gen. Avner Paz-Tzuk is meant to clarify shortly with which institutions soldiers are permitted to volunteer, but until that list is issued, units can continue to coordinate volunteer activity with asylum seekers.

Lieberman clarified to senior Israel Defense Forces officials that he believes that the work with Elifelet during which soldiers play with asylum seekers’ children in playgrounds for a few hours, should be stopped because “it involves activities with a population that isn’t residing here lawfully.

“It’s more appropriate that IDF soldiers act according to the concept of ‘the poor of your  city take precedence,’ and help out Holocaust survivors, the needy and the elderly,” said the defense minister.

In addition to volunteering with the NGO Elifelt, soldiers have also helped the children of asylum seekers by volunteering at Tel Aviv’s Bialik Rogozin school, where the children of veteran Israelis, new immigrants, refugees and migrant workers study together.

The army has placed soldier-teachers at the school and soldiers from Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200 volunteer with the older children there, teaching them math, English and Hebrew. The IDF has promoted the project and highlighted it in an article on its official website. Some of the young asylum seekers have themselves said they wanted to enlist in the IDF.

Lieberman’s announcement, published last Sunday in Yedioth Ahronoth, comes in the wake of criticism by his deputy, MK Eli Ben-Dahan, and other right-wing lawmakers, who object to helping the asylum seekers’ children.

MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) responded to Lieberman’s comments, calling them outrageous. “The children of asylum seekers are also the poor of our city. A realistic immigration policy must be maintained and above all residents of south Tel Aviv, where a large portion of the illegal migrants end up, should be taken care of. But the children and their parents are here; neither the law nor morality permit us to send them away.”

About two weeks ago soldiers from the Intelligence Corps training base were volunteering with migrant children at a playground in south Tel Aviv when Sheffi Paz, a prominent activist striving to remove asylum seekers from the neighborhood, documented the visit. She later wrote on her Facebook page that she had contacted Ben-Dahan, saying that he had promised her that “those scenes will not be repeated.”

After Ben-Dahan turned to the IDF Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot, the IDF replied it would review the list of organizations where soldiers are permitted to volunteer. Last week President Reuven Rivlin addressed the issue, saying: “It is no sin for IDF soldiers to extend help to children of desperate refugees.”