'This Isn't the West Bank': Soldiers Deployed in South Tel Aviv to Enforce Coronavirus Lockdown

In Neve Shaanan, in southern Tel Aviv, many complain security forces are not doing enough to enforce Health Ministry regulations. But residents say they simply can’t afford not to go out and work

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Israeli police forces in south Tel Aviv on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Israeli police forces in south Tel Aviv on Thursday, April 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

While authorities are struggling to impose coronavirus restrictions on the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak and in Ajami, in Arab populated southern Jaffa, the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Shaanan is proving to be no less of a headache for security forces.

Police and well as soldiers from the IDF have been deployed in greater numbers in the area following a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but some residents complain the rules are still being ignored. Others from the poverty-stricken neighborhood close to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, however, say they can’t afford not to go out and work, since as asylum-seekers and foreign workers they can’t access the social safety nets available to Israelis.

On Thursday morning, police superintendent Yaniv Miller briefed Engineering Corps rookies from the IDF who had been assigned to assist patrols in the areas. The soldiers have no policing authorities, and are meant to support the police and border police troops. “If anyone thinks of getting in on an arrest, of throwing a kick in – you have no authority,” he told the army recruits. “I’m reminding you, guys, we’re not in the (occupied) territories in the West Bank and not on the border. It takes a long time for a policeman to fire a bullet. A policeman shoots only as a last resort, after he’s been shot at,” he said.

On Wednesday, confrontations between security forces and residents took place in Jaffa, but no other such incidents were reported in other parts of Tel Aviv. Miller also warned his officers not to talk to the media. “Don’t get in their way, they won’t get in ours,” he said. The police later denied these statements.

Israeli police forces in south Tel Aviv on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Israeli police forces in south Tel Aviv on Thursday, April 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The briefing also covered the issue of the large number of homeless people in the disadvantaged neighborhood. Miller told his agents and the soldiers, some of them 18-year-olds who were just drafted, that they’re not supposed to give fines to homeless people and drug addicts in the area. “Some of them are Israelis, some foreign. Let’s say that if they have corona, it’s the lightest sickness they suffer from. They have diseases you haven’t even heard of,” he said.

Throughout the morning on Thursday, when the police arrived at a given street, the residents moved their business to another. Dozens of city inspectors filled the neighborhood streets and tried, along with dozens of policemen and soldiers, to explain to people what the coronavirus is all about in several languages. Meanwhile, municipal workers were handing out food to the homeless. There are many hungry people in the neighborhood.

Numerous residents of Neve Shaanan complain to the police and the municipality that the Health Ministry’s guidelines are not being enforced. The business places may be closed, but the streets are still full of people, even if less than usual. Eli, an asylum seeker, says people have nothing to do at home. “You can’t sit at home all the time, people with families and children,” he says. “I need money for food. How can I sit at home? I’m not like the Israelis, I can’t apply for unemployment payments and receive loans.”

Israeli police forces in south Tel Aviv on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Israeli police forces in south Tel Aviv on Thursday, April 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Some 20 Eritreans were waiting from the morning hours in Levinsky Park in the hope of finding work. “Sometimes I find temporary work for one day, sometimes not even that,” said Yaman, an asylum seeker and father of two. “Meanwhile I can pay the rent, but this situation can last for a long time and it’s difficult. In a month or two I won’t be able to pay.” When told that the government wants to enable asylum seekers to withdraw 2,700 shekels from their deposit (a fund they are forced to pay into and from which money is detracted if they overstay), he says: “What can I do with 2,700 shekels? The rent alone is 2,500-3,000 shekels. If you don’t work and have children and other expenses, it won’t help. I have to bring food for the children. That’s why people are on the street, looking for work.”

Gilad Halahmi, a resident and activist for the deportation of asylum seekers, said: “I go around the center and north of Tel Aviv and feel like it's Yom Kippur. But in Neve Shaanan, it’s business as usual. The government and municipality hide this and claim things are just fine, and everything is being enforced as though people aren’t walking around here. What scares me is that there’ll be an outbreak here like in Bnei Brak – because they don’t keep the rules and the older and veteran residents will pay the price.”

Neighborhood committee chairwoman and city councilwoman Shula Keshet noted: “The asylum seekers live in poverty, with no work and no health insurance. They must be looked after in a humane way and not merely through enforcement.” She said the municipality is acting to provide food to the hungry but not enough is being done: “There are some poor they simply don’t know about, who fall through the cracks,” she said, adding “The most important thing in the neighborhood right now is to make sure all the homeless people have a roof over their head, where do they expect them to go?.” 

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