How Israel Tried to Dump African Refugees in Blood-drenched Dictatorships

An Israeli Defense Ministry man paid bribes across Africa, with a nod from his director general • Former ministers and businessmen negotiated with failed states • Some promoted the creation of a refugee militia • A Haaretz investigation reveals the guerrilla diplomacy used to expel people seeking a safe haven in Israel

Asylum seekers en route to Ben-Gurion Airport to be deported, in 2012.
Asylum seekers en route to Ben-Gurion Airport to be deported, in 2012.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

During the course of 2017, a series of explosive letters landed in the Defense Ministry. They were sent by Amnon Zichroni, one of Israel’s top lawyers, who has since died. The texts were polite, matter-of-fact. But from beneath the legal jargon emerged unsubtle hints about a gloomy chapter in Israel’s history, previously untold.

Zichroni revealed the tip of the iceberg of the following story: Israel tried to send the asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan to countries whose unstable regimes were not likely to guarantee their wellbeing. The contacts were conducted clandestinely, via unofficial channels. The boundaries of the mandate placed in the hands of the state’s envoys were demarcated with a wink and a nod, in some cases literally without words. From there it was but a short step to the payment of bribes to officials in Africa, in order to start ball rolling.

“I was absolutely bowled over by the content of the letters,” a senior Defense Ministry figure told Haaretz. The astonishment stemmed from the hints that the talks in Africa included the expenditure of funds “to strike deals,” and all with permission and with authorization.

Zichroni’s letters were written on behalf of Weizman Shiri, a former Knesset member and deputy defense minister. They describe a mission on which Shiri, by then a businessman, embarked in 2012 on behalf of Maj. Gen. (res.) Udi Shani, director general of the Defense Ministry at the time. Shani had been given responsibility by the government for finding a solution for the asylum seekers in Israel. Shiri was going to be one of the executors.

“The director general of the Defense Ministry approached my client at that time,” Zichroni wrote. “My client took pains and invested of his time, expended a great deal of money from his own pocket and placed himself in genuine mortal danger, and all at the request of the Ministry of Defense. All this was well known to the decision makers.”

According to Zichroni, “this involved activity in Third World countries, countries in which there is no orderly and meticulous functioning, countries that operate and are run according to different standards from those that are customary in properly administered, advanced countries; and the State of Israel and those heading its Ministry of Defense had no desire, to put it mildly, to keep written records about the matter being addressed here.”

The reason for Zichroni’s letter was money. He maintained that the Defense Ministry had green-lighted Shiri’s activity and had then reneged on its commitments to him. “In order to come up with the solution and to advance it, my client was obligated to spend the money he spent, and the Defense Ministry recognized this. These were monies that had to be disbursed in real time, with no advance planning, expenses that were essential to striking deals, payments that had to be made to protect my client’s life, in practice, and all while he was working on behalf of the State of Israel.”

Shiri did not submit receipts when he returned. Zichroni derided the sheer unfounded expectation that he would: “Just as the sun does not set in the east in our part of the world, so there should be no expectation of receiving any itemization or any record of expenses incurred by my client in those countries, while working on a mission of the Ministry of Defense.”

When Shani, the director general, heard about the series of letters, he recommended wrapping things up quietly. Shiri didn’t get the money he requested, but for a few years the whole affair was kept secret. Until now.

Documents and testimonies recently obtained by Haaretz shed light on the exploits of the Defense Ministry in connection with the asylum seekers. The documents indicate that the ministry chose to use a group of entrepreneurs with connections in Africa. The guerilla diplomacy knew no bounds: former cabinet ministers and businessmen tried to get the refugees transferred to some of the world’s most blood-drenched countries: South Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic. They approached failed dictatorships and some even tried to concoct an organized return of the Sudanese asylum seekers en masse to Sudan – in the form of a militia. Most of the attempts failed; one attempt that succeeded later turned out to be a grand failure.

Weizman Shiri.Credit: Tali Mayer

More upsetting than Hezbollah

“This story happened in 2012,” Shiri tells Haaretz. “Tens of thousands of refugees were streaming into Israel and no one could block them. The refugees reached the toughest places – Eilat, Arad, Be’er Sheva – a development that disturbed the top echelons of the government more than the [Hamas] tunnels from the Gaza Strip, more than Hezbollah.”

Shiri was invited to a meeting with Udi Shani at the Defense Ministry. “He knew I was familiar with Africa from my business activity. I told him that we would need a few things to make this thing happen. First of all, a lot of money. Nothing gets done in Africa without money. And second, for a situation not to arise in which the refugees are sent to their death. We need to look after them, because there’s a real chance that the leaders there will take the money and dump them.”

After doing some checking, Shiri got back to Shani. “I told him that I needed to receive a genuine mandate. He agreed. They were stressed out then, and I suggested that we do a pilot with the first thousand refugees.”

In mid-2012, a four-sided meeting took place on a Saturday morning at a café near Shiri’s home at the time, in the Azorei Chen neighborhood of Tel Aviv. In addition to Shiri, the participants were Shani and an aide, and a representative of the Mossad. There were no experts from the Foreign Ministry, no scholars with expertise in Africa. Israel embarked on the mission in the way it knows best: with the Defense Ministry and the intelligence bodies.

Shiri presented his idea: to round up a thousand asylum seekers, transfer them to a third country and house them on farms there. The farms, to be established with Israeli funding, would provide the refugees with employment and a livelihood. According to Shiri’s plan, some of the refugees would remain on the farms; for others they would serve as way stations.

The countries mentioned in the meeting were then newly independent South Sudan and the Central African Republic, neither exactly models of democratic tradition or human rights. Shiri made it clear to Shani that if they wanted to gain the cooperation of people in the corridors of power in the two countries in question, he would have to lay out money. Some of the funds would go to middlemen, some would be paid via mediators to senior officials. “That’s how things work in Africa,” Shiri told the retired major general.

In addition to money, Shiri asked for explicit backing. “I refused to budge without an orderly document from the state,” he says. “If I was not an official envoy, I could be killed the following morning.”

Mass slaughter, systematic rape

After a short time, Shani informed Shiri that he would provide him with two letters. One was a power of attorney document, authorizing him to act as a representative of the Defense Ministry in connection with resettling the refugees. The other was an invitation from the then-president of Israel, Shimon Peres, addressed to the ruler of the Central African Republic, Francois Bozizé.

On the same occasion Shani wrote to Shiri to inform him that he had reached an agreement with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry on a budget of several tens of millions of shekels to implement the whole undertaking. He signed off with a sentence whose meaning was unequivocal: “Agreement reached on a farm for 1,000 people, up to 60 million shekels [about $15 million]… how much and how it is divided, do your own calculation. I absolutely don’t want to know what or how.”

Millions from the public coffers, and the director general of the Defense Ministry isn’t interested in knowing what was going to be done with the money? Shani had apparently reached the conclusion that when it comes to moving things forward in Africa, the less he knew, the better. From Shiri’s point of view, the message was received.

Udi Shani.Credit: Moti Milrod

Having received authorization, Shiri set out. One destination was the Central African Republic, a failed state that had endured a sequence of coups involving mass killing and systematic rape.

The second destination was South Sudan, a poor and conflicted country that had only recently obtained independence from Sudan. The declaration of statehood in 2011 should have marked the end of the era of civil war, but even after independence a violent struggle was waged between the Muslim government in Khartoum, various opposition forces and the Christian south. According to the human rights organization Amnesty International, the security forces of South Sudan customarily shot opponents of the regime and used torture and sexual violence. When the flames died down, it turned out that tens of thousands had been slaughtered and millions uprooted.

Into this field of fire strode Weizman Shiri, acting on behalf of Israel’s Defense Ministry. His first stop, in mid-2012, was a meeting with the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit. “They were waiting for my arrival at the airport. The president’s personal bodyguard stuck close to me throughout the visit. My mandate was to tell Salva that Israel was going to invest vast amounts of money in this project.”

The plan was to house on farms in South Sudan asylum seekers who had reached Israel from the northern part of Sudan and from the Darfur region, in western Sudan. Anyone who wanted to proceed from there to his homeland would be able to do so.

“I sat with the president and shooting could be heard outside,” Shiri recalls. “I explained that Israel needed him and that Israel would also help him in very large numbers. At first he objected, because he was concerned about the reactions this would elicit. I told him, ‘You are sitting with a former deputy defense minister. You will receive very significant military assistance.’”

During the visit, Shiri also met with the country’s army chief of staff: “He said he needed equipment. You’ll get it, I told him. The whole idea of the ties with South Sudan was this: They needed our support and might, while we needed their location. I spoke with the chief of staff mainly about ensuring the safety of the people from North Sudan and from Darfur, who would go on to their places of origin. He promised that they would transit safely.”

The Defense Ministry's director general secured up to $15 million to expel asylum seekers to unstable states. 'How much and how it is divided, I absolutely don’t want to know what or how,' he wrote.

Before leaving South Sudan, Shiri concluded details with Emmanuel Lowilla, a minister in the president’s office and his trusted confidant. “I sat with him until 3 A.M. in a restaurant in Juba [the capital]. I suggested that he come to Israel to meet with the director general of the Defense Ministry, but he wanted the president’s go-ahead.”

A security source familiar with the details confirms this account. “At that time the possibility was in fact examined of establishing temporary transit camps in South Sudan for Sudanese [who came to Israel] from the north. We had good relations with South Sudan at the time, and the country was relatively stable, before the civil war broke out. That was the plan, but that format didn’t materialize.”

‘Scared to death of Muslims’

From South Sudan, Shiri went on, via Addis Ababa, to the Central African Republic, where he met with Bozizé. “His son was also at the meeting,” Shiri relates. “Bozizé considered his son to be a kind of defense minister. I told them that in my view there was a great opportunity here. Bozizé wanted very much to press ahead, but he was scared to death of the Muslims [in his country]. I wanted to bring him to Israel, because he’s a pious Christian and dreamed of coming here on pilgrimage. But a few months later he was deposed. In the end, I emerged with the conclusion that a deal could be struck with South Sudan.”

Former Central African Republic President Francois Bozizé, this year. Credit: FLORENT VERGNES / AFP

Indeed, not long afterward, Lowilla, the South Sudan official, arrived in Israel. His visit was carried out according to protocol: a chauffeur, accommodation in the upscale Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv and a tour of the holy places in Jerusalem with Shiri. At the conclusion the two dined in a private room in one of the capital’s luxury hotels, along with Shani, the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser Ahaz Ben-Ari and a Mossad man.

“We raised all kinds of ideas in that meeting,” Shiri recalls. “Ben-Ari was adamant about ensuring that a situation didn’t arise where the Geneva Convention would be violated. And in fact, the most important thing was to see to it that when the refugees landed, even if they weren’t showered with flowers, at least they would not be killed.”

But then came the plot twist. Another operation to expel the asylum seekers had been launched at the initiative of Interior Minister Eli Yishai in 2012, with no connection to Shiri’s activities which eventually stopped without coming to fruition. A few years later, when Haaretz correspondent Tamara Baraaz visited a refugee camp in South Sudan, she met the last of the deportees who remained in the country. They were suffering from various ailments, and sewage flowed between their dwellings. Most of the deportees had scattered to the four winds by 2013 when the violence erupted in that country.

“I regret our involvement in this matter,” a former senior official in the Defense Ministry admits now. “That is the conclusion in the light of the tragic outcome of what occurred in South Sudan after the deportation.”

Shiri says that when he learned about the fate of the deportees he decided to withdraw from the mission he’d been tasked with. “They were thrown to the dogs, it’s heartbreaking,” he says. “You see it and you cry. Anyone who doesn’t know Africa, doesn’t understand how it works. No matter how difficult their situation, they won’t speak out against the government. They’d be killed with machetes. I informed Udi Shani that I didn’t want to have anything to do with this matter, and for all kinds of reasons, responsibility for the subject was transferred to the Prime Minister’s Office.”

What exactly did you understand had befallen the deportees?

Shiri: “Some of them were thrown into jungles, they were sent to total hell. I told Shani, ‘People are being sent to hell.’ He understood, he’s not stupid. I think that’s why the Defense Ministry stopped dealing with the issue, for fear that a commission of inquiry would be established.”

Shiri maintains that while making the rounds in Africa, he laid out hundreds of thousands of shekels of his own money.

To whom does money have to be handed over to advance things there?

“People, officials. Nothing moves without that.”

The Defense Ministry knew that this is what you were doing, among other things. Opening doors.

“Obviously.”

Did you tell them?

“Obviously. You think I was a volunteer? The State of Israel is today investigating businesspeople for giving bribes to leaders in Africa. And what did the state do?”

Bribery greasing the wheels

You are a friend and confidant of Ehud Barak, the defense minister at the time. Did he know about your activity?

“He didn’t. I also requested that no one tell him.”

To whom did the money actually go? To officials in South Sudan?

“Both South Sudan and the Central African Republic.”

Whom did you have to pay?

“When you want to arrange things there, you pay money. I won’t elaborate, because I don’t want to get people into trouble, besides which, in some cases, I didn’t keep my word, because I left.”

Do you think that similar payments were made afterward, too, in countries that ultimately took in the asylum seekers from Israel?

“I don’t think, I’m certain. There’s no other way. Look, what Israel did in the end is a population transfer. The state lent its hand to a transfer. The color of the people doesn’t matter. And as for the justices of the High Court of Justice, who gave it the seal of approval, as though it was proper, I suggest that they go there and see how these people are living. If you’re a person with a conscience, you can’t be silent.”

I sat with the president of South Sudan and shooting could be heard outside. I explained that Israel needed him. I told him, 'You will receive very significant military assistance.’

Weizman Shiri

Did you receive money from the Defense Ministry? Did you make a profit from conducting the negotiations with the Africans?

“What I got was heartache. If I had received kickbacks from this story, I wouldn’t be able to talk like this now. I could have invested 20 million in this project and walked away with 40 million, but I didn’t want to touch a shekel. I saw it as dirty money. The only thing I asked for was reimbursement for expenses. They told me to bring them receipts. Are you making fun of me, I asked them.”

In 2017, when Shiri approached the Defense Ministry through attorney Zichroni, the letters were forwarded to then-ex-director general Shani for his response. Shani replied to the ministry: “All the activities were intended to arrive at an arrangement for their [the asylum seekers’] return, or to build villages for them and to house them, or to pay their country in money or defense equipment of one sort or another.”

Eritrean asylum seekers traveling from Ketziot Prison to Tel Aviv, 2008.Credit: Nir Kafri

He added, “In principle, we did not write or document anything in one context or another. In regard to Weizman Shiri’s claim: We don’t deny approaching him to help. No agreement was signed with him. I am not familiar with his expenses and his commitments. He did not attain agreements. I recommend: Let him present invoices for his expenses. Alternately, in light of the amount he is requesting (and possibly it is indeed disproportionate), a certain arrangement with him could be arrived at. Let’s bear in mind – even if it wasn’t such orderly behavior, it’s proper that there be no noise about the subject.”

To this day, Shiri has not received the money he had asked for.

Military force of refugees

Documents obtained by Haaretz show that Shiri was hardly the only person who tried to move ahead in coordination with the state. Among those contacted in this regard were former cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh, businessman Hezi Bezalel and entrepreneur Haim Taib, who’s active in Angola. Even the arms dealer Gabi Peretz, who was the honorary consul of Burundi in Israel, got a phone call from the Defense Ministry (“I told them that I work at the other end of the continent,” he told Haaretz. “You can’t take a Sudanese and put him in Mauritania”).

Another person who was called to help out was Ami Lustig, a former fighter pilot who had made a fortune in sales of defense equipment in Africa. Like Shiri, Lustig believed that agricultural farms could be the solution for the refugees. But it appears that more than anyone, the two people who stood out in the various contacts with African countries about a decade ago were the late cabinet minister Rafi Eitan and his business partner, Charles Tawil. Shani dubbed them “the agents.”

Rafi Eitan.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Over the years, Eitan, a former Mossad man who later headed the Pensioners Party, represented a number of companies that sold security technology to governments in Africa. Thanks to his exploits, he fostered a close relationship with the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country for the past 34 years, maintaining power by suppressing his opponents. In 2011, when Israel was holding talks with Uganda about a deal for the sale of radar technology, Eitan popped up. The government sought a strategic deal, which would include diplomatic and agricultural ties. Eitan suggested a diminished version: Israel would sell the technology, Uganda would take in thousands of asylum seekers.

A senior source told Haaretz that Eitan interfered in the talks. “He thought we were going about it wrong, that we would never reach an agreement. He said things like, ‘Who are you, anyway, you don’t understand Africans.’ He was convinced that he was above everyone.”

Tawil, Eitan’s associate and an Israeli-American entrepreneur who operates in Africa and in the Persian Gulf, was also in on the secret. Tawil, who is married to a woman from Gabon and has a house in Herzliya, sometimes goes by the name Shaul Cohen, especially when dealing with Israelis. In a phone conversation with Haaretz, he agreed to shed light on the talks about the asylum seekers.

“President Museveni asked Mr. Rafi Eitan how many refugees were involved. Rafi said the number was 60,000, and the president replied, ‘We have 35 million people in the country, why would I care about another 60,000?”

Tawil is now speaking openly, but for years he operated in the shadows. Lately his name surfaced in the affair of Russian interference in the U.S. election. George Papadopoulus, an adviser of President Trump who was arrested, told about a meeting held in a hotel on the Tel Aviv promenade in which Tawil offered him $10,000 in cash. The adviser raised the possibility that Tawil was a foreign agent of Israel who tried to entrap him. Tawil shrugs off the whole matter.

So the president of Uganda told Eitan that he doesn’t care about taking in tens of thousands of refugees. And what did he ask for?

Tawil: “He wanted to know what he would get out of it. There was a deal pending and he was offered a discount.”

What deal?

“A deal between Israel and Uganda.”

The radar deal?

“Exactly.

However, in 2012 a Mossad official, Hagai Hadas, was appointed to deal with the issue of the asylum seekers. He lashed out at the time against “the businesspeople who are scurrying around between our legs,” and reached understandings directly with the president of Uganda. For Eitan and Tawil, that was a sign that they should move to initiate plan B.

It turns out that Shiri wasn’t alone in thinking that South Sudan could be a suitable destination to which to send the refugees. Eitan and Tawil entertained similar, but far more ambitious, ideas. In a talk with Haaretz a few weeks before his death in March 2019, Eitan addressed the issue.

President Shimon Peres with South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit in Jerusalem, in 2011. Credit: Mark Neumann/GPO

“I have been active in Uganda for years, and there I met the government-in-exile of Darfur. The leaders of the group I knew in Uganda had moved to Israel and recruited thousands of refugees who were ready to be drafted into the Darfur army in order to fight Arab Sudan,” he said. “The Darfuris asked me to help them, and I broached the subject with the Defense Ministry’s director general, Udi Shani, and to Gideon Sa’ar, who was then interior minister. After a certain time I was told my help wasn’t needed, and I dropped the subject, but I’m certain it was feasible.”

A militia of asylum seekers? That would come from Israel?  Conversations held by Haaretz with political-diplomatic sources and with key figures in the Darfuri community here show that a proposal along those lines was in fact put forward. And not just put forward: Some of the community’s leaders conducted a survey to ascertain how many refugees would agree to leave in an organized manner and join a Darfuri army.

Tawil says that he was the point man vis-a-vis the leaders of the community with respect to the survey. “I asked them what they wanted. They said they wanted Israel to give us a little money and then we’ll leave and go to fight. I asked if they were ready to leave of their own will. They said yes. I asked them for a list of people who were ready to leave. They came back with a list of no fewer than 12,000 people. They told me that their leader, Abdul Wahid [Mohamed al-Nur], was in Uganda. Back then I was also in Uganda, so I went to meet him. All this at my initiative. Afterward I spoke with President Museveni. Below the surface, he supported them. I asked him whether he was willing to have them land in Uganda and then proceed to Darfur, and he said he had no problem with that.”

Was Eitan in the picture at this time?

“I went to him. I don’t know whether you know that persona, with all his glamorous ‘I know how to solve problems.’ In any event, I told him that this story was too big. We were talking about almost 20,000 Darfuris. I told Rafi, and I said the same to Wahid: Let’s start with one plane or two, we’ll see how it goes, and we’ll move ahead from there.”

But it didn’t move ahead.

“No. Museveni came to me and said, ‘Charles, we have a problem. I had a summit meeting with the Americans and I undertook not to intervene in the civil war in Sudan, so I can’t help.’ So I thought, who can help? South Sudan. I went to their head of intelligence and examined the idea with him. He told me, ‘The Darfuris are the most militant tribe, we hated them because they fought us the most of anyone, but now they are against the north, so we will be able to let them go through.’”

What happened with that?

President Museveni asked Mr. Rafi Eitan how many refugees were involved. Rafi said the number was 60,000, and the president replied, ‘We have 35 million people in the country, why would I care about another 60,000?’

Charles Tawil

“He got angry when he heard that the idea was to send them Eritreans, too. He told me he was willing to accept only Darfuris. He said that they weren’t the garbage dump of Africa, and that they would not take in people from Eritrea just because they are black.”

And in the meantime, in Israel, you tried to move ahead with the mechanism of compensation for people who would leave voluntarily.

“We asked for $20,000 a head [to be paid by Israel]. When I met with Udi Shani he said, ‘I hear you’re handing out envelopes.’ I said, ‘What the hell, I’m done.’ He told me to relax and sit down. He offered $500 per person, but if I were a Sudanese, for that amount, I would prefer to live in prison in Israel.”

The militia idea died when news of it reached Hagai Hadas. “Hagai thought the deal was constructed in a completely wrongheaded way,” says a diplomatic source. “He ruled it out even without presenting it to the prime minister.” According to the source, the thought that Israel would lend a hand to cobbling together a military force in Sudan was completely unacceptable to Hadas. “He thought it was unworthy for Israel to initiate that type of activity.”

Tawil, for his part, is convinced that the idea was not insane: “You need to understand: The list that the heads of the community drew up for us was absolutely a book. Phone numbers, where each of them lives. It wasn’t for nothing that they volunteered to give that information.”

Ephraim Sneh.Credit: Moti Milrod

Moving out the Darfuris

Former cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh also developed ties in Africa as a businessman. Like Eitan and Tawil, he too promoted the idea of transferring the asylum seekers in Israel to South Sudan as a transit point, on the way to Darfur. Sneh got an attentive ear from Hadas. In fact, when Hadas ordered cessation of the talks with the businesspeople, he made an exception for Sneh and stayed in continuous touch with him. The two know each other from their joint service in the Paratroops, decades ago, and Hadas’ impression was that Sneh was acting transparently and in a moral fashion.

“I didn’t see it as any sort of business,” Sneh tells Haaretz. “My only agenda was to help the Darfuris, and with that in mind I worked with the leader of their underground, Abdul Wahib. The problem was that in South Sudan they didn’t actually make an effort to enable it, and there wasn’t enough determination on our side, either. When it became necessary to plunk down a little money, suddenly things got stuck. If there had been a government here that knew how to function, 10,000 Darfuris could have been moved out like nothing.”

How did your plan differ from the one proposed by Rafi Eitan and Charles Tawil?

Sneh: “They had a different mindset, they’re businessmen.”

South Sudan wasn’t the only place in Sneh’s sights. For years he’s had excellent relations with the leaders of the dictatorship in Eritrea, dating from the period when he was minister of health in Yitzhak Rabin’s government in the 1990s. In the period of the Ariel Sharon government, he invited Eritrea’s defense minister for a visit to Israel.

“The government of Israel ruined relations with Eritrea when it allowed Eritreans to come and work here,” Sneh says. “They thought we were drinking up their significant manpower. In my view, the bad and bitter taste on the part of the Eritreans is justified. My idea was to reconstruct Eritrea as a strategic friend of Israel’s. Netanyahu received me at his home and understood immediately. I proposed a comprehensive rapprochement with Eritrea, which would encompass the problem of the infiltrators [i.e.l, the asylum seekers]. Not to give them prizes, not to give them bribes. I said to Netanyahu, ‘Don’t offer money, offer international legitimization [to Eritrea].’ Internationally they’re treated like North Korea, and are boycotted.”

What about the systematic and flagrant violation of human rights there?

Sneh: “I’ll be happy to be shown one democracy in Africa. They’re all the same. Where in Africa is there an opposition that says it has it good?”

What was the solution you proposed to Netanyahu for the refugees?

“Their return, by agreement, and with their safety guaranteed.”

But the Eritreans who came to Israel were fleeing from the horrors of their government.

“They came here for money. I received a promise from the highest levels of the Eritrean government that they would accept thousands and that no harm would come to them.”

Did you have indications that the Eritreans here would agree to anything like that?

“In principle, yes. Netanyahu was in favor of the idea, but it didn’t come to pass.”

Secret channel to Chad

Another businessman who was involved in ideas for sending the refugees back to Africa is Amos Hadar, who has been working in the continent for 25 years. Hadar supplies intelligence technologies to a number of regimes. His territory includes Chad, Uganda and Sudan, with forays to the Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast.

Unlike the other businesspeople on the list, Hadar’s name won’t ring a bell with most Israelis, and his activity in Africa hasn’t gotten the same publicity. People close to Hadar explain that this is precisely his intention: to distinguish himself from the “Israeli junta in Africa” whose behavior he describes in private conversations as greedy and clumsy.

The Defense Ministry’s approach to Hadar came against the background of his years-long acquaintance with Udi Shani. People in his milieu say that he plunged into the mission on a volunteer basis and that he suggested putting out feelers in Chad, the main territory of his own operations. Shani gave him a green light.

At the time, Chad was caught up in a severe humanitarian crisis, spawned by a civil war that had torn the country part for five years, before ending in 2010. By then, two million people were suffering from famine and hundreds of thousands were homeless, even as masses of Sudanese refugees fled to Chad because of the war in their country. The bursting refugee camps quickly became pockets of abject poverty and epidemics.

The idea of sending more refugees to this morbid reality may sound improbable at first, but Hadar thought at that moment that it had ethnic and geopolitical logic, given the existence of a border between the neighboring countries of Chad and Sudan, and the presence of mixed families. Hadar explained to the Defense Ministry that culturally and in terms of climate and general atmosphere, Chad, most of whose residents are Muslims and desert dwellers, recalls the areas the Sudanese refugees left when they came to Israel. In addition, many senior figures surrounding the president at the time were of Sudanese origin.

According to one source, Hadar put out feelers to the head of the secret services in Chad about the feasibility of that country absorbing a few thousand Sudanese refugees. Israel, in return, would establish an agricultural “hothouse” there. According to the concept put forward by Hadar, the refugees sent to Chad would be trained to work in a rural milieu and would establish a kind of “African kibbutz.”

In private conversations, Hadar spelled out a vision in which the refugees tilling the arid Chadian soil become ambassadors who spread Israel’s name in the world. Chad would benefit from professional manpower and access to advanced agricultural technologies. According to the same source, the chief of the services expressed interest in principle in the blueprint, but Hadar himself decided to back off. “Something started to smell bad,” a person close to him explained. “In the system here, tremendous pressure began building for the eviction of the refugees, pressure that bordered on panic.”

The confidant adds that Hadar’s reservations were based on the progress made in the scheme to send refugees to Uganda and what he saw as the faulty decision making that was involved. “Because what connection do the Sudanese have with Uganda? Uganda is the most extreme country in terms of a corrupt governing culture, and the idea of that channel arose only because it was the most porous from the business point of view.”

Udi Shani: No bribery

In his response to a series of questions from Haaretz, Udi Shani maintains that he did not appoint Weizman Shiri as his representative, did not hold a meeting with him and an African minister, and did not say that he didn’t want to know what was done with the money. His denials contradict documents and testimonies in the possession of Haaretz.

Shani added: “Approaches were made to no few ‘agents’ in Africa who were to help us get to leaders with proposals. No bribery, no winks and no tricks or gimmicks. There were quite a few proposals: paying those who would return, building villages, providing various systems. It’s not comfortable for me to elaborate.

“As for the allegations of attorney Zichroni, I thought that if agents who tried to advance ideas spent money – per diem, lodging, flights and so forth – it was right and proper to reimburse them, in return for receipts.

“I will not go into details about the proposal by the late Rafi Eitan and what his motives were, and I will not comment on details of the different conversations. Those crooks had a lot of proposals, and the fact is that we decided not to lend a hand to it. In the end, what was done took place between governments, without mediators and, if the truth be told, without any great success, either.”