Analysis |

Fact-checking Netanyahu’s Incitement Against African 'Illegal Infiltrators' in South Tel Aviv

Would Israel really have 2 million asylum seekers without the southern border fence with Egypt? Are thousands of migrants being employed illegally, as the prime minister says? Here's the truth

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to south Tel Aviv, August 31, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to south Tel Aviv, August 31, 2017.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

“What we’re dealing with is illegal infiltrators, not refugees,” stated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his rare visit to south Tel Aviv last Thursday. This is the message that Netanyahu, ministers, lawmakers and the Population, Immigration and Border Authority have been repeating for years. Before they even looked into claims, they declared that tens of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese came here only for work, not out of fear for their lives.

Until 2012, the state didn’t allow Eritreans and Sudanese to apply for asylum, claiming they were temporarily protected in any case and were not deported. After 2012, they were allowed to apply for asylum, but the state hasn’t been in any rush to examine the claims. The Sudanese flight from Darfur has been recognized globally as a refugee situation, but more than 2,000 people from there – Eritreans too – have been waiting for years for responses to their applications.

Netanyahu vowed that “illegal infiltrators” will be deported and south Tel Aviv returned to its Israeli residents. “To achieve that, I came here to hear directly. I heard. I heard Sophia and I heard Ayala and I heard Rimona and I heard Sheffi and I heard Shlomo. I heard everyone. I heard everyone,” he said.

The truth is he did not hear from “everyone.” He heard only from people who share his views.

Dozens of people were invited to attend the prime minister’s visit to south Tel Aviv. Almost all were members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, or came from activist organizations calling for the expulsion of asylum seekers from the area.

Netanyahu mentioned Sheffi. That was a reference to Sheffi Paz, leader of a south Tel Aviv movement against the asylum seekers. There was also Oved Hugi, a Likud central committee member who appears at many a Knesset debate and attacks human-rights organizations and asylum seekers – he doesn’t even live in south Tel Aviv, but in Yad Eliyahu to the east.

There was also Shlomo Maslawi, a member of the Tel Aviv Municipality, and Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Arnon Giladi, both longtime members of Likud.

Netanyahu did not stroll the streets talking to passers-by. Some people who were protesting the government’s policy toward asylum seekers and the neglect of south Tel Aviv were barred from meeting the prime minister, though they actually live in the neighborhood. The prime minister did not talk with a single Eritrean or Sudanese person.

Asylum seekers with businesses in the Neve Sha’anan street mall in south Tel Aviv were told by police to close down ahead of and during the visit. Some stayed behind to wait for the prime minister, but were not allowed to exchange a single word with him.

Netanyahu expresses pride in building the fence along Israel’s border with Egypt. Although everyone agrees that the fence halted the uncontrolled entry of refugees fleeing from Africa to Israel, he said that “without that fence, there wouldn’t be 40,000 or 50,000 [refugees] here, there would be two million.”

The border fence between Israel and Egypt, which was completed in 2012. It stopped the flow of some 17,000 asylum seekers coming over the border.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In 2011, a record number of people crossed the southern border – more than 17,000. The fence was completed in the summer of 2012 and all but stopped that flow. But let’s say the rate had continued, or it rose to 20,000 a year. Over five years that’s 100,000 people (on top of the 60,000 or so already here), making it 160,000, not 1 million or 2 million.

In any case, Netanyahu did not address the past but also the future, promising that every minister was on board to crack down on those employing “illegal infiltrators.”

“Together with the public security minister [Gilad Erdan] and culture minister [Miri Regev], and with MK [Amir] Ohana and many others – and with the interior minister, of course – we will beef up enforcement against employers and lawbreaking infiltrators,” the prime minister declared.

What Regev or Ohana have to do with law enforcement on people who employ asylum seekers is unclear. How the enforcement is supposed to help is even less clear. That may well be Netanyahu’s most egregious red herring in the entire brief statement he made.

The prime minister also defined the asylum seekers as lawbreakers, though most obey the law and few have been involved in crime.

If the reference is to the mere fact that they are in Israel, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority (part of the Interior Ministry) gives them temporary visas in Israel, which they must return and renew every so often. The visas explicitly state that they are not working visas, but the government agreed in the High Court of Justice not to enforce the prohibition so that asylum seekers can actually subsist.

Immigration authorities can only take steps against those migrants summoned to southern Israel’s Holot detention facility, who aren’t allowed to work; those released from Holot who were ordered not to move to or work in Tel Aviv or Eilat; or those whose visas have expired. The vast majority of asylum seekers are legally employed, so what enforcement crackdown could Netanyahu be talking about?

Holot detention center in southern Israel, December 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

During the prime minister’s visit to south Tel Aviv, Public Security Minister Erdan issued a statement, declaring there is no point in keeping the Holot detention facility under the rule of the Public Security Ministry and Israel Prison Service. A High Court ruling forbade wardens from wearing prison guard uniforms in Holot, Erdan claimed. Yet there has been no such ruling from the High Court. The truth is that in its attempt to portray Holot as not just another jail but an open facility, the state itself informed the court that guards there would not be uniformed.

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