Opinion

Israel Pretending to Respect Human Rights

The government treats Africans as asylum seekers who cannot be deported to their home countries, while at the same time treating them as ‘infiltrators’ who must be jailed and deported

Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers at the Holot Detention Center in southern Israel, December 8, 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Government policy toward African asylum seekers living in Israel is full of hypocrisy and contradictions. On one hand, the state recognizes that those who came from Eritrea and Sudan must not be deported back to their countries of origin. At least for Eritrean citizens, Israel recognizes the principle of “non-refoulement,” in opposition to the practice of deporting someone to a place where their lives or freedom are endangered.

But at the same time, Israel denies that they are refugees and treats them as “infiltrators,” the legal term for those who entered Israel illegally. Even worse: The government violates their freedom itself by jailing them in the Holot detention facility. This is how the government tries at the same time to look as if it respects the non-refoulement principle, which is part of both international and Israeli constitutional law; but also empties it of all value.

The plan for transferring asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda reproduces the internal contradiction: The government claims this is “voluntary removal” that requires the consent of those to be deported. Israel does not want to be seen as forcibly deporting people to those countries, and it also seems that Uganda and Rwanda refuse to accept those who are involuntarily deported.

At the same time, the truth is the government wants to deport them to a third country even without their agreement. In order to force them to consent, Israel wants to jail them for an indefinite period of time, in the same way the state does when it wants to deport someone against their will.

The attempt to indefinitely detain asylum seekers who do not agree to leave for Uganda and Rwanda is really an attempt to bypass a previous decision of the High Court of Justice, which ruled it is forbidden to jail asylum seekers for an indefinite period. After this decision the maximum detention period at Holot was limited to one year.

After the High Court’s ruling, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced: “Zionism should not continue, and I say here, it will not continue to bow down to the system of individual rights interpreted in a universal way that divorces them from the history of the Knesset and the history of legislation that we all know.”

The ruling itself stated something simple: To detain someone until they consent is forcible deportation, not voluntary. This is an internal contradiction, says the High Court. This is not true consent when it is extorted under a threat of imprisonment. That is why the High Court limited the authority of the government and allowed the detaining of asylum seekers for no more than 60 days, which is the maximum allowed under normal circumstances by the Law of Entry to Israel. In doing so, the court blocked the efforts of the government to create a new way to detain asylum seekers indefinitely.

This is a game of the government to play both sides: It treats them as asylum seekers who cannot be deported back to their countries of origin, while at the same time treating them as “infiltrators” who must be jailed and deported. The government treats deportation to Uganda and Rwanda as “voluntary removal,” but at the same time as deportation so that they can detain someone until they consent. This shows how the government does not want to be seen as completely rejecting the norms of human rights, all the while it empties these rights of any real content.

The government’s policy reminds us of the way it relates to the territories as occupied and under military rule, but also as not occupied – in a manner that allows settlement and de facto annexation.

Similar to the occupation, this duality regarding asylum seekers is at the heart of the official Israeli position, which wants to enjoy the best of all worlds: To be considered a nation that respects human rights, but without paying the necessary price.

As far as asylum seekers are concerned, the Supreme Court refused to cooperate with this internal contradiction. Shaked’s solution seems to be to reject the idea of universal human rights, exactly as she said.