Israel's Hateful, Misguided Policy Against the Weakest of the Weak

What connects jailed asylum seekers and displaced Palestinian shepherds? The government’s shameful, bullying treatment of them both.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Prisoners at Israel's Holot detention facility in the Negev.
Prisoners at Israel's Holot detention facility in the Negev. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

About 250 kilometers separate the Holot prison in the Negev and Ain al-Hilweh in the northern Jordan Valley, but a direct line of evil connects them. The two places are seemingly as different as the distance between the desert and the valley. The first is a “detention center” – an open prison for refugees fleeing violence, and asylum seekers from Africa. The other is a tiny village with Palestinian shepherds.

The Israel Prison Service controls the first, the Israel Defense Forces’ Civil Administration the other – again, two organizations with no seeming connection.

Khader Ibrahim. Credit: Alex Levac

And yet, see what a nightmare it is. The policy is exactly the same, the means the very same means, and the goals identical: to pamper, coddle, indulge.

Evil holds sway in both, with abuse of the helpless and their dehumanization. In both cases, this abuse is aimed at making the victims miserable, until they break and want to leave it all behind – the Africans to leave Israel, the Palestinians to leave the Jordan Valley.

Israel is freezing the detainees in the cold. It incarcerated some 2,300 people at Holot, without providing any heating devices for their rooms. Freezing cold.

The shepherds dwellings at Ain al-Hilweh (and other shepherds’ dwellings) are demolished, leaving its residents – including babies and children, pregnant women and disabled elderly – exposed to the heavens, without anything, in the freezing cold of the Jordan Valley.

In recent weeks I visited both sites, which have everything except for a scrap of humanity or fragment of compassion. In Holot, I saw detainees rush out of their cells on a day in which the sun peeked through for a moment, wearing the entire contents of their closets on their bodies – layers of clothes to preserve their body heat. They have no other way.

In Ain al-Hilweh, I saw the residents spread out on the ground, under the open skies, living between the mounds of ruined tents and shacks that were once their homes. They didn’t even have clothes left; almost everything was trampled.

Israel’s attitude toward these two marginal groups is identical. That is, of course, not coincidental but the result of a systematic and intentional policy, dictated from above.

Israel is convinced that if it makes life miserable enough for the Africans, if it piles on their suffering, they will leave the country “voluntarily” – its fantasy.

It has the exact same goal in the Jordan Valley. Since Israel decided that it will remain in its hands, it has set its goal to purify it of Palestinian residents. Shepherds are, of course, the weak link, and this quiet policy of transfer is directed against them. More and more demolition, everything in the name of the law – the apartheid law that discriminates between settlements and a community of shepherds.

The shepherds will pitch their tents anew, Israel will once again demolish them – until they are fed up and leave on their own, like the Africans.

But here is what the government needs to know: Neither of them will leave. Why? They have nowhere to go. “They don’t like us here, and we have nowhere to go,” Fathi Zaidan, from Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, told me last week at the entrance to Holot. Zaidan’s first wife was murdered in Sudan, while his second wife and their young daughter are hiding in Egypt. He has been jailed here for nearly a year.

To achieve these victories over the weakest of the weak, Israel does not rule out any methods. To prevent superfluous moral misgivings, the victims are declared to be nonpersons: The Africans do not need heat; the shepherds do not need shelter.

After that, the regular brainwashing and justifications are enlisted. The Africans entered Israel illegally (as if African refugees can enter Israel legally), and the shepherds planted their tents without permits (as if Israel allows legal construction). Both of these groups “endanger” the existence of Israel and “undermine” its rule of law.

Then the work is amazingly easy: The jailers freeze, the Civil Administration employees destroy, the media ignores, the public yawns, no one appeals – and may peace be on Israel.

At the margins, at the very ends of the country, these actions are being carried out as a matter of routine. They are far out of sight and far from the heart. But they are determining the true face of the country.

Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz

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