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The Fight Against the Expulsion of African Refugees Is a Pivotal Moment in Israel's History

If the government successfully deports thousands of asylum seekers, it will encourage the pursuit of even more malicious plans

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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A demonstration in south Tel Aviv against the forced deportation of African asylum seekers, January 18, 2018.
A demonstration in south Tel Aviv against the forced deportation of African asylum seekers, January 18, 2018. The sign says "South Tel Aviv against the expulsion."Credit: \ Moti Milrod
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Whether or not the deportation of African asylum seekers happens, Israel is facing nothing less than a test case that will shape its future.

It’s impossible not to shocked by the malice and racism behind this ethnic cleansing plan – the removal of non-Jewish black people on account of their skin color. The fate of 35,000 people should touch the hearts of every decent Israeli, but the issue is much broader and more important. On the agenda are hidden, far-reaching plans that only the extreme right talks about for now, but which one day could develop into an action plan. The expulsion of the African refugees is a pilot program of great import to the government and its opponents.

If this mini-expulsion succeeds, expect more to come: prepare for a population transfer. If the first operation is successful, it will buoy hopes for additional expulsions. Israel will learn it can do it; that no one will stop it. And when Israel is capable of acting, it does so without holding back. Twice it brutally laid waste to the Gaza Strip, because it could, and it will do so again until somebody stops it.

On the other hand, if the deportation of the asylum seekers fails, this will show that the part of Israel with a conscience has more power and influence than is apparent; that where there’s a will there’s a way. Its test will be to continue to fight, with the same means and determination, against other crimes. It too will draw hope from success.

That’s why the African precedent is so important, why the expulsion plans and the battle to stop them cannot be underestimated. The fight has already proved itself: The commander of the expulsion, Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef – the director general of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority– announced he will only deport unmarried men of working age. It’s the first surrender in the face of broad public pressure – broader than anticipated – but it is meaningless. It is no more legitimate to abuse men than it is to abuse women or even old people. Expulsion is expulsion, whether of men or women. Mor-Yosef tried clumsily to sanction a sin, but his very need to hide behind “we’re only deporting men, so we’re all right” is an achievement. It can be assumed that, embarrassed, he will soon resign from his shameful post.

But that is not enough. If the anti-deportation fight persists – including the acts of resistance that are so vital to it – the Netanyahu government will be forced to back down. Without pilots, there can be no expulsion flights and refugees cannot be hunted down in the face of pockets of civil disobedience.

If this expulsion plan is foiled, the left will learn that the only way to prevail is through sacrifice and disobedience; rallies are ineffective. The anti-deportation camp will come to realize it can prevent crimes, but only if it is prepared to dig in and sacrifice; that not everything is ordained by the heavens or the right. And the government will learn it is not omnipotent, and that it has an active opponent with a conscience. It is worth recalling that a different ethnic cleansing operation – in the Jordan Valley and the south Hebron Hills – has not faced significant civil resistance.

The next expulsion attempt could be that of Arab lawmakers from the Knesset. Everyone will deny it, but the undercurrents are there. It could happen overnight, with various and sundry pretexts employed to make them illegal. After all, who wouldn’t want that? The masses would be in favor, for sure, and the government too. Who would object? All that’s needed is the right opportunity. The danger is closer than it appears. Who would believe that just 40 years ago, Israel proudly took in dozens of so-called boat people, refugees from Vietnam.

Afterward, at some point, the real plan will be raised: To expel the Palestinians from the territories, or at least from part of them. Under the cover of a war or an uprising, with a great many security excuses. It could happen. It sounds like fiction now, but the successful expulsion of the African refugees will lend support to the idea that expulsion is a feasible option. Sounds crazy? Sure. A few years ago it was crazy to think that this country of refugees would forcibly load handcuffed refugees onto planes and send them to their fate in miserable places, as it plans to do in the near future.

That is why it is so important to fight now.

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