“President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.”
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This, in case you were wondering, is not a quote from some upcoming sequel to Borat. It also isn’t a quote from some parody account mimicking the voice of everyone’s favorite Kazakh correspondent in order to mock the inanity of President Donald Trump’s refugee ban.
Let’s dispense, for a second, the glaring sycophancy, manifested in both the actual content of the tweet, and the fact that the MIT-educated Netanyahu felt the need to parrot Trump’s peculiar syntax.
Instead, let’s focus on two things. One is the sad historical irony that of all nations, the one bragging about his success in turning away survivors of genocides and brutal dictatorships one day after International Holocaust Day is none other than the Prime Minister of Israel. You know, that country that owes its very existence to the plight and suffering of the victims of the greatest genocide in modern history.
The other is that Netanyahu has not built a wall in his life. The only “wall” Israel built in the last 16 years is the separation barrier in the West Bank, and that was not built by Netanyahu, but by Ariel Sharon. Most likely, he was referring to the new fence Israel built along its border with Egypt, completed in 2013. Trump himself, in an interview with Fox news this week, invoked the fence’s (sorry, “wall’s”) success in decreasing the number of African refugees that crossed Israel’s border through Sinai.
Some background, for readers unfamiliar with Israel’s refugee crisis: beginning with the mid-aughts through 2012, about 60,000 African asylum seekers, the vast majority of them from Sudan and Eritrea, crossed into Israel. They were survivors of the genocide in Darfur and Eritreans feeling a brutal military dictatorship. According to ASSAF, an aid organization that helps refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, 5,000-7,000 of them are survivors of Sinai’s horrifying “torture camps.”
The arrival of asylum seekers was greeted with government neglect, causing a immediate social crisis. Most were directed to the poorest neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Eilat, Arad and other cities. These communities were not set up in any way to receive a massive inflow of migrants, and the result was an immense outbreak of xenophobia and racism, largely spurred by right-wing politicians, many of them members of the government that caused the crisis to begin with. Officially, the state calls these asylum seekers “infiltrators,” denies them basic rights, locked thousands of them in its Holot detention camp, and refuses to process their requests for asylum, despite its obligation to do so under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The fence along the Egypt border did dramatically curb the inflow of refugees into Israel, but wall-supporting Americans who want to use Israel as a positive example should take heed of some major differences between the two countries.
First, as astute readers may have already noticed, the Israeli barriers is not the wall that Trump wants to build along the U.S.-Mexican—border, it is a fence. And that fence is far, far shorter than Trump’s wall: its length is roughly 149 miles (240 kilometers), whereas the U.S.-Mexican border is about 1,900 miles (3,100km) long.
Also, it was hugely expensive. Even though it’s only a fence, the construction of Israel’s new barrier was one of the most expensive public projects in Israel’s history. It took more than three years to build, cost around 1.5 billion shekels (roughly $420 million), and necessitated millions of tons of steel. A small stretch of roughly 10 miles was particularly costly and took a year and a half alone to build, due to topographical challenges.
Plus, and this is important: this project seems to be never-ending. Since its completion, certain smugglers found ways to bypass the fence. As a result, Israel has spent more money on making it a “smart fence,” equipped with sensors and cameras. Just this month, Israel announced the completion of heightening the fence from 5 meters to 8 meters along a stretch ranging 17 kilometers.
Most importantly, its “success” has been limited, and came at the cost of human lives. While it did curb the inflow if illegal migrants into Israel, the fence did not solve Israel’s refugee crisis; as of 2016, about 41,000 asylum seekers live in Israel. These asylum seekers live in dire poverty, are denied basic human rights, and are subjected to numerous draconian policies meant to encourage them to leave Israel. Since officially Israel is prohibited by international law from deporting asylum seekers back to their countries, it has attempted to make deals with other African countries to take them in.
The Israeli “success” story in turning down refugees did not end with the “wall.” In 2013, Israel opened Holot, a detention center in the Negev. As of December 2015, 3,360 asylum seekers were locked in Holot, under horrifying conditions “designed to break the spirit of detainees," but over the years more than 10,000 asylum seekers have passed through its walls. It has cost the state nearly 1 billion shekels ($260 million) so far. This strategy also had limited success, seeing as genocide is far worse to an overcrowded prison in the Negev.
So when Bibi and Trump tout Israel’s success at building a “wall” to turn away “illegal immigrants,” remember the following: it’s not a wall, it’s a fence; it was hugely expensive, to the degree that makes the idea of building a wall along the vast U.S.-Mexican border seem cartoonish; and also, that the only “success” Israel had in turning away sufferers of genocide, dictatorship and torture is besmirching its own historical legacy as a nation built by refugees.