Israel’s Parliament has passed a new law aimed at keeping African immigrants behind bars — and a controversial jail to house them open — beyond a deadline set by the country’s highest court.
The Knesset by a 43-20 vote approved an initial legislative step for a new law that mandates three months in prison for African asylum-seekers who enter Israel without documentation and a year and eight months more in the spartan Holot detention center, which Israel euphemistically refers to as an “open facility.”
If it passes two more hurdles, the new law will permit Israel to keep more than 2,000 African detainees imprisoned in Holot — and likely to jail many more.
It is the third time lawmakers have sought to amend to the nation’s so-called anti-infiltration law. Earlier amendments were twice struck down by Israel’s High Court of Justice on the grounds they were unconstitutional.
Advocates say Israel should offer a haven to the refugees, most of whom are fleeing authoritarian regimes in the Sudan (many hail from the genocide-ravaged Darfur province) and Eritrea, considered one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Nine workers at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport lost their jobs yesterday because they refused to interact with passengers who arrived from Ethiopia.
The workers, contractor employees of the Israel Airports Authority, were asked to hand out Ebola information pamphlets to the Ethiopian Airlines passengers and to direct them to an area where they could have their temperatures checked. The workers were reluctant to do so out of fear that they would contract Ebola. They argued that they weren’t properly protected.
These nine workers weren’t the only ones afraid to come into contact with the passengers. They told Ynet that they were asked to perform the task only after the airport’s permanent employees refused to do it. The contract workers were threatened, and when they still insisted they would not perform the procedure, they were fired on the spot.
Eventually, cops stationed at the airport were the ones who agreed to undertake the procedure.
This incident follows a new directive that was issued three days ago. According to the latest decision, passengers coming to Israel from any country in Africa have to fill out a questionnaire and have their body temperature checked. This new protocol is an expansion of a procedure that included only passengers from countries with incidences of Ebola: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leon.
As part of the new protocol, even passengers coming from Cairo ¬— only about an hour flight from Tel Aviv — are getting tested, as they come from “Africa.”
Israel’s High Court of Justice struck down Israel’s practice of indefinitely detaining many non-Jewish African asylum seekers without due process in September. The unanimous court ruled that this detention policy violated Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and ordered the government to assess the individual cases of the 1,750 detained asylum seekers for release by December 15.
High Court Justice Arbel wrote in his court opinion that prolonged detention was inconsistent with Jewish values.
“We cannot deprive people of basic rights, using a heavy hand to impact their freedom and dignity, as part of a solution to a problem that demands a suitable, systemic and national solution,” he wrote. “We cannot forget our basic values, drawn from the Declaration of Independence, as well as our moral duty towards every human being, as inscribed in the country’s basic principles as a Jewish and democratic state.”
The judge even quoted Deuteronomy:
You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your gates which is beneficial for him; you shall not mistreat him.
One would have thought the Israeli government would have read the ruling and taken a different path. Whether one wants Israel to be more Jewish, more democratic, equally Democratic and Jewish, or neither for that matter, Justice Arbel summed up the legal and ethical laws and reasons why the detention policy was wrong and would now be outlawed.
Unfortunately, Israel has ignored the spirit of the ruling.
Will the doors of Israel’s detention centers really open, allowing illegal immigrants to walk free?
According to today’s High Court ruling, this is exactly what should happen over the coming weeks. Israel’s High Court has just struck down a controversial law that allows the state to detain illegal immigrants for up to three years.
Judges decided that administrative detention for illegals violates the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, and therefore the Anti-Infiltration Law that permitted it is invalid. Instead, the state can only detain illegals for far shorter periods.
Excitement is spreading through detention camps, where news of the ruling is just being heard. But the joy on the part of illegals — and the human rights groups that fought the law — may be premature.
Back in 2006 the court overturned another law, which bound migrant workers to their employers during their time in Israel. The state simply ignored the ruling for many months, and a full two years after the court gave its ruling, and in so doing said that the law violated migrants’ basic rights, it was fully in place.
Only since 2008 has it been cancelled gradually, employment sector by employment sector. And alternative legislation that limits migrants’ employment choices has been enacted to replace the cancelled law.
So, the court may have spoken on the Anti-Infiltration Law today, but it’s far from clear how this will translate to action.
The following is an open letter to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States
We are deeply concerned that Israel is about to return Eritrean asylum seekers before allowing for an appropriate refugee status determination process to take place.
According to those detained in the Saharonim internment camp for asylum seekers, on July 14, about 15 Eritreans who spent the last year in Saharonim prison were returned to Asmara, Eritrea where they will face probable arrest, torture, and danger to life. We are aware that there are around 200 Eritreans in total who have been designated to return to Eritrea.
If these people are returned, their lives will undoubtedly be in danger as a result. We are concerned that Israeli authorities are not acknowledging the imminent and serious danger to the asylum seekers’ lives nor are they processing their asylum claims responsibly, transparently, or fairly. We believe that such treatment of those who have fled from an oppressive and tyrannical regime is unconscionable.
As Jews, we know that such treatment of the stranger is forbidden by our Torah. As American Jews, we feel that such treatment of a disenfranchised minority challenges our legacy of fighting alongside other minorities for civil rights.
As members of the world community, we call on Israel to uphold its legal obligations. We call upon the Israeli authorities to desist from the attempt to return refugees to dangerous situations without allowing them to have their legal claim for asylum heard and evaluated.
What is bringing down the birth rates of Israel’s Ethiopian immigrants — culture or chemicals?
A new study by the nonpartisan Knesset Research and Information Center found that while Ethiopian Jews traditionally have large families, by 2010 those who arrived in the preceding decade were actually having fewer kids than other Israelis. They were having 1.78, which is 38 percent below the average for Israeli-born women, 2.88.
This study follows a television report last year that alleged that Ethiopian immigrant women were coerced into taking contraceptive shots in transit camps in Ethiopia when waiting to move to Israel, and that they continued to receive the shots in Israel. The Health Ministry wrote to HMOs inferring that there are some Ethiopian women who receive the shots in Israel without fully understanding what they contain — and urged gynecologists “not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian origin if for any reason there is concern that they might not understand the ramifications of the treatment.”
Gal Gabbay, the documentary-maker who made produced the television report on the contraceptive shots, says that following the new Knesset report she feels vindicated. “The numbers speak for themselves,” she told Forward Thinking, saying that she is “sure” that the contraceptive shots are behind the drop in birth rates.
But the authors of the study found themselves unable to substantiate the claims of her report, and left the matter of the contraceptive shots as something of an open question. Of course, there are many who say that a reduction in birth rates is expected among an immigrant population encountering completely new, Western cultural norms — especially when it’s one of the poorest segments of society.
This reading of the figures isn’t only coming from outside the Ethiopian community. Shai Sium, a 34-year-old resident of the Southern Israel town of Kiryat Malachi and an Ethiopian-born activist for Ethiopian rights, says that young parents like him “don’t want to have a lot of children in Israel and can’t afford a lot of children.”
He holds himself up as an example. “I have two kids and I decided to have three kids because I want to raise them well.”
Last weekend, I was detained for 10 hours and then deported back to the U.S. after flying to Panama for a weeklong vacation. I’m starting to get over the sheer frustration about the experience, which was caused by a Panamanian rule that visitors must have at least three months on their passports to gain entry to the country. In truth, it was my fault for not knowing the rules of the country I hoped to visit.
Frustration aside, it was a learning experience for me. Ironically, I’m in the midst of promoting a campaign to get the Israeli government to release African asylum seekers from detention, where they are being indefinitely imprisoned without any chance of applying for refugee status. The campaign is called Release Now!
During my hours in detention in Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport, I saw some things that really made me angry. I was treated particularly well in comparison to everyone else in detention. But that was obviously because I was able to lobby for my rights; and also because I kept mentioning that I’m a human rights activist. Thus, I was allowed to get food twice and to make phone calls three times, while others were not given such privileges.
What upset me most was the treatment of black men from Africa and elsewhere who were the majority of detainees — a potent reminder of the racism they face around the world, including in Israel.
There was one man from South Africa who was actually a Somali with full refugee status in South Africa. He worked in the tourism industry and was being sent to Panama by his company for two weeks. He had visited the Panamian consulate in South Africa and they had given him permission and documentation to enter the country. The authorities at the airport chose to deport him but did not explain why.
Another man from Haiti did not understand that he was being taken to a hotel overnight and then deported the next day. He only spoke French.
More questions are raised than answered with an Israeli government official’s letter on the birth control scandal in the country’s Ethiopian community.
Health Ministry Director General Ron Gamzu has instructed HMOs to stop injecting women of Ethiopian-born women with the long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera. The background is that last month an Israeli television report alleged that Ethiopian immigrant women were coerced into taking contraceptive shots in transit camps in Ethiopia when waiting to move to Israel, and continue to receive the shots in Israel.
Gamzu has not confirmed in so many words that women have been coerced to take the contraceptive, but has indicated that there are Ethiopian women who don’t understand exactly what they’re taking and why. His letter instructs gynecologists “not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian origin if for any reason there is concern that they might not understand the ramifications of the treatment.” (To be clear, Gamzu did not indicate that the government is responsible for the situation, but just that it must stop.)
This is a step forward from the previous situation that saw everyone, in Israel and the Diaspora, denying knowledge of a problem, but it’s far from the comprehensive investigation needed in to such a serious matter.
Fear spread across Israel’s illegal immigrants from Sudan last summer. As the Forward reported, it has seemed in recent days like the Interior Ministry’s deadline was looming and they would soon be imprisoned. In August he announced plans to jail all Sudanese illegals without trial starting on October 15 and was expected to get underway any time now.
But today, it emerged that his threat had received no authorization from the government, and is therefore illegal. Today, in response to advocacy groups representing the illegals with a petition in the Jerusalem District Court, the state revealed that no official decision was taken on the arrest of Sudanese citizens in Israel.
“At this time, the Immigration Authority has yet to receive any order pertaining to the incarceration of Sudanese infiltrators,” the State Attorney wrote. “Should such a decision be made in the future it will be stated publically by the authority, 30 days before going into effect.”
So what was going on here? Did the Interior Ministry carelessly overlook the need to get authorization for his planned round up? Unlikely. At the Forward we suggested as early as June, even before Yishai’s imprisonment promise, that he was bluffing with his tough talk on illegals, making threats that he knew Israel couldn’t keep. And it would appear that for the populist value of the statements and/or to deter other illegals from coming to Israel, he made such unfulfillable threats.
One question which remains: Why didn’t others in government, some of whom where deeply unhappy about his threats as the Forward reported in June, pull the rug from under him and save Sudanese in Israel several months of panic?