What is behind the Israeli mistreatment of African migrants?

Disturbing rhetoric on race from Israeli government ministers.

The recent anti-African mob violence in Tel Aviv was, sadly, no surprise. Only a few days previously, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned “illegal infiltrators” could threaten the country’s existence “as a Jewish and democratic state”, with Interior Minister Eli Yishai saying that “the migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying”. 
 
Cabinet ministers talk in terms of “expulsion by consent or without consent” to “preserve the country's Jewish identity”, and of “taking steps to kick out” the “scourge” of “infiltrators”. A prominent Likud parliamentarian and chair of the “Knesset Caucus to Solve the Infiltrator Problem” urged for this “plague” to be removed “without delay and without mercy”.
 
A disturbing conference held in April in Ramle gives further insight into this mainstream racism, and points to an important connection between the anti-African incitement, and the institutionalised discrimination faced by Palestinians.
 
At the annual get together, “Israeli politicians and right-wingers – including Knesset Members and rabbis who are paid by the government – gathered to discuss the ‘problem’ of foreigners (read: non-Jews) in Israel”. One analogy is to imagine British MPs and even cabinet members proudly attending – and speaking at – an English Defence League convention. 
 
Yishai gave an address, and one rabbi told the audience that Israel “is our home and an Arab who wants to express his nationalism has many countries in which to do so”. Perhaps the most extraordinary contribution came from the head of a campaign group "Fence for Life", which emerged as a prominent voice supporting the construction of Israel’s Separation Wall.
 
 
Here, Ilan Tsion explicitly makes the case for the Wall on the basis that it can keep out non-Jews, grouping together both Africans and Palestinians as threats to the Jewish character of the state. Instructively, Tsion boasted of his group’s role in lobbying for both the Wall and for a continued ban on Palestinian family reunification. 
 
This week, Yishai asked rhetorically: “So what, the State of Israel, as the Jewish state, in the name of democracy, in the name of honouring UN resolutions, (should accept) a recipe for suicide?” Likewise, when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the separation of Palestinian spouses, the majority opinion stated: “human rights are not a prescription for national suicide”. 
 
The "demographic threat" discourse is commonplace amongst both the left and right. Netanyahu, as Finance Minister in 2003, described Palestinian citizens as the real “demographic problem”. When Ehud Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem, he considered it “a matter of concern when the non-Jewish population rises a lot faster than the Jewish population”.
 
Worrying about the numbers of Palestinian babies is also a concern for the so-called "liberals" or "peace camp", who echo the logic found in this recent op-ed (titled “Keep our Israel Jewish”) that “[African migrants] should be deported, for the same reason I think we should finalize a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians: Because I want to keep living in a Jewish state”.  
 
This kind of ideology is inevitable in a country where racial discrimination is part and parcel of core laws and policies, and whose very establishment as a "Jewish majority" state was only possible, as Israeli historians like Ilan Pappe have pointed out, through ethnic cleansing and mass land expropriation. Indeed, the Ramle conference takes place in a town almost entirely emptied of its Palestinian population in 1948.
 
In 2012, African refugees are attacked in Tel Aviv for "threatening" the Jewish state; in 1948, Israeli forces targeted columns of Palestinian refugees “to speed them on their way”. In today’s Israel, politicians plan fences and detention camps for non-Jewish “infiltrators”; by 1956, as many as 5,000 Palestinians trying to return home had been killed as “infiltrators”.  
 
This thread running through Israel’s past and present – of expulsions, ethnocratic legislation, and obsessions with birth rates – is the context for the targeting of African refugees and Palestinians, and is one of the reasons why Israel’s advocates in the west are having to work so hard to maintain the myth of Israel’s democracy.
African immigrants in Tel Aviv Photograph: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/GettyImages

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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