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29 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

The Israelis using civil disobedience to stop the deportation of asylum seekers

The government wants to deport 38,000 Eritreans and Sudanese. But some pilots are refusing to co-operate. 

By Martin Plaut

This is a “pivotal moment in Israel’s history”, according to an opinion piece in the oldest Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. The article by Gideon Levy explains just what is at stake as the Netanyahu government steps up its plans to expel 38,000 Eritreans and Sudanese. He sees it as the first step on a slippery slope. 

“The next expulsion attempt could be that of Arab lawmakers from the Knesset. Everyone will deny it, but the undercurrents are there… Afterward, at some point, the real plan will be raised: To expel the Palestinians from the territories, or at least from part of them… 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.”

Indeed, the Israeli left – beaten into submission by election defeats in recent years – has now stepped up to the plate. 

The asylum seekers are predominantly from two African states: Eritrea (70 per cent) and Sudan (20 per cent). Together they make up less than half a per cent of Israel’s population, according to ARDC, which campaigns on their behalf. Most arrived in the country via the Sinai. It was always a hazardous journey, but the route has been sealed off by a border fence which is all but impenetrable. Only 11 refugees succeeded in crossing it in 2016. Most of the Eritrean and Sudanese community live in Tel Aviv, where they work in the catering industry, servicing Israel’s hotels. 

The issue has sparked bitter debates among the public and in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing party Meretz accused members of Likud of having what she called: “Nazi friends all over the world” (she was promptly thrown out of the debate). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by contrast, claims they are not refugees but economic migrants and “illegal aliens that don’t belong here”. 

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A group of El Al pilots declared that they would not carry out the forcible deportations. The handful of pilots, who said they would not participate in “such barbarism”, were joined by 150 flight crew who took out a front-page ad in Haaretz condemning the forced transfers and calling on other airlines not to co-operate.

Doctors joined the movement and so did a group of rabbis. Led by Rabbi Susan Silverman, they are now calling for a programme of civil disobedience. Reaching out to kibbutzim and synagogue communities around the country, they appealed for volunteers to hide any African refugees facing expulsion

“Who here would be willing to house people?” Silverman asked at a gathering of rabbis and educators in Jerusalem. All of the 130 or so people in the room raised their hands. 

The rabbi says she is inspired by the sanctuary movement in the United States and by the memory of how Dutch people protect Jews. “Anne Frank is the most well-known hidden person, and she was hidden so she would not be sent to her death – and we have documentation that these people are facing possible death,” says Silverman. 

Holocaust survivors have joined the movement, with 36 signing an open letter appealing to the authorities.

Of the thousands of refugees who have asked for asylum, just seven Eritreans and one Sudanese have been granted this official protection. The rest are labelled “infiltrators”, destined for expulsion.  

The authorities plan to deport at least 600 Eritreans and Sudanese a month. Despite the vocal opposition, the majority of the Israeli public backs the plan. Asked if they support the government’s decision, 56 per cent of respondents said yes, 32 per cent said no and 12 per cent said they did not know. According to The Times of Israelthe move to deport Eritreans and Sudanese is supported by many residents of Tel Aviv.

The African states that are supposed to receive the refugees appear less than willing to do so. Both Uganda and Rwanda say they will not take anyone forcibly deported, and deny they have signed agreements to co-operate with such a programme. But if public attention fades, and the Israeli government offers a sufficiently seductive package of arms and aid, it is not inconceivable that the airlifts will go ahead.

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