USACBI unconditionally condemns Israel’s recent efforts to deport African refugees as a further violation of its commitments under international law. Since signing the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1954, Israel has only recognized some 200 refugees—an appalling record, and by far the lowest number of any industrialized nation. Over that period of time, it has absorbed millions of Jewish migrants under the Law of Return, while consistently denying civil and political rights to Palestinians, living under Occupation and apartheid and overseas, to foreign workers (140,000 were rounded up and expelled from 2003-2005), and now to refugees entitled to protection under international conventions.
Like the Palestinians and migrant workers before them, the 50,000 asylum seekers who fled the civil wars in Eritrea and Sudan have been labelled as “existential threats” to the state’s Jewish identity, and are increasingly targeted as “infiltrators” (mistanenim), the term originally used to describe Palestinians trying to return to their own homes after the Nakba. In common with the Palestinian refugees, whose right to return is recognized by the UN, the right of these African refugees to seek sanctuary from persecution is sanctioned by international agreements.
Over the years, the Netanyahu administration has tried a succession of policies aimed at expelling the refugees: a) Self-deportation–“we will make your lives so miserable you will leave voluntarily” b) Economic coercion—“we will keep a portion of your wages, to be reclaimed only on departing our country” c) Carceral threat—“we will give you $3500 (plus airfare) to leave or you will be imprisoned.” Most recently, Israeli citizens have been offered stipends ($8700) to act as vigilantes in rounding up potential deportees, and payments of $5,000 per head have been made to Uganda and Rwanda for taking them. Despite the promises of protection in these “third countries,” researchers have found that refugees are not welcomed there and are sent instead through North Africa on the perilous route toward Europe.
The guiding spirit behind these policies of expulsion is one of “population transfer,” long expressed in the efforts to force Palestinians off their land, and rooted in the fantasy of Zionist founder Theodore Herzl about “spirit[ing] the penniless population across the border.” Applied exclusively to non-Jewish populations, this practice is fundamental to Israel’s ethnocratic state and its laws. In recent years, many industrialized countries have turned their backs on refugees, implementing ever harsher border controls. In the case of Israel (by definition not “a nation of immigrants”) the historical pattern of exclusion is legally constitutive. A Jew who sets foot in Israel for the first time enjoys rights that cannot be accorded to its own Palestinian citizens, let alone their occupied brethren from the West Bank and Gaza.
We believe that the stepped-up Israeli policies of exclusion are a response, in part, to the permissions issued by the Trump administration to fast-track Zionist goals on multiple fronts; including land annexations and settlement expansion on the West Bank and the crackdown on BDS and internal dissent. Hardline U.S. policies regarding immigration and sanctuary, which USACBI has denounced, have no doubt emboldened the Israeli government, while Washington’s recent move to normalize Israel’s claim on occupied Jerusalem has opened up new opportunities to suppress Palestinian rights.
Several hundred Israeli academics have signed a petition of protest against the refugee deportations, and other professional and civil society groups have registered their dissent (including Israeli pilots, who have refused to fly planeloads of deportees). According to a letter from representatives of major Jewish organizations: “As a people who were once refugees, and were once strangers in a strange land, we believe we have a special obligation toward refugees, whatever their religion or race.” While these sentiments are praiseworthy, this “special obligation” has not been extended, historically, to Palestinian refugees, who have been waiting 80 years for justice. It is impossible, for example, to imagine a similar letter being issued to protest the Trump decision to defund UNRWA, the organization responsible for health and education in the Palestinian refugee camps.
USACBI calls for an equal opportunity approach to the treatment of refugees. Asylum-seekers deserve safe haven and a pathway to full political rights, but so do those who were forced off their ancestral lands in 1948 and 1967, and who are facing eviction today from their homes and villages.