Israel – the "state of the refugees" whose culture has been shaped, for better and worse, by migration – is now turning on the migrants and refugees who seek a safe haven within its borders.
The Knesset decided to resume work on a bill, tellingly titled the Infiltrators Law (pdf), which aims to reorganise Israel's confused and haphazard dealings with the refugees from Darfur, South Sudan, Congo and Eritrea who manage to reach its Egyptian border. It brands all those who cross this border other than through designated terminals as "infiltrators", and instructs soldiers who find them to quickly determine if they can be handed back immediately to the Egyptian troops.
In the case of asylum seekers (who cannot be summarily returned), the bill proceeds to set forth their punishments, since "we believe that anyone crossing illegally into a country does so with ill intent". Anyone who is a citizen of an enemy state or territory (such as Sudan and Gaza) can be sentenced to seven years in prison; anyone carrying a weapon, which "includes knives" (ever tried walking across 120 miles of desert without a knife?), or anyone accompanying a person carrying a weapon (such as a family guided by an armed smuggler), can get up to 20 years. The bill passed its first reading in March last year and the latest decision means it can pass the rest of Israel's legislative process within weeks.
Bur the draft law goes further. The 17,000 asylum seekers who did manage to enter Israel in the last nine years are supported by a network of selfless Israelis. From the Workers Hotline that tries to provide them with jobs, through Assaf, which provides them with legal aid and caters to their basic needs, all the way to inspired individuals who assist the refugees on the ground, there is work here reminiscent of the slave-trade era's Underground Railroad. And there is a corresponding memento in clause five of the bill:He who assists one who transgresses against this law, by easing the act of infiltration or by easing the infiltrator's illegal stay in the state, shall be punished exactly as the perpetrator of the actual offence.
Neither the draft nor its accompanying notes elaborate as to what "assistance" means. The vague and generic phrasing of this clause makes it possible to prosecute the NGOs and volunteers that assist refugees, employers who engage them and volunteer physicians who treat them. In fact, anyone offering a parched refugee a drink of water or a ride can get up to 20 years.
The draft also expands the authority of police, granting new arrest powers to regular soldiers "if they have reasonable grounds to suspect a person had recently infiltrated Israel", and granting soldiers and police the powers "to enter at any reasonable time to any locality, excepting living quarters, if they suspect a person defined as infiltrator is to be found within said locality, and carry out inspections".
In other words, any policeman or soldier could enter, without a warrant, almost any place, if they believed that an "infiltrator" is to be found there. The exclusion of living quarters still leaves schools, clinics, hospitals, and, importantly, NGO offices, vulnerable to such searches, and another clause notes the searchers may use "reasonable force against persons or property" if resisted.
The latest legislative feat of Israel, which never misses an opportunity to remind western countries of how they failed to take in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, is repugnant. But this bill is only one of a series of measures Israel is taking against its non-Jewish residents.
In August, Israel plans to force a mass exodus of most of the 250,000 migrant workers, and to replace them with fresh labour. Israel is operating by the twin codes of pragmatic xenophobia and practical double standards. Foreigners are allowed to work at the lowest end of the market, but not to strike roots, raise families and integrate; the Jewish refugees of 70 years ago are a great stick to beat the west with, but heaven forbid we show compassion to present-day, non-Jewish refugees, lest our precious demographic balance is disrupted.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Israel and Refugees
Israel has in the past berated other countries for historically failing to help Jewish refugees . It is now cracking down on asylum seekers and refugees seeking protection within their borders. The Guardian reports: