The "Infiltrators"—Israel's Unwanted Asylum Seekers

Gershom Gorenberg

They simply left.

As soon as they got the chance, the refugees from Darfur and other parts of Sudan and from Eritrea walked out of the guarded camp in the Negev desert and marched north in bitter winter weather toward Jerusalem. There they stood Tuesday afternoon, on an icy sidewalk facing the Knesset, holding up brown cardboard signs with handwritten slogans, chanting in eerily subdued voices halfway between determination and desperation, until they were arrested, manhandled onto buses and sent back to the desert.

This is the condensed version of the refugees' dramatic three-day protest this week. It is also a condensed version of their lives: They are people—young men, almost all—who made the dangerous decision to leave their countries because staying was even more dangerous. They headed north into Egypt, then crossed the Sinai desert into Israel, hoping for freedom and safety, and were imprisoned as "infiltrators." But the end of the protest this week is not the end of story. The battle continues—not just between the refugees and immigration authorities, but also between Israeli human rights advocates and a government with contempt for constitutional restraints.

Between 2006 and 2012, over 60,000 people crossed the border from the Sinai into Israel. Almost all had fled from the genocidal war in Darfur, or from elsewhere in Sudan, or from Eritrea, whose totalitarian regime rivals North Korea in cruelty. Early on, a petition signed by a majority of Knesset members, citing "the Jewish people's history," pushed Ehud Olmert's government to promise citizenship to 500 Darfuris. Afterward, the number of people crossing the Sinai desert rose, and the political tide shifted. Successive governments have steadfastly mislabeled the Sudanese and Eritreans as illegal immigrants coming for jobs. The Interior Ministry has evaded checking whether they qualify for asylum under the 1951 international convention on refugees that Israel and Jewish organizations helped write. A handful of politicians have followed the vicious example of the European far right, trying to build their careers by fanning tensions between refugees and working-class Israelis. Israel is painfully normal in this regard: In Western countries, obligations to the refugees are often overwhelmed by fear of hordes crossing open borders. For an Israeli—let me be specific, for this Israeli—what matters is that the obtuse politicians and the rabble-rousers are our own, and what stands out is the particular fury of their opponents, fury fueled by Jews' memory of being refugees without refuge.

In January 2012, the Knesset passed a draconian government-backed law, under which "infiltrators" (read: refugees) crossing the border could be detained for three years without trial in a camp (read: prison) in southern Israel. In an act of collective cowardice, most members of parliament skipped the vote. The law was explicitly meant to deter more refugees from coming. Ironically, fewer were arriving anyway, since the Sinai Bedouin who had been smuggling refugees had switched to holding them, torturing them, and demanding ransom from their families. This September, in a suit brought by rights groups, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the law, ruling that it violated the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, keystone of Israel's incomplete constitution. For practical purposes, the ruling meant that the government had 90 days to free 2,000 people in the Saharonim prison.

Instead, last week, just before the deadline, the Knesset passed a new law, supposedly but not actually softer than the previous one. In doing so, it ignored its own legal adviser's warning that the new legislation was also unconstitutional. It states that "infiltrators" can be held for one year in the closed camp—but indefinitely in a new "open" camp nearby. The new camp, like the old, is run by the Prison Service. During the day, the inmates can leave—as long as they're present in the camp for roll call thrice daily. The idea is to have a prison and open it too—to keep asylum-seekers caged while convincing Supreme Court justices that they're free.

By last weekend 500 people who'd been waiting to be released from the old camp found themselves in the new one. On Sunday, after the gates opened, 150 asylum-seekers walked out and marched on the roadside toward Beersheba. Most were Darfuris. Monday night, with the help of Israeli activists, they slept at a kibbutz on the way to Jerusalem, and continued by bus to the Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. This was no small miracle in itself: For several days the roads up to the capital had been closed on and off by the worst snow storm in recent memory, in a country where half an inch of snow in the hills is a major event and a reason to shut schools.

The marchers and other asylum-seekers from Tel Aviv and Israeli supporters gathered before the Prime Minister's Office. After a few people spoke into a bullhorn, everyone marched in a long line next to the snow banks past the Supreme Court to the Knesset, quieter than any demonstrators I remember, so that the crunch of sneakers on frozen snow was almost the only sound—that, and the squawks from the radios of the riot police and immigration cops and their commanders gathering on the far side of the street.

"If it looks like a prison, it's a prison," read one handwritten Hebrew placard. Another bore a verse from Leviticus: "When a stranger lives with you in your land, you shall not wrong him." A Darfuri had brought with him the laminated poster-sized list of rules, written in Arabic, from the camp. From his backpack, he took folded pieces of paper: Minutes of a hearing before an immigration official in April, ordering him held in Saharonim; a decision from last Friday that he be held in the new camp.

A man named Hassan from Darfur told me, "The Jews were refugees …There's no difference between us and them." That was why, he said, he expected that his rights as a refugee would be respected in Israel.

Hassan was echoing conversations I've had with Israeli pro-refugee activists: Eventually, their voices shift and they come to a family story or to lessons from the Holocaust. Along with legal principles, there will be something unspoken and utterly personal in the arguments when the suit to overturn the new law is heard before the Supreme Court: Don't our shared memories obligate us? This, I admit, is the part I hear most loudly: I think of my grandparents telling me of fleeing a pogrom in a Ukrainian village, now nearly a century ago.

In front of the Knesset, someone with a bullhorn led chants that become a litany: "Prison no, freedom now" and "We're not dangerous, we're in danger." Everyone knew that the day would end with arrests, and with the people who'd walked away being sent back to the closed camp as punishment, and with the battle continuing.

And so it was, and will be. But sometime in the afternoon, before the arrests, a Hebrew University student took the megaphone. "My grandmother was a refugee," she said over and over. "You are not alone. You are not alone."

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