The photograph showed four young Eritrean men in the departure terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport. Dressed sharply in jeans and T-shirts, they looked playful and relaxed, hugging each other shoulder to shoulder. They were waiting to board a flight bound for Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Having spent the last several months confined to an Israeli detention center, their relief at what had been promised to them in the East African nation—housing and employment and, above all, a path to refugee status—was evident on their faces.
When Saimon Fisaha pointed to his younger, smiling visage in the photograph three and a half years later, he had long since relinquished the optimism of that morning. It was mid-February, and we were sitting in a hotel restaurant off Alexanderplatz, in central Berlin, as the gentle-mannered 27-year-old explained that he and his friends were among the first to be expelled from Israel under a secret program to rid the country of its African asylum-seekers. Some of the story I knew already: Two weeks earlier, his testimony had appeared in a widely publicized study based on interviews with him and 18 other Eritrean deportees. The starkly titled report, “Better a Prison in Israel Than Dying on the Way,” which was co-authored by three Israeli migration researchers, documented a collection of harrowing yet remarkably similar journeys. All of the refugees had been “voluntarily” relocated from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda between 2014 and 2016; all, somewhat miraculously, had survived the tribulations that followed and were able to make their way to Europe, where the majority were subsequently granted asylum. Though Israeli authorities denied wrongdoing, other investigations have revealed that as many as 4,000 Eritreans and Sudanese were deported into the same perilous conditions.
In retrospect, Fisaha told me, the promises made by the Israeli government were far-fetched, a “fantasy,” in his words. But at the time he had no reason to doubt their truth. I asked Fisaha what happened to his three companions. He wasn’t sure. He’d heard recently that the acquaintance who took the photograph was now dead.
One of the report’s authors, a Berlin-based Israeli researcher named Liat Bolzman, had introduced me to Fisaha and agreed to accompany us as a translator. Fisaha spoke little English but was fluent in Hebrew. His rapport with Bolzman, which I noticed during our time together, evinced his complicated feelings about the nation that had rejected him. While his time in Israel had been defined by fear and insecurity, with the government’s xenophobic rhetoric frequently echoed by ordinary citizens, Fisaha had also developed close friendships with neighbors and co-workers, Israeli and foreign-born alike.
Germany was a different experience. Sent by the government to live in Dresden, Fisaha spent long stretches of time alone in his tiny apartment, reading and trying to become competent in the language of his new country. He prayed daily that the situation in Eritrea, considered by human rights groups to be one of the world’s cruelest dictatorships, would somehow improve, making it safe to return to his mother and siblings. “It’s very difficult, being a refugee on your own, in a strange place,” he told us.
Fisaha had been living in Israel for six years when he was unexpectedly summoned to Holot, a migrant detention center deep in the Negev Desert, in early 2014. Instead of allowing the tens of thousands of men and women seeking refuge in the country to apply for asylum, per international law, Israel had implemented a controversial policy of “delay of removal” for Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, which required them to renew residency permits on a monthly, and in some cases even weekly, basis. Although this policy, intended to pressure the Africans to seek refuge elsewhere, prohibited them from working, businesses were rarely fined for hiring them. But their precarious status made them highly vulnerable to labor exploitation. When he arrived in Israel the only work Fisaha could find was a street-cleaning job that paid far below minimum wage.
Showing up to the Ministry of Interior one afternoon to renew his permit, Fisaha was informed that he’d been ordered to move to the detention center. Within weeks of his arrival at the facility, a guard approached him and several other Eritrean detainees with an offer. Speaking in Tigrinya, their native language, he explained that Israel, unfortunately, would never allow them to stay, but that two African nations—Rwanda for Eritreans and Uganda for the Sudanese—had agreed to take them in. They would receive $3,500, one-way airfare, and, in the destination country, the freedom to work and apply for asylum. Or else they’d remain locked away.
Three days later, Fisaha was on a plane. Before taking off—right around the time the photo with his friends was taken—an agent with the Israel Population, Immigration, and Border Authority had given him the money and documentation, which he said would allow them “full rights and benefits” where they were going. He was unable, or unwilling, to tell them more than that. Any questions, he assured them, would be answered by his Rwandan counterparts.
There were ten of them on the flight. After landing at the Kigali airport, they began to join the other passengers in the immigration line when a friendly, important-looking man pulled them aside. He identified himself as a government official. “He was expecting us,” Fisaha said. “He welcomed us to Rwanda, and then he told us to hand over our papers.”
Flashing his ID, the man led them past the immigration counter—nobody stopped them, nothing was stamped—and into the baggage claim area, where a driver was waiting. Later that evening, at a gated house watched over by armed guards, the reality of the situation sank in. Their host’s demeanor was no longer affable: When Fisaha inquired about the asylum process, his terse response was that it would be “impossible” for them to receive protection in Rwanda. And he refused to return their documents. “Without papers, the police will think that you’re here illegally,” Fisaha recalled him saying. “It will be very bad for you.” But for a fee of a few hundred dollars each, he added, he could get them out of the country.
Fisaha and the others had been funneled into the world of human trafficking—first to Uganda, then to South Sudan, Sudan, and Libya. Every point along the route entailed its own particular harms: beatings and imprisonment, theft and extortion, extreme hunger and dehydration, the threat of deportation back to Eritrea. Before long, Fisaha was separated from his friends and forced to continue the months-long journey alone, passed from one smuggler to the next. In the Sahara Desert, he was severely injured after falling off an old Toyota truck he had been crammed into; if not for the intervention of another migrant, the driver would have left him for dead. In Libya, he was held captive for two months in a crowded warehouse with no electricity. He witnessed men and women sold into slavery; rape and torture, he said, were common occurrences. And finally, with the last of his money, he made the fateful passage to Europe.
He was lucky—his raft, packed with 300 people, was rescued after becoming stranded—but others were less fortunate. Among the more than 11,000 migrants who died attempting to cross the Mediterranean between 2014 and 2017, one was the wife of another Eritrean friend deported from Israel. Smugglers loaded the couple onto different boats. His made it; hers sank. She was two months pregnant with their first child.
As Fisaha brought his story to a close, he marveled, there in the hotel restaurant, at the relative ease with which he had been granted asylum in Germany and told us how relieved he felt to no longer be regarded—at least officially—as an unwelcome presence. After fleeing Eritrea as barely more than a teenager, the entirety of his adult life had been spent running from, or being pushed out of, one hoped-for safe haven after another. Now, at last, he could start thinking about the future. Even so, he was deeply scarred by what he’d seen and gone through—and he was haunted by the knowledge that many friends and fellow refugees still in Israel could soon be forced to embark on the same nightmarish journey.
Looking down at an untouched cup of tea, he spoke softly in Hebrew. I turned to Bolzman for the translation. “He says it’s hard to think about these things. He would like to forget them.”
A few days after meeting with Fisaha, I visited the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan (“Tranquil Oasis”). For decades, its densely populated blocks of overcrowded tenement buildings, abandoned storefronts, and trash-strewn sidewalks were home primarily to Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent, Israel’s socially and economically marginalized underclass. But starting in 2006, others—African, non-Jewish others—began arriving, and this neglected corner of the city had become the epicenter of a bitter national fight over the fate of Israel’s African refugee population, and for many, the future of the Jewish state.
When the first African asylum-seekers crossed into Israel in the mid-2000s, squeezing themselves through narrow openings in the country’s low, rusty border fence with Egypt, they had little idea what to expect on the other side. The majority, like Fisaha, hailed from Eritrea, an isolated, authoritarian state wedged between Sudan and Ethiopia. These men and women had fled religious persecution, forced labor, and a military conscription program that, according to a United Nations commission, involves arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence, and myriad “slavery-like practices.” A smaller population came from Sudan, survivors of the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Darfur and other parts of the country.
At the time, the route to Europe had become newly treacherous: Under pressure from Italy, Muammar Qaddafi was engaged in a vicious crackdown on sub-Saharan Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean via Libya. Asylum-seekers were being jailed, abused, and deported. Another possible safe haven was found in Egypt, but it, too, proved forbidding: Thousands ran from Cairo after Egyptian security forces killed dozens of asylum-seekers in a massacre in 2005. Their last hope for sanctuary, it seemed, lay in Egypt’s neighbor across the Sinai.
In Israel, the initial response to the arrival of these men and women was one of tentative generosity. “The mercy we can give these broken people,” wrote Aliza Olmert, wife of then–Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, “is to quickly identify those who are eligible for refugee status and speed along their absorption in Israel.”
It gradually grew apparent, however, that the Olmert government had little interest in accommodating, much less “absorbing,” a non-Jewish refugee population. As the number of newcomers from Eritrea and Sudan multiplied in the following years, public opinion turned against them. The hostility was especially acute in Neve Sha’anan and other south Tel Aviv neighborhoods. Most of the arrivals, after being apprehended at the border, were simply given bus tickets to this already impoverished area. Many ended up homeless and resorted to squatting in a park across from the Central Bus Station. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing coalition returned to power in 2009, began referring to them as mistanenim (“infiltrators”) and argued that their presence in the country constituted an existential threat. “If we don’t stop the problem,” he remarked in 2012, “60,000 infiltrators are liable to become 600,000 and cause the negation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Thwarting the ability of asylum-seekers to step foot on Israeli soil became a top governmental priority. Among the legally dubious tactics employed was the practice of “hot returns,” where Israeli soldiers summarily expelled any Africans caught within 50 kilometers of the border. Israel also enlisted Egypt’s help in preventing them from getting even that far. It was not uncommon for Egyptian troops to open fire on Israel-bound refugees attempting the trek through the Sinai Desert. In several instances, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, people they captured were tortured or beaten to death—with Israel’s tacit approval.
Even these extreme methods, however, failed to stop the flow of refugees into Israel. So in 2010, a more durable solution was conceived: a $400 million steel fence outfitted with cameras and infrared sensors. The barrier, later praised by Donald Trump as an inspiration for his own “big, beautiful wall,” proved to be a decisive deterrent. In 2012, there were over 10,000 crossings from Egypt; the following year, after construction on the massive project was completed, there were just 36. Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s minister of justice and a member of the far-right Jewish Home party, said recently that without the fence, “We would be seeing here a kind of creeping conquest from Africa.”
Still, there remained the question of how to do away with the asylum-seekers already in the country. The government couldn’t simply put them on planes back to Eritrea and Sudan—that would be a flagrant violation of the principle of international law known as “non-refoulement,” or non-return, which forbids the removal of asylum-seekers to “a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom.” But there was also no intention of offering them long-term protection. Indeed, until 2013, the Israeli government barred the Africans from even filing asylum requests—and when, under pressure from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, it slowly started processing claims, applicants were rejected at an astounding rate. Of the 15,205 applications submitted to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority between 2013 and 2018, only eleven, or less than 0.01 percent, have been approved. In the European Union, by comparison, the recognition rate is 92.5 percent for Eritreans and 57 percent for Sudanese. Israel State Comptroller Joseph Shapira concluded in a 2018 report that the country’s asylum system “violated the obligation to act with decency” and that “deficiencies in the Population Authority’s handling of asylum requests can be interpreted as a failure by Israel to honor and implement the international commitments it took upon itself.”
In lieu of forcible deportations, the Netanyahu administration pursued a different tack. In 2012, Eli Yishai, the minister of the interior, bluntly articulated the government’s strategy: Israel, he said, would “make the lives of infiltrators miserable” until they decided to leave the country on their own. In addition to depriving them of basic social services, the Knesset passed a law that allowed Eritreans and Sudanese to be arbitrarily detained without charge or trial for up to three years. (The High Court of Justice later limited it to one year.) The law also stipulated that, even though the Africans were officially denied the right to work, 20 percent of their wages would be confiscated by the government and placed in a special escrow account, to be returned only after they exited the country.
A public incitement campaign ensued, serving to legitimize the state’s treatment of the refugees. In May 2012, after a string of violent attacks directed at the African community, including the firebombing of a daycare for refugee children, Miri Regev, at the time a member of the Knesset and currently Israel’s minister of culture, called the Africans “a cancer in our body.” (She later apologized for the comparison—to cancer patients.) Nativist, openly racist discourse proliferated in the media and at protest rallies. “Israel is at war,” Likud parliamentarian Danny Danon declared. “An enemy state of infiltrators was established in Israel, and its capital is south Tel Aviv.” Another lawmaker, Yulia Shamalov Berkovich, called for human rights advocates aiding asylum-seekers to be rounded up into detention camps.
Sibhat Petros, a Pentecostal pastor who had fled Eritrea for Israel in 2006 after being arrested for taking part in illegal religious activity—he was punished with more than two years’ imprisonment in a metal shipping container—described this new wave of anti-refugee aggression as particularly painful for his family. “We were extremely frightened,” he told me. “Nobody knew what would happen next.” He recounted one episode when a group of activists in south Tel Aviv surrounded him and his daughter outside her school. “They were shouting at us like we were thieves,” he said. “ ‘Get out of our country, we don’t want you here!’”
Since its founding in 1948, Israel’s relationship with international refugee law has been ambivalent at best. The country was among the first to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, an agreement motivated in large part by the collective failure, on the part of the Allied powers, to provide shelter from Nazi atrocities. Never would a nation of Holocaust survivors, it was insisted, be guilty of such moral dereliction. Thus Menachem Begin’s rationale, in 1977, for granting political asylum to 66 Vietnamese refugees rescued by an Israeli freighter in the South China Sea. “We have not forgotten the boat with 900 Jews,” he said, referring to the St. Louis, a ship whose Jewish passengers were refused permission to disembark in the United States and Canada after fleeing Germany just before the start of World War II. “They were nine months at sea, traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge.... Therefore it was natural that my first act as prime minister was to give those people a haven in the land of Israel.”
And yet a drive for ethnic and religious supremacy has led Israel, as a matter of official policy, to privilege Jewish lives above all others—often in direct conflict with the principles of human rights. This tension is by no means a recent phenomenon, or unique to the country’s treatment of asylum-seekers. It is written into the fabric of Israel’s formation as an avowedly Jewish state. As early as the 1930s, Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion had decided that expelling, or “transferring,” a sizable portion of Palestine’s large Arab minority was the only way to guarantee the Jewishness of their future nation, and the war of 1948—the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” as it has come to be known—became an opportunity to realize this objective. “The Arabs of the land of Israel,” Ben-Gurion said on October 21, 1948, “have only one function left to them, to run away.” So it was that in 1954—the same year Israel ratified the Refugee Convention—the nation passed its infamous Prevention of Infiltration Law criminalizing the return of some 700,000 Palestinian refugees to the homes they had been forced to abandon. This was coupled with the passage of the country’s only legislation, to this day, regulating immigration to Israel: the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews irrespective of origin.
It is against this backdrop of expulsion and dispossession that Israel’s increasingly ruthless treatment of the Eritreans and Sudanese has unfolded. In justifying its actions to an international audience, however, the Netanyahu government has been careful to advance a narrative in which Israel, like its peer nations in Europe and the United States, is merely trying to strike a prudent balance between benevolence toward others and the welfare of its citizenry. In a recent New York Times op-ed on the situation, Thomas Friedman parroted this line, observing that what is taking place in Israel is an “excruciating moral dilemma” pitting the World of Order, as he called it, against those endeavoring to escape the World of Disorder in search of “stability and a job.” “How,” Friedman asked, “can Israel turn them away? But how can Israel take them all, which will only invite more, and the supply is now endless?” Missing from such accounts is an acknowledgment of the actual number of people seeking refuge in Israel—the equivalent of less than half a percent of the country’s total population, with the border fence precluding more from coming in—and the extraordinary lengths to which the nation has gone to get rid of them.
In January 2018, Netanyahu unveiled a plan to solve the African refugee problem once and for all. He and his entourage had just visited, for the first time in years, the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. Notwithstanding his government’s role in encouraging the concentration of asylum-seekers in the area, Netanyahu presented himself as a populist in touch with the “pain and crisis,” as he put it, of Israeli citizens compelled to live in close proximity to these people. He noted that of the 60,000 infiltrators who entered Israel before the fence was built, “about 20,000” had subsequently left of their own accord. (That this number included thousands of refugees such as Fisaha, who had been covertly deported under false pretenses, was only gradually coming to public awareness.) Now the mission, he said, was to remove the others. Signs started popping up throughout Neve Sha’anan: SOUTH TEL AVIV’S REHABILITATION BEGINS WITH DEPORTATION.
Netanyahu’s ultimatum to asylum-seekers was straightforward. “The government approved a plan,” he announced on January 3, “that will give every infiltrator two options: a flight ticket out or jail.” They would be given three months to depart Israel for an unnamed country in Africa. They would receive a one-way plane ticket, $3,500 in cash, and whatever money had been confiscated from their monthly wages. Anyone who remained would be subject to indefinite incarceration at Saharonim, a maximum-security prison in the Negev Desert, not far from the Holot detention center. Young, unmarried males would be the first to go—the government set itself a quota of removing 600 a month—followed by women and older men and the approximately 5,000 children who had been born in Israel. Deportations would commence in April, at the start of the Passover holiday.
It quickly became apparent that this campaign of “increased removal,” as Netanyahu dubbed it, was shrouded in opacity. Confident pronouncements from one government representative would, the next day, be contradicted by another; some officials—such as top Israel Prison Service administrators, who let slip that there weren’t enough jail cells to hold all the asylum-seekers—seemed to undermine the plan in their efforts to clarify it.
The most pressing question, however, had to do with the unnamed countries to which these men and women would be sent. While Netanyahu claimed to have secured agreements with two African nations to take in the deported refugees, at a price of $5,000 per person, he and other Cabinet members declined to identify these countries—to do so, they said, could “cause harm to the State of Israel’s foreign policy.” (Why this would be the case was itself a secret.) Further complicating matters, in the wake of the program’s rollout, was the fact that Rwanda and Uganda—widely reported to be the destination countries—were engaged in an almost farcical attempt to deflect scrutiny of their participation in the plan. Within the span of roughly six weeks, from early January to mid-February, leaders from both countries alternated between qualified acknowledgments of the agreement, vague assertions that negotiations with Israel were still ongoing, and indignant denials that they had agreed to anything at all. “That’s fake news,” Uganda’s minister of state for foreign affairs told the Associated Press.
These inconsistencies did nothing to hinder Israel’s expulsion preparations. At the end of January, the Interior Ministry put out a public call for at least a hundred “civilian inspectors” to assist officials in locating and deporting asylum-seekers. Those with combat or security experience, the notice added, were especially preferred. Around the same time, brightly colored leaflets announcing a SPECIAL TRACK FOR VOLUNTARY DEPARTURE FROM ISRAEL OF INFILTRATORS began appearing outside African-frequented food stands, secondhand shops, churches, and daycare centers. They offered an abridged version of the deportation notices that were in the process of being distributed to men attempting to renew their residency permits:
We wish to inform you that the State of Israel has signed agreements that allow you to leave Israel for a safe third country ... that in the past decade has developed tremendously and that receives thousands of returning residents and immigrants from various African countries. In recent years it has been showing some of the highest economic growth figures in Africa, thanks to exports to Europe and the United States, as well as to the flourishing tourism industry. The country enjoys stability in its regime, which has contributed to developments in many fields, including education, medicine, and infrastructure.
They concluded with a warning that “enforcement and relocation proceedings” would result from failure to comply.
Opposition to the deportation scheme quickly emerged. Throughout the country, posters emblazoned with Leviticus 19:34—THE STRANGER WHO RESIDES AMONG YOU SHALL BE TO YOU AS ONE OF YOUR CITIZENS; YOU SHALL LOVE HIM AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF, FOR YOU WERE STRANGERS IN THE LAND OF EGYPT—could be spotted in the windows of cafés and clothing stores and night clubs. Amnesty International called the program “a cruel and misguided abandonment of responsibility” and “an example of the vicious political measures feeding the global refugee crisis.” Rabbi Michael Lezak of T’ruah, a human rights group, argued that “Israel’s failure to follow the Jewish imperative to protect and care for the gerim—the landless sojourners who seek refuge among us—is a far greater threat to the Jewish character of the state than is the community of African asylum-seekers.”
Dozens of Holocaust survivors published an open letter imploring the Netanyahu administration to jettison its plan. “We, who know precisely what it’s like to be refugees, to be homeless and bereft of a state that preserves and protects us from violence,” they wrote, “cannot comprehend how a Jewish government can expel refugees and asylum seekers to a journey of suffering, torment, and death.” Rabbi Susan Silverman, a well-known liberal activist, helped establish Miklat Israel, an Anne Frank–inspired campaign to hide asylum-seekers in the homes of Israeli citizens. More than 2,000 families soon signed up to offer sanctuary to those at risk. In a lengthy memo to the nation’s attorney general, 25 Israeli legal experts concluded that the mass expulsion was “utterly improper in light of human rights law and the general principles of international law.”
The government defended its plan in a set of talking points circulated to Jewish communities around the world. Yaron Gamburg, Israel’s minister for public diplomacy, in a letter sent to a group of rabbis in the United States, politely explained that, contrary to “misinformation,” those slated to be deported were not refugees but merely migrants who had entered Israel illegally in pursuit of jobs. He was at pains to emphasize that the safety and well-being of deportees would be ensured—a crucial detail, since the legality (and for many people, the morality) of the deportations hinged on what would happen to these men and women once they left Israel. Not only would the migrants be safe, Gamburg insisted, but the receiving countries had also pledged to provide them with “permits that allow them to work and open businesses.” The letter was clear: In addition to being perfectly legal, the relocation program affirmed the highest standards of decency.
In February, as the deportation notices continued to be handed out, Netanyahu and other officials still maintained that the third-party countries were entirely “safe and neutral.” Anchors on Channel 20, Israel’s equivalent of Fox News, extolled Rwanda’s stability and prosperity, accompanied by images of Kigali’s richest enclaves, with their sprawling mansions and immaculately tended lawns. Pundits noted that Uganda, for its part, was already home to over a million refugees from across the continent—surely an additional few thousand could be taken in? The infiltrators would be fine, they said; anyone claiming otherwise was simply lying.
Meanwhile, evidence kept accumulating showing that what Fisaha and his friends experienced in Rwanda had not been anomalous: It was the norm. And new research from Amnesty International revealed that Sudanese deportees faced nearly identical scenarios after arriving in Uganda. There were no work permits, no visas, no refugee status—and no real attempt by Israeli officials to monitor the conditions into which they were off-loading these men and women. “The process,” wrote Andrew Green in Foreign Policy, “appears designed not just to discard unwanted refugees, but to shield the Israeli, Rwandan, and Ugandan governments from any political or legal accountability.”
In early February, Knesset members Mossi Raz and Michal Rozin, both of the left-leaning Meretz party, traveled to Rwanda and Uganda in an effort to ascertain whether Israel would be violating the prohibition on non-refoulement by sending its asylum-seekers to these nations. “Prior to our trip, we were critical of the deportation program,” Rozin told me shortly after they returned to Israel. “But my God, we were completely shocked by what we heard during our time there. In our meetings with NGOs and human rights groups, we kept looking at each other in disbelief.” They not only found that the allegations about what had been taking place since 2014 were accurate, but that these circumstances would, by all indications, be no different going forward. The assurances offered to the Eritreans and Sudanese—as well as to the Israeli public—seemed to be conjured out of thin air.
Although authorities in Kigali and Kampala refused to speak with the visiting lawmakers (“Rwanda will not be a playground for internal Israeli politics,” said the country’s foreign affairs minister, Olivier Nduhungirehe), the two governments did, astonishingly, issue denials on social media that even a single deported migrant from Israel—to say nothing of 4,000 of them—had ever landed in their respective countries. How a years-long pattern of extortion and coercion—the bypassing of immigration, the confiscated identity papers, the forced smuggling across the border—could have persisted without official sanction was a mystery that went unsolved. Much clearer to Rozin, as she left East Africa, was that Israel was committing a grave injustice, and that putting a stop to it would require “shaming the ruling government into changing its mind.”
But time was short. A month earlier, the government had notified 200 Eritrean men that they had 30 days to make a decision about their relocation, and on February 21, seven members of this group were sent to Saharonim prison after rejecting the offer. There was no explanation given for why these men, in particular, had been picked out for incarceration. As a young mother at the Eritrean Women’s Community Center, a refugee-run initiative in south Tel Aviv, put it to me, the randomness was itself “a weapon used to break our spirits.”
That two of the imprisoned men were documented survivors of torture—a segment of the community that, according to the Population and Immigration Authority’s own policy, was supposed to be exempt from deportation—confirmed to many the vindictive, capricious nature of the government’s campaign. Desperate, the remaining 750 residents at Holot, where the men had been transferred from, embarked on a hunger strike. “We don’t want to eat at all.... Not one person is eating,” said Abdat, a Holot detainee, in an interview with Haaretz. “They tell us, ‘It’s a pity to throw the food away.’ We say lives are also being thrown away.”
We are not criminals! We are refugees!” The chants could be heard as soon as the bus door opened. It was the morning after the hunger strike began, and I had joined a dozen Israeli and Eritrean activists on a visit to Holot. In front of me was a huge encampment surrounded by razor wire. The first thing that caught my eye, after adjusting to the sunlight, was a sand-beaten white building near the entrance, on which somebody had scrawled, in jagged letters, U.N. WE NEED FREEDOM. Holot was an “open facility,” which meant detainees were allowed to leave the enclosure during the day. But a rule requiring them to attend roll calls in the morning and evening, and to sleep at the locked compound, prevented them from going far. Today, the men housed there were marching, in two straight, elongated columns, on the dirt road leading from the detention center to Saharonim prison. In spite of the heat, many of them wore sweaters and nylon jackets. They held their hands above their heads, chanting as they walked.
With Israeli guards looking on impassively from gun towers, the asylum-seekers assembled in a loose semicircle facing the prison. “Our brothers are in there,” said Afwerki Teame, an Eritrean man who had traveled with me to Holot for the demonstration. Teame had been incarcerated in Saharonim after entering Israel in 2008, and later had spent a year at Holot. “Maybe they can hear us.”
A handful of local TV stations had sent camera crews, and they provided the detainees with the audience they were hoping for. Posterboards with blown-up photos of men’s faces—those who had died or disappeared after being deported—bobbed over the gathering. Teame and I spoke to men whom he knew, and each one said the same thing: Detention or deportation was not a choice—but, if forced to choose, they would take prison over whatever it was that awaited them out there.
On the edge of the crowd, standing by themselves, I noticed two women, one of them barefoot with a long, gray ponytail and the other—her daughter, I learned—wearing faded jeans and a tank top. They lived in a town nearby and frequently visited Holot, bringing the men books and food. I asked them what they thought of the deportations. The treatment of the asylum-seekers was a “disgrace,” the mother told me, a betrayal of the very Jewishness (“and I’m not religious,” she said) that Israel was supposed to stand for. “How can we, of all people,” she said angrily, “be so blind to the pain of others? How can we wash our hands of them?”
For her, as for many activists, these questions had become a proxy for a deeper, more vexing question about what it meant to be a Jewish state and the values that would be upheld—or jettisoned—in pursuit of it.
As the truth about Israel’s deportation program came to light, opposition to the government’s plan gained momentum. One Saturday in late February, as the sun went down, more than 20,000 protesters descended on Neve Sha’anan for a massive anti-deportation rally. The location was significant: This was the first such demonstration held in the neighborhood where the asylum-seekers themselves lived. Organized by local Israeli groups sympathetic to their struggle, it provided a striking corrective to the us-versus-them narrative favored by media accounts of the area. People streamed in from Jerusalem and Haifa, Beersheba and Petah Tikva. Giant banners reading WE WERE ALL REFUGEES and NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL hung from apartment balconies. On the stage, a famous Israeli musician sang “A Change is Gonna Come.” An Eritrean woman gave a moving speech, in Hebrew, that brought the audience to tears.
I observed most of this from a distance. The bulk of my evening was spent with a group of 150 or so counter-protesters a block away. According to recent polls, they represented the majority of Israeli citizens, two-thirds of whom wanted the Africans gone. Barricades separated them from the bigger demonstration, and heavily armed police ensured that the two constituencies had limited contact. Nevertheless, any perceived adversaries wandering into the vicinity—especially dark-skinned ones—were subjected to booming taunts from Israeli flag–covered bullhorns.
I was there with Haim Goren, an Orthodox schoolteacher and outspoken proponent of the deportations. I’d been told that he was a serious but likable person, and not given to violent theatrics like a number of his activist peers. (At least two of them would be arrested that night.) The 36-year-old had arrived walking alongside his bicycle; soft-spoken with a youthful energy, he was easy to picture in the classroom. We made small talk, eyeing the counter-protesters. Soon one of them joined us, and then another, and then several more.
Goren introduced me as a journalist from the United States, and because I was the sole reporter in the area—the media outlets were covering the main event—they were eager to share their thoughts. Their anger was aimed not only at the Africans but at what they characterized as the sheltered, elitist outsiders defending them. A retired couple, Ruth and Rafael Jacoby, asked for my contact information, and in the morning, I received an email with a detailed document they had written. Its title: “The list of lies and deceptions of the NGOs who fight to keep the infiltrators in Israel.”
After several minutes of this, Goren pulled me aside and asked if he could give me a quick tour of the neighborhood. He wanted to show me why he supported the expulsion plan. He pointed as we walked: The decaying infrastructure, the run-down buildings, were an argument for “what needs to be done,” as he put it. “These ‘friends of the refugees,’ ” he said derisively, waving in the direction of the demonstration, “where were they all these years? We’ve become the refugees here. We’re the minority.” He suggested, contrary to all evidence, that the neighborhood was flourishing before the Eritreans and Sudanese arrived. “Now the Jewish people are surrounded—now there are foreigners everywhere, strangers. The Jewish people are alone.”
We stopped outside a low cinder-block building painted blue: a kindergarten. With the influx of African children, Jewish parents—those who could afford it—had moved their kids to other schools. And with them, Goren explained, went Jewish education, Jewish customs. “If we allow these people to stay, it will destroy our country, our Jewish state, from the inside.” This, for him, was the crux of the matter. He acknowledged that, whatever the politicians were saying, it wasn’t about a loss of jobs; the country regularly brought in tens of thousands of foreign workers from Thailand, the Philippines, and other countries. And it wasn’t about a flood of additional migrants. It was about safeguarding a Jewish identity, a Jewish homeland. But shouldn’t Jews, I asked, articulating a common point, be especially sensitive to injustice, considering what they’ve been through? Was there not a perverse irony in Germany accepting refugees rejected by Israel?
He didn’t find it ironic at all. “Let Germany have them,” he said. “It’s because of Europe that we needed a Jewish state.” He added: “And we remember what happens when we don’t have our own country.” A cultural and demographic majority, he believed, needed to be preserved at any cost. “They’re always telling us”—again he gestured to the demonstration—“that our history should lead us to open our borders. I think this history should teach us to protect ourselves.”
By mid-March, Israeli authorities had jailed hundreds of additional asylum-seekers and showed no sign of reconsidering their course of action. They appeared immune to censure, suggesting that the growing denunciations of the plan—criticism from the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus; a letter from five self-described ardent Zionists, including Alan Dershowitz, arguing that the deportations would cause “incalculable damage” to Israel’s image—were merely attempts to undermine the nation’s sovereignty. Refugee advocates staged protests at Rwandan embassies around the world and petitioned the Israeli courts to halt the expulsion program on legal grounds. But the asylum-seekers had little confidence that these efforts would achieve their desired aim. They prepared for the worst.
Then, on the morning of April 2, came news of an astounding breakthrough. Seemingly out of nowhere, Netanyahu announced that he had reached an unprecedented deal—“the best possible deal”—with the UNHCR. The refugee agency would resettle half of Israel’s asylum-seekers in Western countries like Canada and Germany, and the other half would be given residency in Israel. Not only that: They would be given work permits and access to vocational training, and there would be a major initiative to develop the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv and more evenly distribute the asylum-seeker population throughout the country.
At a press conference, Netanyahu blamed Rwanda (he’d never before named the country publicly) for failing to “withstand the pressure,” but whatever the impetus for the turnaround, it didn’t matter. The deportation plan was canceled. In his remarks, Netanyahu used a new term to refer to the Eritreans and Sudanese. Gone were the incendiary epithets: They were now “protected populations.” I messaged Sigal Rozen, the founder and public policy director at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a Tel Aviv–based human rights organization, to get her reaction. Is this real? I asked. After two decades of fighting the government on this issue, she was not prone to premature optimism. “AMAZING!!!!!!” she replied.
Those worried about Israel’s global reputation praised the agreement, which arrived immediately on the heels of Israeli snipers killing 18 unarmed Palestinian protesters at the security fence with Gaza. Here, finally, was a rejoinder to Israel’s critics, a reason to reassert the nation’s humanitarian commitments. Shortly after the announcement, Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote on Twitter: “Credit to Prime Minister Netanyahu for doing the right thing—legally, morally, and for Israel’s international standing—by canceling the plan to expel African asylum-seekers.”
The celebrations were short-lived. As the day went on, Netanyahu’s coalition partners railed against his decision, claiming that he hadn’t consulted with them. Ridding Israel of half of its refugees was not enough. They wanted them all gone. Education Minister Naftali Bennett argued that the UNHCR deal would turn Israel into a “heaven for infiltrators.” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely agreed. “We will not reward migrant workers with the title of ‘refugees.’ ” The public, insisted a senior Likud party member, had been misled by “extreme left-wing organizations,” and now Israel would be forced to bear the consequences of these deceptions.
And so, roughly three hours after his initial announcement on live television, Netanyahu took to Facebook. He said he was attentive to hesitations about the deal and was going to “reexamine” it. The next morning—in what Haaretz called a “cowardly and cynical reversal”—he reneged on the agreement.
In the chaotic aftermath of these developments, it was uncertain how the government would proceed. With Rwanda no longer a willing partner, the Israeli government dispatched an envoy to Uganda in an effort to secure an alternative destination. The original arrangement would have seen the majority of asylum-seekers relocated to Rwanda; only a small number would have gone to Uganda. Now, evidently, Israeli officials hoped to send all of them to the latter. But Uganda refused. If anyone deported from Israel arrived there, said Henry Okello Oryem, the country’s foreign affairs minister, “we will insist that the airlines return them to the country where they came from. We do not have a contract, any understanding, formal or informal, with Israel for them to dump their refugees here.” Like his Rwandan colleagues, he made no mention of those individuals who had already been discarded in Uganda over the previous four years, or what his government had received in return for its past cooperation.
The asylum-seekers I spoke with greeted all this with the drained detachment of men and women accustomed to having their fates controlled—“played with,” as Teame put it—by spiteful politicians. By the end of April, everything was back to where it started. The Israeli High Court demanded that, in light of the apparent collapse of the deportation plan, the men being held at Saharonim prison be released. Deportation notices could no longer be distributed. But the Netanyahu government, far from conciliatory, indicated that its resolve was as firm as ever. It announced that the detention facilities, including Holot (which had been closed in mid-March), would immediately be reopened, and that they would begin to draft legislation which, going forward, would allow them to circumvent the High Court—considered by many advocates to be the last remaining bulwark against the illegal and inhumane treatment of the African community.
“Despite the growing legal and international limitations,” read a statement from the prime minister’s office, “we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all possibilities at our disposal to remove the infiltrators.”