Yesterday we visited Tel-Aviv, Israel’s internationally recognize capital. But instead of the Tel-Aviv of skyscrapers, the beach, or “Israel’s New York”, we saw only the area around the bus station. People talk about tourism which covers up the grittier parts of a city – well, I haven’t even seen a clean part of Tel-Aviv!
We congregated in Levinsky park, in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood. Some of our group had trouble finding it, because when they asked for directions to the park the locals assumed we were confused, we couldn’t mean this park. It’s not exactly touristy Tel-Aviv – Neve Sha’anan is a largely migrant and refugee neighborhood. It’s the only area of Israel I’ve been in where the composition of people could be confused for Toronto. In fact, it looks a lot like certain parts of Toronto, but with less economic activity.
Our local contact, Nick, met us in the Park and talked for about half an hour on the situation there and his work. He talked about Israel’s role in the history of international refugee law, and how that affects the plight of refugees in Israel today. In short, while Israel was highly active in encouraging countries to sign the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel did not actually bring the legislation home and pass it in its own legislature. The result is a state which compared to most democracies is quite unfriendly to refugees. But, in the context of the middle east, Israel is by far the most friendly country to refugees coming north from Africa – so despite their precarious status here, Israel is the beacon of hope for many migrating north from the Congo or Eritrea.
Eritrea is the major producer of refugees at present. According to Nick, it produces more refugees than any other country, at 2000 per year. (This is obviously contentious – since there are more than 2000 births in the Palestinian refugee population every year.) Refugees from Eritrea pay Bedouin smugglers significant amounts to take them across the Sinai into Israel, because if they get into Israel, and reach a point 50km north of the border, they will not be deported but will have their cases investigated and possibly granted a protected status. However, they will not be recognized as “refugees” since Israel has no legal definition of this, and they are not granted housing, food, work, and are not eligible for refugee resettlement programs because they are not technically classified as refugees.
The situation for Eritrean refugees travelling to Israel is quite bad, and can be horrific. It is not possible to cross the Sinai desert on foot, so they pay Bedouin smugglers to carry them to the border and across it. However, some of these Bedouin smugglers have taken to kidnapping the Eritreans, torturing them, and killing them if they are not given large sums of money by the Eritrean community already in Israel. The UK’s Channel 4 has reported on this situation if you’re interested in having nightmares for the rest of the week. The Egyptian/Israeli peace treaty makes the situation worse, since the Sinai’s demilitarized status makes a lawless place even more difficult to police.
Nick took us to the African Resource Development Centre, where we met with the head of the Eritrean committee, who was himself an Eritrean refugee. He was upset with Israel’s stance on the refugee situation, and specifically with the lack of education offered. He felt in a bind – on the one hand Jews in Israel complain that migrants (called “infiltrators” by the centre and right wing newspapers and politiciens) are ruining the Jewish character of Israel. But on the other hand, the refugees are not offered any education. More than 60% of these refugees do not know what a traffic light is, he said, so education would be a very good thing for Eritreans while they are in Israel to help preserve the Jewish character of the state. He had no interest in staying in Israel – his wish was to return to Eritrea. I wanted to ask him whether he felt any solidarity with Palestinian refugees, like the ones we had met in Kalandia, in their wish to return to their country – but I didn’t feel comfortable “politicizing” a tense situation. Of course, the fact that talking about Palestinians is “politicizing” shows how fucked things are around here.
After the ARDC, Nick took us to the shelter he works at, where refugees can be temporarily housed upon arrival in Israel. Unfortunately, we couldn’t meet with anyone there, so we just watched the documentary , which was interesting, but also repetitive of what had already been explained. What was most disconcerting about this story was seeing Bedouins as kidnappers, killers and torturers – since earlier in this trip we volunteered at a Bedouin community and we were encouraged by them to meet with Bedouins in the Sinai if we were headed towards Cairo. I realize that amongst any people there will be nice people and corrupt people – and that extreme situations and the possibility of large sums of money present an opportunity for monstrous evil between human beings.
I eventually did get to ask Nick whether he saw a relation between the refugee situation with Eritreans and Palestinian Refugees. He said that the Palestinian refugee situation certainly complicates thing – the fact that the formation of the state of Israel involved the production of a refugee population makes it difficult for Israel to recognize the rights of refugees. On the other hand, he said, the term “refugee” doesn’t always mean the same thing, and it would be a mistake to think that the situation of an Eritrean refugee is the same as the situation of a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon or Jordan. I thought this wasn’t the worst answer – at least he was honest about the Nakba. On the other hand, its a straw man argument – since no one would say that the situation of someone fleeing from Eritrea was similar to a refugee who has already been recognized as a refugee by Lebanon or Jordan. The problem for Palestinian refugees in the countries they are in now is in fact similar to the situation of Eritrean refugees who have already achieved protected status in Israel – the lack of rights to work, rights to proper education and housing etc… The difference is when people talk about the Palestinian refugee problem, they are rarely talking about problems with the treatment of the refugees by their host country, but instead about their desire to return to their country of origin. Which, is relevantly similar to Eritreans’ desires to return to Eritrea after the situation there is improved.
After getting back to Jerusalem we went to the cinematheque for a series of shorts entitled “Jerusalem Moments“. I’m not going to write about them now, but if you get a chance to see them, they provide some worthwhile insight into life on the ground in the apartheid city of Jerusalem.
EDIT: I found a link to one of the Jerusalem moments documentaries. Specifically the one about the rap group from Shuafat refugee camp named “G-Town”.