Understanding The Roller-coaster Ride of Israel’s Refugee Policy

Eritrean asylum seekers demonstrating at a protest in South Tel Aviv, 2018 (photo taken by Andrea Gagne)

The last 24 hours have left us all on the edge of our seats. What began as a celebration of Israel’s groundbreaking move to work with the international community ended in confusion and broken promises. First the news broke that, thanks to citizen activists and international pressure the deportations to Rwanda were successfully stopped. In that same announcement, it was declared that 16,000 asylum seekers would be resettled as refugees in Western countries in a monumental move, and those who remained would be absorbed in Israel. However, within a few hours the countries named had begun to issue their own statements of denial and shortly thereafter Netanyahu froze the agreement pending further talks with his base.

The confusion of the day left many people with unanswered questions. What events led up to this, what is going on now, and what can we expect in the coming days?

What events lead up to yesterday?

The first breaking news that emerged yesterday felt like it was coming out of nowhere. However, offers like this have been on the table before and so the existence of this agreement was not all that new. For years the international community has tried to intervene but have been turned down by Israel. As long as Netanyahu held on to the misguided belief that he could deport all of the African asylum seekers out of the country and get away with it, he was unwilling to compromise for anything less.

But the ability to deport the entire body of African asylum seekers against their will was looking less and less plausible. Public outcry in the media and in the streets put internal pressure on Israel while international governmental bodies and advocacy groups created an external source of pressure. The prison system did not have enough space to hold the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who would choose detention over death. And there was a tangible fear about a rise in antisemitism worldwide if photos began to emerge of innocent people being dragged onto airplanes in handcuffs.

Yet despite all of this, Israel continued to push forwards. After all, the nation has already proven that it is comfortable with its role as a pariah state. Rwanda, on the other hand, could not stand up to this level of international scrutiny. In the past weeks they had contradicted Israel’s statements time and time again, insisting that no deal existed. This lead the Israeli court to demand the agreement be made public. After all, an agreement with no means of enforcement is not an agreement at all. Deported asylum seekers who were promised specific protections and did not receive them could theoretically approach the Rwandan authorities and plead their case. Without an actual agreement there would therefore be no way to ensure their protection. A few days ago the Israeli authorities asked the court for an extension, which was an immediate sign that there was no actual deal. If such a document existed there would be no problem showing it to the court. This was the biggest sign that something big would be coming, and that it would happen soon.

What happened yesterday?

In a rapid series of announcements, each more shocking than the next, Netanyahu effectively destroyed all credibility he may have still possessed and showed us all just how weak he truly is. As a politician whose success rests on his ability to portray himself as strong, decisive and authoritarian this day may be his downfall.

First, Netanyahu admitted to all of us that the deportation deal with the unnamed third party African country (which we all know to be Rwanda) was officially off. This immediately closed the door for him to do any effective backpedaling. As long as he kept up the bluff of a deportation deal with Rwanda, he could sell his base on the idea of expelling every last asylum seeker. But by revealing this farce he has shown that the alternative to a partial resettlement agreement would be no agreement at all.

Netanyahu then further declared that efforts would be made to revitalize south Tel Aviv and asylum seekers who remain in the country with a legal status would be dispersed throughout the country. Both of these talking points have been proposed by the left as actions which could be done at any time to improve the lives of all south Tel Avivians, African and Israeli alike. By admitting that these things were in fact possible Netanyahu effectively admitted that the left had been right all along. He further stated that even with a deportation agreement it would never have been possible to deport every single person, which proved him to have been lying to his base from the start.

These statements were a massive call for alarm among those south Tel Aviv residents who had spent the last decade eating up the propaganda he fed to them. But what further exacerbated things was the naming of specific resettlement countries, namely Italy and Germany, who had not been involved in the process. This was a huge mistake by Netanyahu because the agreement was not with any specific countries. The agreement was with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), not with individual nations. Each country sets their annual refugee resettlement quotas, and the UNHCR is tasked with recommending refugees to fill these spaces. It is not difficult to imagine that the UNHCR could use this existing resettlement program for the asylum seekers, which would therefore not require the host countries to have any specific agreements with Israel outside of their normal quotas. But the announcement caused immediate panic from both the left and the right, all of whom had become understandably skeptical of Netanyahu’s “agreements.”

The final and most disappointing announcement of the day came again from the Office of the Prime Minister as Netanyahu declared he would freeze the new agreement, giving in to pressure from his coalition. This was the final nail in the coffin for Netanyahu’s negotiating credibility. How can the State of Israel be expected to represent its people, or enter into agreements with governmental or intergovernmental bodies, when signed contracts are lied about, cancelled and basically proven to not be binding in any way?

What happened today?

Netanyahu met with what he calls the residents of South Tel Aviv to discuss this matter. However, this was not an open forum but instead a closed discussion where a small number of violently racist people. Violent attacks like the one where a Sudanese man was beaten to death for speaking to a white woman are perpetrated by people from this demographic. By limiting the discussion in this way, Netanyahu has given these disgusting people absolute authority over the lives and dignity of tens of thousands of asylum seekers.

While this closed discussion met in a farce of a town hall meeting, true residents of the neighborhood protested outside demanding the right to be heard. The Prime Minister, however, denied them the right to voice their opinions as citizens and as residents of the affected neighborhood.

Following this meeting, Netanyahu announced that he had reconsidered the deal and that it was now officially cancelled. The end result is that the government is right back at square one. There is no deportation deal, no legal status for asylum seekers, no way for them to leave the country, and no way for them to even get out of the South Tel Aviv neighborhood. The shocking racism of those who would not allow 16,000 law-abiding, tax-paying people to stay inside their country of 8 million, even with the promise that the community will be relocated out of their neighborhood as the other half of the community disperses around the world, has left many people understandably outraged.

It is poignant that this occurred during the Passover holiday, because the asylum seekers will now have to continue to pray for their own exodus out of Israel. They will continue to ask Mr. Netanyahu to let their people go.

What will come next?

The Prime Minister has already made it very clear that there is no more third party African country deal (if it ever truly existed in the first place). This means he will need to look at new alternatives. However, it is not likely that he will find any, short of declaring a “black problem” and priming the ovens. The UNHCR deal was the most successful legal option Netanyahu will find. By blowing this, he has left himself only with only two paths, one which defies international human rights law and the other which defies his own base.

The first path Netanyahu may choose to pursue is to throw international law out the door and cause deep irreparable harm to the lives and liberty of the asylum seekers. I do not see any remaining options for third party transfers, as the international pressure and scrutiny placed on Rwanda by citizen activists and the press will deter other countries from entering into similarly destructive and illegal human trafficking deals. This means new deals will need to be more shady, less traceable, and most likely would be far more criminal. This will increase asylum seekers’ fear surrounding being deported. As long as asylum seekers know they face a threat of death, extortion and torture if they agree to be deported to an unsafe third party country, they will withstand Netanyahu’s abuse with resilience and strength. Therefore, to expel the asylum seekers illegally he will need to make their existence in Israel worse than death. If Netanyahu does follow this path he will be spitting on the grave of Jewish values, and will cause unprecedented harm to the image of Jewish people around the world.

The second path would involve going against the Prime Minister’s right-wing base. With legal resettlement off the table, Netanyahu has told these people they are trapped inside Israel for the foreseeable future. The asylum seekers are begging him to let them leave and yet he sadistically insists on keeping them trapped in his country where they remain under his tight control. Eventually, if he realizes there is truly no alternative way to remove all black people from Israel, he will need to make a move that truly defies his base. Netanyahu may have made his only option to actually process refugee claims in Israel and give people legal status, either by fixing the broken Ministry of Interior or handing the process over to the UNHCR. By giving refugee status to the community, many would then use that status seek safe resettlement outside Israel. The rest would find safe homes inside the country. This seems to be the only legal path still on Mr. Netanyahu’s table, and I expect it is the one which international bodies and activists inside Israel will endorse.

All we can do now is take this fire we feel let it continue to inspire us. It is crucial that we not give up hope in this dark time. Netanyahu has tried to destroy the asylum-seekers and their allies many times before, but with each failed attempt we grow stronger, smarter and more resilient. By pushing us to fight back, they are teaching us how to be better activists. We have closer than we have ever been before, and we must continue to persevere for the sake of human rights and human dignity.

About the Author
Andrea Gagne is a U.S.-based aid worker who has worked for several years with Eritrean refugees in Israel. She has worked in multiple refugee community centers in south Tel Aviv, including the Eritrean Women’s Community Center. Andrea is a graduate of Hampshire College, has a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University, and also studied at the University of Ghana.
Related Topics
Related Posts