Zionism’s Quest for a Purely Jewish State is why Zionism is Inherently Racist
Zionism’s Quest for a Purely Jewish State is why Zionism is Inherently Racist
According to Netanyahu Non-Jewish
Refugees threaten the ‘National Identity’ of Israel i.e. they aren’t Jews
Most Jews are in Britain and the United States today because, from 1882 to the first
world war, Jews fled from the Czarist pogroms and sought refuge from anti-semitism. Because there were no immigration controls until 1905 and even later in the United States, some 2.5 million Jews emigrated. Less than 2% went to the alleged historical homeland of Jews, Palestine.
It is one of the quaint aspects of Zionism’s achievements that Jews too can now be pogromists. As David Sheen reported on May 29 2013:
‘Last Thursday, May 23, 2013, marked exactly one year to the day when a
thousand Jewish Israelis ran rampant through the streets of Tel Aviv,
smashing and looting African-operated businesses and physically
assaulting any dark-skinned person they came across. Sadly, the Israeli
economic, political and religious establishment – who were in large
measure responsible for the pogrom – did not respond by working to quash
the racism, but rather ramped up their efforts to expel all non-Jewish
African people from the country.’
Miri Regev, who is now Israel’s ‘Culture Minister’ told the crowd that: “the Sudanese are a cancer in our body”.
In 1905 the Aliens Act was introduced under Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour. Balfour was quite explicit. He didn’t much like the East European Jews. He was however a good Zionist because he believed that they should go to Palestine. Thus it ever was that anti-Semites and Zionists got on like a house on fire. As you will no doubt know, in 1917 Balfour, now Foreign Secretary, penned a famous letter to Walter Rothschild promising the land of a 3rd party to the Zionists.
says aloud, Isaac Herzog of the Israeli Labour Party mutters in coded
language. Netanyahu’s reasons as to why
the 60,000 African refugees – from Sudan, Eritrea and other hotspots – had to
be deported, demonstrate why Zionism is and always will remain a racist
why the refugees had to be deported thus:
“If we don’t stop their entry,
the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that
threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” Binyamin
Netanyahu said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “This phenomenon is very grave
and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national
wasn’t that they weren’t genuine refugees, the problem was that they weren’t Jewish. David Sheen has drawn up the top 9 Israeli racist
politicians who have demonised asylum seekers.
Herzog is at number 5 on the list.
Thus Israel refuses
to admit any non-Jewish refugee. Not
because their home country is safe or they are not genuine, the excuses of Western
opponents of asylum seekers, but because they ‘threaten our national security
and our national identity’. And what is
this national identity? Why being Jewish
of course. Therefore one cannot accept Arabs or
non-Jews within the confines of the holy tent. Racist? How could it be otherwise?
Another one of the ways that
Israeli society becomes increasingly racist is when centrist parties like Labor
adopt right-wing rhetoric in order to chase after right-wing votes.
In recent years, Labor has not
played the foil to Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, but instead acceded to almost all of his hawkish proposals.
Instead of standing firm against Israel’s lurch to the right, Labor has
attempted to ply votes away from Likud with right-wing proposals.
That tendency has increased ever
since Isaac Herzog
was elected to lead the party in November 2013. It has been especially evident
in Herzog’s solid support for Netanyahu’s military campaigns in Gaza and the
West Bank, but also in his support for expelling Africans from Israel.
It was not always so. When the
Knesset first voted to amend the country’s “anti-infiltration” law in January
2012 to sanction the roundup, detention and expulsion of African refugees,
Herzog opposed the measure.
When the Knesset voted to amend
the law a second time in December
2013, Herzog didn’t show up for the vote. And by the time the Knesset voted to
toughen it a third time in December 2014, he voted in favor of the amendment, along
with several other Labor lawmakers.
In May 2012, Herzog wrote an
opinion piece, challenging
arguments by human rights groups that Eritreans in Israel deserved protection
In March 2015, Herzog repeated
in an attempt to peel anti-African votes away from Netanyahu on the eve of the
Israeli national elections, saying, “We need to negotiate with Eritrea on the
return of the Eritreans back to Eritrea.”
This year, Labor led a successful
effort to abolish the Knesset’s committee on foreign workers, one of the
few forums in which the concerns of refugees could receive a hearing in
In September 2015, Labor publicly
complained that Netanyahu’s government has not done nearly enough to expel
Africans from the country. In a public statement, Herzog’s Labor Party
wholeheartedly adopted the far-right’s propaganda points, insisting
without any basis that most refugees in Israel have no valid claim to refugee
“The crisis of the refugees from
Syria is not similar to the issue of the infiltrators from Africa who are
mostly migrant workers,” the statement read. “If only Bibi’s government had created
immigration laws, it would be possible to send back to their country those who
are in Israel for their welfare and for work. But the Likud government is only
good at talking, and it is responsible for the troubles of the residents of
south Tel Aviv.”
They were promised asylum
somewhere closer to home. Then they were discarded — often in a war zone.
June 27, 2017
KIGALI, Rwanda — The man picked Afie Semene and the 11 other
Eritreans on the flight from Tel Aviv out of the stream of disembarking
passengers as if he already had their faces memorized. He welcomed them to the
Rwandan capital, Kigali, and introduced himself as John. He was a Rwandan
immigration officer, he explained, there to help smooth their arrival. He
collected the travel documents each of them had been issued in Israel and led
them past the immigration counter where the rest of the passengers from their
flight queued. Nobody stopped them. Nothing was stamped.
They paused briefly at the luggage carousel to scoop up their bags. In
the nearly seven years Semene had lived in Israel, he filled an apartment with
furniture and kitchen supplies. But when officials there summoned him to a
detention facility for asylum-seekers, he had distributed much of what he owned
among his friends, unsure if he would ever return. Now his suitcase contained
little besides clothes.
The group exited the airport into the humid Rwandan night and crowded
into a waiting pickup. The luggage followed in a second truck. The small convoy
wound its way through lush, hilly Kigali, past the fenced campus of the
regional polytechnic, and into a quiet neighborhood several miles south of the
airport. They came to a stop in front of a house the color of a pistachio nut,
its second story ringed with white-trimmed porches. Dawn was already breaking
as the new arrivals were shown to bedrooms inside. As he fell asleep, Semene
still remembers the feeling of relief wash over him. John would return the next
day to help them begin their asylum applications, he thought. Maybe he would
arrive with the papers granting them refugee status already in hand.
There would be no visas. No work permits. No
asylum. None of the things Israeli authorities had promised the 12 Eritreans
when they had agreed to relocate to Rwanda a few weeks prior.
Instead, the next day brought new despair: There would be no visas.
No work permits. No asylum. None of the things Israeli authorities had promised
the 12 Eritreans when they had agreed to relocate to Rwanda a few weeks
prior. Instead, John offered to smuggle them into neighboring Uganda,
which he told them was a “free nation.” “If you live here, you can’t leave,” Semene recalled John saying of Rwanda. “It’s a tight country. Let me advise
you, as your brother, you need to go to Uganda.”
They would need to sneak across the border, since they had no proof of
legal entry into Rwanda. (The Israeli laissez-passers had gone
unstamped at the Kigali airport the night before, an oversight that now felt
suspicious.) But John told them not to worry; he could easily get them into
Uganda for a fee of $250. “I have everything,” he said. “Contacts with the
government over there. Contacts with the Israeli government. If something
happens, I call the Israeli government and they do something for you.”
The alternative, John said, was to remain in the Kigali house, where
they would be under constant surveillance. They would have to pay rent, but
without documentation, they would not be allowed to work. Semene and the others
understood that John was not really giving them a choice. Everyone agreed to
A few hours later, a van pulled up outside the house and the Eritreans
piled in. Several miles from the border with Uganda, the vehicle came to a stop
and John urged them out onto the side of the road. It was the last they would
see of him.
Semene had made an even more treacherous crossing once before, paying
smugglers to ferry him across the Sinai Desert from Egypt into Israel. Under
fire from Egyptian border guards, he sprinted the final yards to safety. He had
hoped it would be the last time he would ever have to cross a border illegally.
But seven years later, feeling betrayed by an Israeli government he had once
turned to for safety, he slipped quietly and unofficially into Uganda.
AdHundreds of African asylum-seekers stage a protest along the sea front in Tel Aviv on Jan. 15, 2014. (Photo credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)d caption
For decades after its founding in 1948, Israel welcomed refugees
from outside the Jewish faith. The country was an early signatory to the 1951
Refugee Convention. In his first official act as prime minister in 1977,
Menachem Begin granted refuge to 66 Vietnamese who had been rescued at sea by
an Israeli ship. During a visit to the United States later that year, he recalled the St.
Louis — a ship loaded with more than 900 European Jews who attempted
to flee Germany in 1939 — to explain his decision. The St. Louis’s
passengers were denied permission to disembark in Cuba, the United States, and
Canada and ultimately returned to Europe. A quarter of the passengers are
thought to have died in the Holocaust.
“They were nine months at sea, traveling from harbor to harbor, from
country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused,” Begin said. “We
have never forgotten the lot of our people … And therefore it was natural that
my first act as prime minister was to give those people a haven in the land of
In 2007, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert echoed Begin’s act when he
granted temporary residency permits to nearly 500 Sudanese asylum-seekers. But
as the number of African migrants swelled in subsequent years, Israel’s
receptiveness began to flag. The vast majority of the new arrivals were fleeing
long-standing authoritarian regimes in Eritrea and Sudan. They chose Israel for
many reasons: because it was a democracy, because it was easier to reach than
Europe or — for many Sudanese — because it was an adversary of their own
government. They hoped that the enemy of their enemy would look kindly on them.
But Israeli authorities soon became overwhelmed. According to the
Ministry of Interior, nearly 65,000 foreign nationals — the vast majority from
Africa — reached Israel between 2006 and 2013. As the government struggled to
accommodate the newcomers, many languished in poor and overcrowded
neighborhoods in southern Tel Aviv. Dozens squatted in a park across the street
from the city’s main bus station for weeks on end. A handful of high-profile
incidents — including the alleged rape of an 83-year-old woman by an Eritrean
asylum-seeker in 2012 — dominated media coverage and fueled unease among
Israelis, many of whom already fretted that refugees were taking their jobs.
African asylum-seekers sleep in Tel Aviv’s Levinski Park during a protest against Israel’s immigration policies on Feb. 5, 2014. (Photo credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
By the time Benjamin Netanyahu secured a third term as prime
minister in 2013, the tensions had hardened into outright hostility. That year,
Israel sealed off its border with Egypt and implemented a raft of policies
aimed at making life more difficult for asylum-seekers already in Israel. Then
it began secretly pressuring Eritreans and Sudanese to leave for unnamed third
countries, a shadowy relocation effort in which Semene and thousands like him
are now ensnared.
Israeli officials have kept nearly everything else about this effort
secret, even deflecting requests for more information from UNHCR, the U.N.
refugee agency. But a year-long investigation by Foreign Policy that
included interviews with multiple Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers as well
as people involved at various stages of the relocation process — including one
person who admitted to helping coordinate illegal border crossings — reveals an
opaque system of shuffling asylum-seekers from Israel, via Rwanda or Uganda,
into third countries, where they are no longer anyone’s responsibility.
It begins with furtive promises by Israeli authorities of asylum and
work opportunities in Rwanda and Uganda. Once the Sudanese and Eritrean
asylum-seekers reach Kigali or Entebbe, where Uganda’s international airport is
located, they describe a remarkably similar ordeal: They meet someone who
presents himself as a government agent at the airport, bypass immigration, move
to a house or hotel that quickly feels like a prison, and are eventually
pressured to leave the country. For the Eritreans, it is from Rwanda to Uganda.
For Sudanese, it is from Uganda to South Sudan or Sudan. The process appears
designed not just to discard unwanted refugees, but to shield the Israeli,
Rwandan, and Ugandan governments from any political or legal accountability.
While a handful of the Eritreans and Sudanese have managed to maneuver
or mislead their way into asylum in Rwanda or Uganda, and dozens more live in a
stateless limbo in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, most have given in to the
pressure to leave those countries, making dangerous illegal border crossings
that leave them vulnerable to blackmail and physical abuse at the hands of
smugglers and security forces. Some have continued north to Sudan or Libya in
an effort to reach Europe. A few have been captured and killed by Islamic State
fighters or drowned on the treacherous Mediterranean crossing.
Officials across several relevant ministries in Israel, Rwanda, and
Uganda all issued denials or refused repeated requests for comment. But the
nearly identical experiences of asylum-seekers arriving in Rwanda and Uganda,
as well as their ability to bypass standard immigration channels and
occasionally procure official documents from their handlers, suggests a level
of government knowledge, if not direct involvement, in all three capitals.
Semene fled Eritrea in 2007, after four years in the country’s
military. Service there is compulsory and it can stretch on indefinitely.
Instead of training, conscripts are often forced to work on their commanders’
private farms or for state-owned businesses. The conditions are so restrictive
and the compensation so negligible that in 2016 a U.N. Human Rights Council report on
the country determined that “Eritrean officials have committed the crime of
enslavement … in a persistent, widespread and systematic manner.” During his
four years of service, Semene, a small, slight man with an easy smile, was
allowed to visit his family only once.
Semene is a pseudonym. Life under military dictatorship instilled in him
a deep sense of caution, and he is hesitant to share too many details about his
past in case security forces target his family members who still live in
Eritrea. Risking imprisonment and possible execution there, he ran — first to a
refugee camp in Sudan, where he faced constant shortages of food and water, and
then to Egypt. Finding the environment for refugees there only marginally
better, he paid smugglers $2,800 to take him across Sinai into Israel. He knew
little about the country, except that it was a democracy. “Simply, I try my
luck,” he said.
And finally, luck seemed to be on his side. In 2008, Israeli authorities
issued him a visa that was renewable every six months. He found a job stocking
groceries at a Tel Aviv shop, and applied for official refugee status. “I adopt
the place,” he told me, including learning Hebrew. “I adopt their food. I know
the language. I see Israel as my country.”
Thousands more asylum-seekers like Semene continued to arrive — mostly
from Eritrea, but also from Sudan, including hundreds fleeing a
government-perpetrated genocide in the country’s Darfur region. By 2012, a
leading Israeli politician was denouncing the
asylum-seekers as “a cancer in our body” and residents of south Tel Aviv were
organizing protests against them. That same year, the minister of interior
suggested making “their lives miserable” in order to dissuade even more from
One way the Israeli government did just that was by erecting a sprawling
detention center for asylum-seekers in the middle of the Negev Desert. Operated
by the Israel Prison Service (IPS), Holot — which means “sand” in Hebrew — now
holds more than 3,000 male asylum-seekers, who had previously been allowed to
live and (unofficially) work while they awaited a decision on their refugee
applications. Most detainees said they learned they had been randomly chosen to
relocate to Holot only when they attempted to renew their visas. They were
given days to report to the facility, where they can legally be held for up to
a year. Some politicians are pushing to make the sentence indefinite.
Asylum-seekers take part in a day of protest at the Holot detention center in the southern Negev desert on Feb. 17, 2014. (Photo credit: ILIA YEFIMOVICH /Getty Images)
Semene was summoned to Holot in early 2014. “It’s really a prison,”
is how he described what appears on the outside to be a beleaguered tent city.
I made two visits to the facility, though I was not allowed to enter. Instead,
I sat with detainees outside the chain-link fence topped with razor wire, as
they described conditions inside. They live 10 to a room and though they can
come and go from the facility, they are required to check in with authorities
once per day. Failure to do so earns a short stint in a nearby maximum-security
prison. Residents are not allowed to work or even to bring food brought by
friends or family members into Holot. With the nearest town hours away, they
spend most of their time sitting at the makeshift restaurants they have
constructed near the entrance to the camp. IPS authorities regularly tear them
down, but the detainees keep rebuilding them.
To Semene, the restrictions of Holot, combined with the monotony of life
there, seemed designed to break the occupants — men who had previously survived
murderous raids, the deprivations of refugee camps, and, in some cases,
torture. There is limited assistance for people managing chronic health
conditions or in obvious need of mental healthcare. Instead, they are left to
wander the desert, overseen only by their fellow inmates. (IPS did not respond
to multiple requests for comment.) Semene remembers becoming so distressed by the
treatment one day that he began pleading with a guard: “We are human. Treat us
as a human,” he said.
Then, after he had been locked away for seven months, the authorities
seemed to offer him a lifeline: Leaflets from the Israeli Population and
Immigration Authority started to appear within the facility, saying that Israel
had secured an arrangement with other countries willing to accept
asylum-seekers. Anyone who agreed to a transfer would receive travel documents,
a free one-way plane ticket to a yet-unnamed country, and $3,500. “On the first
day of arrival in the country, you will be placed in a hotel. Everything that
you need — work and living permit — will be given to you,” the flyer read,
according to a translation provided by the UNHCR office in Tel Aviv.
Soon, the guards at Holot began whispering to the asylum-seekers that
the third countries were Rwanda for Eritreans and Uganda for the Sudanese.
There was no explanation for the division. The Israeli government has never
officially confirmed the two countries involved, explaining in various legal
settings that the agreements prevent them from doing so. “We do not comment in
the media on those issues or on our relations with third countries,” a
spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an email.
Semene was among those who jumped at the opportunity. “You close your
eyes and choose,” was how he explained it to me. In the weeks leading up to his
departure in late 2014, he was summoned to meet with an Israeli immigration
officer, who presented him with an Israeli travel document filled out with his
name, date of birth, and — though he had no passport — a passport number. The
laissez-passer was valid for two weeks, from Dec. 14 to Dec. 28, 2014. The
official also showed him a letter, allegedly from the Rwandan government,
guaranteeing that he would be granted a one-month tourist visa when he arrived
in the country. The official handed over the promised $3,500 in U.S. dollars.
Semene wondered why he was getting a one-month tourist visa when he had
been told he would be receiving asylum. He also wondered why the laissez-passer
was valid for only two weeks. He said he quizzed the official about both
apparent discrepancies, but was assured any issues would be sorted out when he
arrived in Kigali. Not quite convinced, he took photos of the documents with
his cell phone, which he later showed me. A few days later, he received a call
telling him to get ready. He would be leaving on Dec. 22. Despite his growing
skepticism of everything the Israeli authorities were telling him, he decided
to approach the trip with guarded optimism. It had been more than seven years
since he fled a life of endless military service in Eritrea and more than half
a year since he’d been incarcerated in Israel. He wanted desperately to believe
that Rwanda would be the place where he would finally be free.
A group of Eritrean asylum-seekers inside Israel’s Holot detention facility on Feb. 17, 2014. (Photo credit: ILIA YEFIMOVICH /Getty Images)
The pistachio-colored house where Semene and dozens of other
Eritreans were held in Kigali sits at the end of a deeply gashed dirt road.
About 50 yards away, down a steep embankment, there is a small kiosk painted
Coca-Cola red, where men from the neighborhood often gather to drink sodas and
chat. One day last spring, I stopped by to see if they had ever noticed any
unusual activity at the house atop the hill. Through a translator, they
explained that groups of “foreigners” regularly stayed there. Sometimes they
could be spotted pacing on the white-trimmed balconies. None ever seemed to
venture outside the house’s heavy black gate and they were always gone after a
Later, I trudged up the hill and knocked on that gate. It swung open to
reveal two young Rwandan men lazily sweeping the driveway. I asked if I could
speak to the owner. They indicated that he wasn’t home, but passed along a
phone number. When I dialed it, a man who identified himself only as Robert
acknowledged that the house was indeed his. Yes, he intermittently hosted visitors
from Eritrea. In fact, a group had just left a few days earlier.
He explained that he had begun renting out the house to unknown groups
of foreigners more than a year earlier after a friend of his — a driver who
works at the airport — called to see if he could host some people who would be
spending a few days in the country. Robert agreed, he said, because the house
was vacant at the time. Since then he has accommodated a handful of groups, he
told me. The process is always the same: The driver friend calls him a few days
before a new party is set to arrive and Robert sends workers to prepare the
house for them. The foreigners stay for a few days — never more than three —
and then leave. He didn’t know to where. He had never met any of them.
When I started to press Robert for more details — How much was
he paid? Did the driver work for the government? — he grew cagey and
insisted we meet in person. We set a time for the following day. When I called
back to confirm the location, he hung up on me and declined each of my
It is unclear whether the driver friend is John, the man who picked
Semene and the other Eritreans up from the airport, or someone working for him.
It is also unclear whether John is actually an immigration official or just
posing as one. But in a country as notoriously repressive as Rwanda it is
almost inconceivable that anyone regularly bypassing immigration isn’t
operating with the blessing of senior government officials. (My calls from
different lines to a number allegedly belonging to John have gone unanswered
What happens to those asylum-seekers who refuse John’s offer to be
smuggled into Uganda is yet another mystery. Kabtom Bereket, an Eritrean who
arrived separately from Semene in July 2014, told me that several members of
his six-person group asked to visit the UNHCR offices in Kigali immediately
after they arrived at the house from the airport. John refused their request,
Bereket said, telling them, “We are immigration. There is the security on the gate.
You stay here.” No one in the group was allowed out of the house, according to
Bereket, which is also a pseudonym, until they all left to cross illegally into
Of the at least 1,400 other asylum-seekers who have
arrived in Kigali from Tel Aviv over the last three years — the figure Israeli
officials provided in court — Semene is certain that the vast majority have
been smuggled out of the country.
Some Eritreans have managed to escape the house. According to documents
from the UNHCR office in Tel Aviv, Rwandan authorities have arrested at least
four of the asylum-seekers who attempted to stay in Kigali on charges of
lacking documentation. Others, though UNHCR won’t say how many, have approached
UNHCR staff in Kigali for support, claiming to have relocated from
Israel. Of the at least 1,400 other asylum-seekers who have arrived in
Kigali from Tel Aviv over the last three years — the figure Israeli officials
provided in court — Semene is certain that the vast majority have been smuggled
out of the country.
Across the border in Uganda, UNHCR officials haven’t heard of even a
single successful asylum applicant among the Sudanese arriving directly from
Tel Aviv or the Eritreans arriving from Rwanda, though they are aware of
multiple rejections from among this pool. This is strange because Uganda has
one of the most progressive refugee policies in the region. Nearly 3,300
Sudanese are currently registered as refugees in Uganda, according to the UNCHR
office in Kampala. The problem seems to be exclusive to those being resettled
from Israel. Sudanese I spoke to in Kampala said they have now learned not to
mention Israel anywhere in their asylum applications.
Officials in the office of Uganda’s prime minister, which oversees the
country’s immigration procedures, offered no explanation for the rejected
asylum claims of migrants arriving via Israel. Rwandan officials do admit
having discussed a deal with Israel to accept asylum-seekers, but say that no
agreement was ever reached. It may be that the Ugandan and Rwandan governments
do not want to answer questions about what they are receiving in exchange for
accepting refugees. (Speculation among Israeli activists centers on weapons and
Unable to get asylum in Uganda, many Eritreans and Sudanese live in
constant fear of the authorities. Within hours of his illegal scramble across
the Rwandan border, in fact, Semene nearly landed behind bars. He and the other
Eritreans in his group emerged from the borderlands thicket to find a van
waiting on the Ugandan side that carried them the remaining 10 hours to
Kampala. They arrived at a cheap hotel in the crowded, dusty area of downtown
known as Old Kampala at 4 a.m. Five hours later, Ugandan security officials
raided the hotel and arrested several of the asylum-seekers. By that point,
however, Semene had already split off from the group and melted into the
neighborhood, his doubts having turned into outright distrust over the course
of the journey.
More than a year later, he spends most of his evenings in a local bar
watching football matches or playing pool. It is a short walk from the
apartment he shares with a rotating group of Eritrean refugees. Sometimes up to
a dozen people cram into the one-room space. His world is now just a few blocks
of Old Kampala, but he figures limiting his movement is the best way to avoid
running into police officers or other security officials who might ask for his
papers and then arrest him or demand a bribe when he is unable to produce them.
He is depressed, and also eaten up with resentment toward the Israeli
government. This was not the life they promised him. “I am not safe here,” he
said. “I am not safe anywhere.”
Ugandan police officers cordon off a crime scene in Kampala on March 17, 2017. (Photo credit: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
The linchpins of this system of human smuggling — and key to
establishing whether the Israeli, Ugandan, and Rwandan governments are
officially involved in it — are the men who pressure new arrivals from Tel Aviv
to forget the promise of asylum and to cross illegally into third countries.
Hassan Ali is one such man. He agreed to meet me on the condition that I not
reveal his real identity. A squat 32-year-old Darfuri refugee, he steered me
off a crowded Kampala street into a fried chicken restaurant with low ceilings
and a greasy, tiled floor. He chose a side table and spoke in a quiet,
quivering voice lost easily in the lunchtime bustle. He was among the very first
asylum-seekers in Israel to accept the proposed transfer to Uganda, he said. He
had been in Israel since 2008 and sensed the mood toward asylum-seekers was
growing increasingly hostile. He happened to have friends and family in Uganda,
so when the offer came to relocate to Kampala in early 2014, he eagerly
But within weeks of his arrival, just as he was beginning to feel
settled in his new life in the city, he started getting phone calls from a man
he would identify only as Ismail. Ismail was also Sudanese and he needed Ali’s
help. Would he be willing to meet with groups of new arrivals — mostly people
Ali knew from his own time in Israel — and talk to them about resettling
elsewhere? Ali is not sure how Ismail got his number or why he wanted Ali to be
involved, but — for reasons he chose to keep vague — he decided he was willing
to try. The requests from Ismail are relatively sporadic, but they have become
more frequent. Ali estimates that he has now met with at least a dozen groups
He usually joins them on their second day at an upscale hotel called
Forest Cottages, where the Sudanese flown from Tel Aviv are brought from the
airport. Unlike their Eritrean counterparts in Rwanda, they are offered a brief
respite before the pressure to relocate begins. But when the time comes, Ali is
the one who applies that pressure.
He starts by talking about how much the men must be missing their
families after years — and in some cases decades — away from Sudan. Except now,
in Uganda, they are so much closer to home than they were in Israel. Using
Ismail’s connections, Ali says he can get them the rest of the way. For $200,
he will arrange the paperwork and logistics to transport them safely to South
Sudan, the buffer between Uganda and Sudan. For $100 more, he can get them to
the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
The reasons other refugees chose to return to
Sudan, despite the risk of arrest and torture, are much more straightforward:
They believe their options are exhausted. They miss their homes. They want to
see their families.
Both countries harbor significant dangers. Sudan remains a police state,
and killing continues in Darfur, though at a lower level than before. South
Sudan is mired in a bloody civil war that has killed tens of thousands if not
hundreds of thousands of people and forced 1.7 million to flee the country. But
the new arrivals in Kampala are discombobulated and often poorly informed. Ali
fuels their confusion by telling them that Ugandan officials will hound them,
blackmail them, and potentially deport them. South Sudan, because of the chaos
there, actually seems to some refugees like a much easier place to disappear or
to begin another journey toward a country that might actually grant them
asylum. The reasons other refugees chose to return to Sudan, despite the
risk of arrest and torture, are much more straightforward: They believe their
options are exhausted. They miss their homes. They want to see their families.
Ali has learned to manipulate these fears and emotions. “I say, ‘Welcome
to Africa. If you tell me you’re going to pass to Sudan, you come here, you
will pass.’ They’re very happy,” he said. Dozens of people have taken Ali up on
his offer, he says, at which point Ismail collects their information and money
and hands it over to a man named George, the Ugandan minder who picked the new
arrivals up at the airport — essentially the Ugandan version of John. Within
hours of securing their agreement, George returns with individualized Ugandan
travel documents stamped with South Sudanese entry visas.
I asked Ali about the level of government involvement in this scheme.
After some prevarication, he conceded that Ugandan officials are not only aware
of what is happening, but actively involved in pushing asylum-seekers from
Israel into South Sudan. “This is the secret they don’t want to tell,” he said.
But aside from the Ugandan travel documents he claims to have seen handed over
to the asylum-seekers, he had little evidence to support his claims. That is,
except for one additional piece of paper: a permit granting him temporary
residence in Uganda.
At the beginning of our conversation, he had showed me a photo of the
one-year legal residency permit George had secured for him from Uganda’s
Ministry of Internal Affairs. None of the other Sudanese asylum-seekers I met
had received anything similar from George, although several said they had asked
for one. Ali only received the document, he acknowledged, in exchange for
Before we parted ways, Ali offered to take me with him when the next
group of Sudanese transfers arrived at Forest Cottages. But less than 10
minutes after we left the restaurant, he called to tell me the deal was off.
Apparently, he had phoned Ismail immediately after our meeting and had been
lambasted for talking to a foreign journalist. Ali pleaded that I not mention
him to any government officials. He said I should forget his name and that we
had ever met. I followed up with Ismail, whose phone number Ali had given me
before we parted, but he stood me up for a meeting the next day and refused to
answer additional calls.
The Ugandan government has consistently maintained it knows nothing
about asylum-seekers being transferred from Israel, though reports of the
arrivals from Tel Aviv abound in the local media. Fred Opolot, then the
spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told me in April 2015, “We’re
making inquiries, but no one is giving us a clear lead.” Since then, Ugandan
officials have retreated from any discussion of the issue beyond issuing blanket
denials that any deal with Israel exists.
Hundreds of African asylum-seekers protest in front of the Knesset on Jan. 26, 2017. Some demonstrators hold placards showing migrants they say were killed after being deported from Israel. (Photo credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
As public opinion has turned against asylum-seekers and Israel has
become more insular, many Israelis believe their country is losing touch with
its founding values. Anat Ovadia-Rosner, the former spokesperson for the
Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a Tel Aviv-based legal advocacy group, told
me the situation makes her think of her grandparents. “They were both in
Auschwitz, survivors of the Holocaust. When I hear the story of the
asylum-seekers … it reminds me exactly of the stories that I heard of my
grandparents.” She said she understands why some Israelis are hesitant to open
the borders to large numbers of refugees from outside the Jewish faith, but
believes “we have a moral obligation” to do so.
The Israeli government, which, if not directly responsible, is by now
well aware that some of the asylum-seekers returned to Africa have been
pressured into illegal border crossings, clearly does not agree with
Ovadia-Rosner. What’s not yet clear is whether Israeli courts do. In 2015, a
coalition of Israeli human rights groups filed a petition challenging the
legality of Israel’s policy of detaining asylum-seekers unless they agree to
return to their country of origin or to accept a transfer to the unnamed third
nations. They sought to prove that, in the Eritrean cases specifically, the
Israeli policy is effectively forcing the asylum-seekers to choose between
possibly indefinite incarceration and a relocation process that strips them of
any status or protection.
But the petition, which was heard by a district court judge in Beersheba
— the largest city in the Negev Desert — was ultimately rejected on the grounds
that there was “no evidence of persecution or harassment by the authorities in
the third country to which they were removed.” The judge, Rachel Barkai, based
her decision on evidence that she allowed to be presented behind closed doors,
because of the confidential nature of the agreements with the third countries.
But according to Anat Ben-Dor, the director of the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel
Aviv University and one of the lawyers working on the case, it included the
findings of Israeli investigators who traveled to Rwanda and Uganda in May
2015. Their interviews, Barkai wrote in her decision, “painted a positive
picture regarding the integration process in the third country.”
There is still a chance that the transfer program could be struck down
by an Israeli court. After Barkai rejected their petition, the human rights
organizations appealed the case to the country’s Supreme Court. The justices
heard initial arguments early last year, but the case is still pending.
Even as the judges deliberate, former residents of Holot are turning up
in jails or dead in countries across East and North Africa. At least three have
been arrested in Kenya, according to UNHCR officials in Tel Aviv, and another
40 were arrested attempting to cross from Uganda into South Sudan, according to
a UNHCR official in Kampala. Some have drowned in the Mediterranean while
trying to reach Europe, friends and family members say. And at Holot, a video
circulated of Islamic State fighters beheading three of the men who agreed to
resettle in Rwanda but were later caught in Libya on their way, apparently, to
attempt a Mediterranean crossing.
Many proponents of the secret transfer agreements are sympathetic to the
plight of the refugees, but argue that they pose a real danger to Israel — not
just in terms of jobs lost or crimes committed but to the very nature of the
Jewish state. They say that Israel tried to do its part, integrating tens of
thousands of asylum-seekers into a population of 8 million, but that the
consequences were severe. “The neighborhoods have pretty much transformed,”
said Yonatan Jakubowicz, who works at the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, which
has supported increasingly restrictive policies against the asylum-seekers in
I met Jakubowicz in a Tel Aviv restaurant, across the street from an
auditorium where he was scheduled to participate in a debate that evening on
Israel’s immigration policies. “While the situation was never great, the local
residents, they always say they had a sense of community. And that way of life
has been threatened by the influx of these migrants,” he told me, adding that
Israel had “turned into a main destination for migration from Africa and people
were just pouring in en masse.”
asylum-seeker visits the Holocaust Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in March
2007. (Photo credit: YOAV LEMMER/AFP/Getty Images)
Jakubowicz’s center supported the closure of the border with Egypt
in 2013 and the creation of Holot. The desert detention facility is a kind of
“sifting system,” Jakubowicz told me. People truly in need of asylum, he
argued, would rather spend a year there than agree to return to their own country,
as some of the asylum-seekers have done, or to be relocated to an unknown third
country. Elsewhere, he pointed out, refugees have been content to live in camps
that offer even less than Holot does.
His support for the third-country transfers appeared to waver, though,
after I started telling him the stories of the refugees I had met in Rwanda and
Uganda — about their coerced departures, about how they had been denied asylum.
“Most people aren’t aware of what’s going on so much,” he said. “Most people
believe that if the government says they have an agreement with third countries
and that the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior have gone there
and sent representatives to check the situation, then they believe the
situation is fine. That’s a good solution.”
But if Jakubowicz had begun to question the Israeli government’s
assurances about the transfers, he still didn’t understand why people would
continue to agree to be relocated if the situation in Rwanda and Uganda was as
dire as I said it was. After all, new groups of asylum-seekers were signing up
to leave nearly every week, despite the fact that many residents of Holot were
in regular contact with friends and family members in East Africa who are
likely informing them about what really happens there. I said I didn’t have a
good answer for him and that I would do my best to find out.
When I returned to Uganda in February 2016, I called Jamsom Berhane, one
of the first asylum-seekers from Israel I had met back in April 2015. Berhane,
also a pseudonym, was born in Ethiopia, but to an Eritrean mother. In 1997, at
the age of 20, he went to visit family in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. There
he was arrested and, unable to convince the authorities that he was an
Ethiopian citizen, conscripted into service. Over the next 10 years, he
attempted to flee the Eritrean military at least a half-dozen times. In 2007,
he was finally successful after he jumped, unnoticed, from a moving truck and
took off running. He made his way from Sudan to Egypt and — in December — to
Israel. After more than six years in Israel, he received his summons to Holot
in April 2014. Four months later he agreed to be relocated to Rwanda.
Berhane had initially been happy to tell me his story, eager to make
people aware of what had happened to him after he had agreed to be transferred
to Rwanda. But as we met and spoke regularly over the course of a year, he had
become increasingly morose and reclusive. His money had run out and he was
unable to find work. He lived off the goodwill of a distant cousin, but Berhane
was afraid to ask too often for support. The result was a lot of skipped meals.
Still, he agreed to meet with me again at our usual location — an
Ethiopian restaurant in the heart of Kampala’s nightclub district. After we exchanged
greetings and I told him all the details of my trip to Israel, I posed
Jakubowicz’s question to him: Given everything that had happened, would he
accept Israel’s offer of the transfer again?
Yes, he told me, without hesitation. Though his life is miserable in
Uganda, it offers a possibility now foreclosed in Israel, just as it had been
in Eritrea and Sudan and Egypt. “I need freedom,” he said. “For 19 years, I am
not able to move around. I’m thinking about my freedom. You have freedom and
you do everything. You don’t have freedom, you close your mind.”
Ultimately, Israel never intended to give him his freedom, he said. To
him, the lie Israeli officials told about asylum in Rwanda was merely the final
confirmation of that fact. At least in Uganda, they have not yet put him in
prison. Berhane gestured for me to turn my recorder off. “I don’t want to speak
about Israel anymore,” he said. “Israel, it was my first mistake.”