For a fifth straight day on Thursday, Israel’s masses of African migrants — who number close to 60,000 and for years have worked in the shadows of the nation’s kitchens and hotels — staged a highly organized mass protest demanding immediate recognition as refugees, with all of the title’s associated rights.
Thursday’s protest was held in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, where the vast majority of the migrants have settled since crossing the Israeli border from Egypt, hailing from Eritrea, Sudan and other tumult-marked African nations. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the shabby green space, repeating the demands that have marked their stunning, meticulously organized five days of civilized revolt: recognition of the life-threatening chaos they escaped to make it to Israel; and more importantly, an immediate reversal to a new amendment to Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law. That amendment, passed last month and now being contested before Israel’s Supreme Court, allows the government to hold asylum seekers for indefinite periods in the new Holot facility in the Negev, which is basically a massive open prison.
Israel is a signatory to the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which makes it illegal to imprison or penalize refugees. But while most migrants in Israel say they are seeking refugee status, the Israeli government has remained firm in its stance that the vast majority of the 60,000 are not refugees at all, but rather illegal migrants who came to Israel seeking economic gain. The government reiterated this week that it does not plan to change its policies.
The Levinsky Park protest Thursday was a way of coming full circle. Since the December amendment, it was here that the movement’s leaders had been holding daily town hall meetings, which rallied the migrant community and planted the seeds of this week’s widespread protests.
One of those leaders is Kidane Isaac, 28, who came to Israel from Eritrea three years ago and, like the vast majority of his fellow African migrants, has had his application for asylum ignored by the Israeli government. Notwithstanding his own high profile in the community, he insists that the movement has not been fostered by him or any other figurehead, but by an excess of frustration and fear.
“There is no one organizer of this protest. The organizer of this protest is the law,” Isaac says. And as for the thousands of migrants who called a three-day strike on their jobs as dishwashers, house-cleaners and hotel linen pressers from Sunday and instead began gathering en masse in central Tel Aviv, outside embassies, in main squares in other cities including Eilat, and opposite the Knesset in Jerusalem, he insists, “It didn’t take much to organize them.”
What it did take, actually, was weeks of regular meetings in Levinsky Park, which were announced via a system of fliers, text messages and Facebook alerts. A network of around 10 key migrant activists, including Isaac, Moussa Abdoulaye from the Central African Republic, and Mutasin Ali and Sumia Nadiy from Sudan, would set a time for each day’s meeting and then print posters for free at the offices of Amnesty International.
Sometimes, they would call the meetings for noon, other times for 9 p.m., and often more than once a day. Each meeting had the same format: anyone from the community was invited to attend and offer ideas for a protest movement. The soap-box style gatherings, says Ali — who has been in Israel for four years, having fled from Darfur — attracted 50-60 migrants every day, and it was there that someone suggested a nationwide strike followed by waves of peaceful protests.
Every idea offered at the meetings was put to a vote, and then the core group of leaders would retreat to an indoor community center to work out the logistics. When they needed help, they would call on a small number of Israeli left-wing activists, particularly those involved with the African Refugee Development Center. However, every Israeli that this reporter spoke with for this article was quick to emphasize that the ongoing protest movement was entirely run by the migrant community.
The New Israel Fund, which acknowledged on Friday it gave some $3,000 to help with bus transportation to a number of the protests, also emphasized the grassroots nature of the movement.
“Over the last few days, there have been many claims that the New Israel Fund is responsible for the asylum seeker protests. These resemble the claim that NIF was responsible for the social protests in the summer of 2011. Neither of these claims are correct,” NIF wrote in a statement on Thursday. “The attempt to turn the fire and to accuse human rights organizations of being responsible for the asylum seekers and their protest marches is a spin which attempts to deflect attention from the failed treatment of asylum seekers and the Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv and other disadvantaged populations, which have been abandoned for the state for many years. We are proud of our ongoing struggle for human rights, and we will continue to stand firm in the face of the threats of intimidation and silencing.”
Mutasin Ali wouldn’t disclose the location of the leaders’ own community center meeting place, saying he doesn’t trust the Israeli authorities. But it is there, he says, that the activists decided to involve their friends across the country, setting up a phone chain and calling on migrants as far away as Eilat and Beersheba to join the protests.
“It was very easy to come together because people are already prepared,” Ali says. “We put up fliers, and we used Facebook. And if we wanted to have a meeting with hundreds of people, we would send text messages in a blast.”
It was at one of these private meetings that the activists decided the entire community would go on strike and start protesting on Sunday, January 5. The decision was announced at Levinsky Park and then circulated by word of mouth and texts.
On Sunday, there was a march and mass protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. On Monday, organized in similar fashion, thousands of demonstrators marched on embassies in Tel Aviv, gathering in particularly large numbers front of the US Embassy, to appeal for assistance from the international community.
On Wednesday, about 10,000 people gathered at the Rose Garden in Jerusalem across from the Knesset, where they brandished signs demanding protection and chanted for action. They had initially hoped to march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to rally outside the Knesset while Isaac, Abdoulaye, Ali and Nadiy and four other core leaders went inside for a meeting with MKs Michal Rozin and Dov Khenin. But that meeting was nixed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the last minute.
Later that night, after an emergency meeting headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the government reiterated that it would not change its policies on the migrants, prompting talk of further protests next week.
After Israel Police refused to issue the leaders a permit for the intercity march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, they went back to the community and, again in Levinsky Park, the idea was flouted to take a convoy of buses instead. With police coordination, extra Egged buses were ordered to run the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem route, with migrants lining up early on Wednesday morning at the Central Bus Station to be transported to Jerusalem in shifts.
Tickets for the Egged buses were paid in cash to the drivers at a cost of NIS 19 per traveler. The money from the New Israel Fund helped pay for a handful of private buses to Jerusalem from cities outside of Tel Aviv. It also went to transport migrants living in Israel’s periphery to Sunday’s demonstration in Rabin Square.
In interviews, some of the migrant activists have told their personal stories of dire hardship in Eritrea and Sudan. On Channel 2 news on Wednesday night, for instance, Emanuel, an Eritrean asylum-seeker who has been in Israel for six years, said he “would not be allowed to see the sun again” if he went home. He said he had been forced to serve 12 years in the Eritrean army, “in conditions of slavery,” building roads and prisons, and that his request for refugee status had not even been considered in all his years here. Told that similar cases had been processed and rejected by the Israeli authorities, he responded, “First of all, check [our applications].”
Speaking on Channel 2 Friday, Mutasin Ali refused to estimate how many of the migrants in Israel were refugees versus economic migrants, saying only that each case must be adjudicated individually.
Channel 2 news reported Friday night that the Interior Ministry claimed to have received 1,800 refugee petitions, and to have checked 155 cases, all of which were found not to merit asylum. Privately, some Israeli government officials say they empathize with the plight of the migrants; publicly, despite UN officials’ claims that these are bona fide refugees, the government argues that their difficulties do not justify such status. Netanyahu has repeatedly described them as “economic migrants.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel, Isaac openly bristles when asked if the migrants are getting top-level organizational help from outside sources. The protest movement — more action is planned for the coming days — came from within and is being organized from within, he says. There is no way, he adds, that his community could have continued to stand idly by.
“Everybody understood that our situation here was becoming really dangerous,” he says. “We had to stand up and do something because it was becoming worse and worse every day. We are human beings, and we deserve a future.”
Stuart Winer and Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.