More than two hundred people demonstrated in Tel Aviv in front of the Central Bus Station on Tuesday night in a strange protest-turned-celebration, just hours after the state scrapped its plan to forcibly deport thousands of African asylum seekers.
Activists from the south Tel Aviv Power to the Community group had previously planned demonstration in favor of closing the Central Bus Station, a hulking concrete behemoth that stands 60 percent abandoned in the neighborhood where the majority of the asylum seekers live. But the demonstration turned into a cautious celebration of sorts following the government’s admission to the High Court of Justice on Tuesday that it could not implement involuntary deportations of asylum seekers to a third country.
“We’re happy about the decision, and we’ve been saying that the fact that people are only talking about refugees in south Tel Aviv limits the conversation about what can actually be done to help rehabilitate south Tel Aviv,” said Inbal Egoz, one of the demonstration organizers. “The problems in south Tel Aviv aren’t about the refugees, we are talking about generations and generations of neglect of this area.”
“The bus station is a crime against humanity,” said Amit Rotboard, a 20-year resident of the neighborhood who has been involved in the fight against the bus station for years. She said the government announcement made her happy that her neighbors would not be deported against their will, but that with the cancellation, the government should now start concentrating on the real rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv.
“We know from history the idea of divide and conquer can be very successful,” she said. “As long as people in the neighborhood are divided on the issue of refugees, we are distracted, we aren’t united in working together for real change. It’s never the people that are the problem for south Tel Aviv. The bus station is the problem.”
Sheffi Paz, one of the most vocal voices in south Tel Aviv in favor of the deportations, led a counter-protest of a few people despite the fact that she is also in favor of closing the bus station. “We’ve also been fighting against the bus station for years,” she said. “But what we came to say is that a month ago these people had thousands of people in the streets and now there’s only a hundred here tonight. They brought people [to protest the deportations] who aren’t at all connected to south Tel Aviv, and tomorrow they’ll go home and we’ll be stuck with this bus station and all the problems.”
On Tuesday, organizations involved in the legal fight to stop the deportations celebrated the announcement that they would not be carried out. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to deport thousands of African asylum seekers, who he argues are economic migrants.
There are about 38,00 African asylum seekers in Israel, about 72% of whom are Eritrean and 20% Sudanese. Eritrean asylum seekers fled a harsh dictator and compulsory military service that can last for 40 years. Sudanese asylum seekers fled genocide in Darfur as well as fighting between Sudan and South Sudan.
“Forced deportation should never have been an option, and we are relieved to see that other countries were not willing to participate in Israel’s plans to forcibly deport asylum seekers,” said a joint statement from the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, ASSAF – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, Kav LaOved, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC). “It is a great shame that it took court intervention, and the lack of participation from other countries, in order for Israel to abandon these plans… the aggressive deportation policies they have pursued to date have not only been unsuccessful, but also a moral failure.”
But the optimism from the cancellation of the deportations was tempered by the announcement that the government may reopen detention centers, including Holot, in an effort to imprison asylums seekers until they agree to leave Israel voluntarily.
“Following the refusal of third countries to accept infiltrators under the conditions Israel requested, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri agreed to immediately prepare for the reopening of detention facilities for infiltrators,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said on Tuesday evening. Netanyahu is “looking for additional ways to solve the problem,” the statement added.
“I’m not happy, I’m not anything, at the end of the day, that there are no deportations. That’s good, but we returned exactly to where we were months ago,” said Mutasim Ali, a law student and one of the central activists in the Sudanese asylum seeker community. “We didn’t move a step forward or a step backwards.
“What happened today is what we’ve been saying for the past 10 years: that the government doesn’t want to take care of this problem in a way that actually solves the problems of both south Tel Aviv and the asylum seekers,” he said.
Ali pointed out that many politicians, including Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, had said that the detention centers were failures. On Twitter, Erdan charged that Holot had become a “hotel for infiltrators at the public’s expense.” Holot cost NIS 240 million ($68 million) per year to operate.
“They said clearly that this device isn’t working, so now, suddenly, it’s going to work?” Ali asked. “Of course not. They’re going to waste a lot of money and it’s a shame.”
Ali hopes that Netanyahu would reconsider the United Nations High Commission on Refugees plan, where UNHCR would pay for the resettlement of approximately 16,000 asylum seekers in exchange for 16,000 asylum seekers receiving permanent status. Netanyahu and Deri briefly supported the plan before canceling it hours later after announcing it.
Ali said he hoped Israelis who supported the deportations will understand that the government never had the interests of south Tel Aviv at heart. “The people that supported the government policy are going to understand that this isn’t going to work, and it’s not going to solve the problems of the local community,” he said. “Maybe they’ll join us.”
In the divisive environment that enveloped south Tel Aviv over the past half-year, hatred of the Central Bus Station is one of the few things that unites all the sides, regardless of political persuasion or stance on the deportation.
At the height of the frenzy over the deportations, in February, the Transportation Ministry quietly signed a contract with the owner of the bus station, Koby Maimon, to continue operating it as a transportation hub until 2042. Haim Goren, a former city council member who represents south Tel Aviv, said one of his central issues while on the city council was advocating for a different solution to the Central Bus Station.
While no one expects the bus station to be dismantled, Goren and other activists said removing it as a transportation hub will drastically reduce the pollution and traffic that plague this part of the city.
Goren envisioned a string of smaller transportation hubs at major intersections that connect to the light rail and trains, rather than a single bus hub in the middle of a residential neighborhood. “Trains are improving and the light rail is coming. I think within five years we could reduce 90% of the bus lines coming to the area,” he said. He proposed that the bus station be transformed into a multi-use building with residential units, stores, banks, and cultural centers. He added that the Tel Aviv municipality opposes the contract with Maimon and said he hopes they will find a way to cancel it.
“Ecologically, this building is polluting the entire area, it is totally neglected, there is urine everywhere, and Koby Maimon is keeping it that way until the whole neighborhood gets gentrified so he can make millions of dollars,” said Egoz, the demonstration organizer. She said people who blame the neighborhood’s crime and the crumbling infrastructure of the asylum seekers are looking in the wrong place. “The bus station has destroyed the neighborhood, and it is this neglect, not the asylum seekers, that brings things like drug use and prostitution.”