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Reporter's notebookUN and activists rule out talk of deporting asylum seekers

In Tel Aviv, Sudanese migrants say Israel making peace with a rotten regime

Asylum seekers question why Netanyahu would normalize ties with transitional leaders considered illegitimate by pro-democracy Sudanese

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Alteyb Hhmad. a Sudanese asylum seeker, in Tel Aviv on October 25, 2020 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Alteyb Hhmad. a Sudanese asylum seeker, in Tel Aviv on October 25, 2020 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

On October 23, US President Donald Trump called the White House press corps into the Oval Office to announce a “historic” and “very special” peace deal between Israel and Sudan.

“This is an incredible deal for Israel and Sudan,” Trump said. “For decades, Sudan has been at a state of war with Israel… and boycotted Israeli goods. There was no relationship whatsoever.”

The next day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who had been on the call, together with Sudan’s Sovereign Council president General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, when Trump made the announcement — appeared on Israeli television and declared enthusiastically: “This is a new era, an era of true peace.”

But on the afternoon of October 25 in South Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, which is home to several thousand asylum seekers from Darfur and other parts of Sudan, the reaction was decidedly less optimistic.

This reporter walked around Neve Sha’anan speaking to asylum seekers from Sudan, who make up about 20 percent of the 33,000 African migrants currently in Israel, about the news of Sudan-Israel ties.

Some individuals declined to be interviewed by name. But The Times of Israel spoke to four men — three from Darfur and one from Gezira — who expressed remarkably similar views.

“We want peace, God willing Sudan will have peace with Israel,” said Alteyb Hhmad, whom this reporter met in a grocery store.

“But Bibi (Netanyahu) is making peace with Abdul al-Fattah al-Burhan. He was one of [Omar] Al-Bashir’s military commanders and carried out genocide. Why is Netanyahu making peace with that guy? Something smells fishy,” cautioned Hhmad.

According to papers published by The Jamestown Foundation and Middle East Institute, many Darfurians accuse al-Burhan of being “the architect of the genocide” in Darfur. He is reportedly “well known in Darfur for his threats to exterminate the Fur people.” Both al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, Sudan’s top two military leaders, have reportedly “earned reputations for their roles in the brutal Darfur conflict.”

“It’s a phony peace,” said Hussein Ahmad, originally from Darfur. “Only when the generals are ousted from power will there be real peace.”

The Times of Israel asked the asylum-seekers whether they were worried about imminent deportation to Sudan but none of the few people this reporter spoke to expressed strong feelings on the topic.

“I want to go back to Sudan,” said Hhmad, “when there is a better government.”

Peace with the wrong partners?

“We Sudanese want peace with the whole world,” said Meki Abdallah, an asylum seeker from Darfur, who works in a falafel restaurant. “Israelis are good people. But al-Burhan is problematic. He was the deputy of al-Bashir [the president of Sudan from 1989 to 2019 who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for directing the mass murder, rape and pillage of civilians in Darfur].

Meki Abdallah, a Sudanese asylum seeker in Israel on October 25, 2020 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019 in a military coup following months of popular pro-democracy protests in the country. But the leaders of the military coup, al-Burhan and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, reportedly went along with the killing of more than 100 peaceful protesters in June 2019 who wanted Sudan’s new military leaders to hand over power to civilians.

Sudan is currently run by an 11-member Sovereignty Council with both military and civilian members, and an uneasy tension between them. Its chairman is al-Burhan. The country is scheduled to have general elections in late 2022, which pro-democracy activists hope will lead to an entirely civilian government. Meanwhile, Sudan’s military leaders reportedly enjoy the backing of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The reason for this support, in the view of Arab pro-democracy activist Iyad el-Baghdadi, is that “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are driven by their own fear that should a major Arab country transition to democracy, it would lead to upheavals at home.”

‘Democracy first, then peace’

Alteyb Hhmad, the asylum seeker, said he doesn’t think a peace agreement with Sudan’s current military leaders should be considered legitimate.

“I heard and watched the news about the peace agreement. But Sudan still doesn’t have a new government. Al-Bashir’s generals are in charge. That’s why this isn’t a normal peace,” he said. “It’s not going to help us as Sudanese.”

Only a future democratic Sudanese government can forge lasting peace, he said.

“We want peace with the whole world. But when? In a year and a half there will be elections and we will hopefully get a new government — not a government of murderers. When our country has democracy, then we can make peace,” he said.

Hussein Ahmad, who was working in a bicycle store, argued that Netanyahu is strengthening murderous dictators through this peace deal.

“Nothing has changed in Sudan. Al-Bashir is going to jail but the generals are continuing to murder people in places like Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains. Netanyahu is helping the generals, he is helping this government,” he said.

Hussein Ahmad, a Sudanese asylum seeker in Israel, on October 25, 2020 (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

According to media reports, even post-revolution, civilians in Darfur and nearby areas are still suffering attacks from militias associated with the government.

On a more wistful note, Ahmad added, “I do hope this peace brings something blessed.”

Another Sudanese man sitting nearby, Mustafa Muhammad, echoed Ahmad’s views.

“The people of Israel and the people of Sudan are friends. We want peace, but not with the generals.”

Inbal Ben Yehuda, an Israeli scholar of Sudanese politics at the Forum for Regional Thinking, said Sunday that the normalization agreement between Israel and Sudan was spearheaded by the United States and the United Arab Emirates, with Sudan “coerced” into it.

“Sudan is trying to survive. It needs access to foreign aid and investments. The United States agreed to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terror and conditioned this on normalization. Sudan had little choice but to agree.”

According to Ben Yehuda, Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges and faces weekly mass protests around the country, has been trying to score PR points from the deal, among other perceived benefits.

“Netanyahu can say that now he is going to deport Sudanese refugees. This is very popular with his base. Israeli officials also believe that the normalization with Sudan supports their leverage vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Sudan is presented in Israel as having joined a growing number of Muslim-majority countries that prefer relations with Israel over resolution to the Palestinian issue and the end of occupation.”

Will Sudanese asylum seekers be deported?

In a joint statement issued by The White House on October 23, the United States, Israel and Sudan agreed “that delegations will meet in the coming weeks to negotiate agreements of cooperation in those areas as well as in agriculture technology, aviation, migration issues and other areas for the benefit of the two peoples.”

Shortly after the announcement, Israel’s Ynet reported [Hebrew link] that an unnamed “senior official” had said that the two countries were working on a “pilot program” to repatriate several hundred Sudanese asylum seekers per year.

The Times of Israel contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to find out what the status is of Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel and whether this normalization agreement could in fact lead to their repatriation to Sudan.

A spokesperson said that there are around 6,500 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, with most of them coming from conflict-affected areas: Darfur, Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains.

Inbal Ben Yehuda (Facebook screenshot)

UNHCR said that it “welcomes the peace agreement between Israel and Sudan. However, it is very early days to be talking about return of Sudanese refugees, especially to very fragile conflict-affected areas.”

In the meantime, the Israeli organization Hotline for Refugees and Migrants issued a statement on Sunday explaining that Israel currently has a non-expulsion policy for Sudanese asylum seekers and is obligated to rule on asylum applications submitted by Sudanese citizens. According to Israeli law, asylum seekers cannot be deported before there is a final ruling on their application.

“As of May 2018, asylum applications have been submitted by 5,119 Sudanese citizens, all of which are still pending,” the statement said. “Even if Israel chooses to repeal the non-expulsion policy for Sudanese asylum seekers, this change will not relieve the State of its obligation to rule on asylum applications submitted by Sudanese citizens.”

Therefore, the statement said, politicians’ statements to the effect that they will deport Sudanese asylum seekers carry little weight.

“Politicians’ statements calling for the expeditious deportation of thousands of asylum seekers contradict the State’s own position…and are nothing more than a smokescreen designed to obscure the state’s commitment to review asylum applications once and for all.”

Ben Yehuda has written that if there is to be peace, the asylum seekers, who for the most part speak fluent Hebrew, could serve as a bridge between the two countries.

“Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel could become a human, cultural, and social bridge, which also has business and economic potential. This group has both the knowledge and the skills to disperse preconceptions about Sudan, and to provide a more informed context to the discourse on normalization.”

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