Israel's Thirst for Arms Has Caused The Displacement of Tens of Thousands of Refugees
On Tuesday, April 3, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a deal with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The day before, Netanyahu had announced a deal with UNHCR that would determine the fate of 42,000 Africans—mostly from Eritrea and South Sudan—who live in Israel. The UN Agency would relocate 16,250 of the African residents to Western states, such as Canada, Germany, and Italy. In exchange, Israel would give temporary legal status to an equal number of Africans. A day later, however, Netanyahu said that the agreement was dead.
Over the past several years, the Israeli government had sent out deportation notices to these Africans. They were given a stark choice: (1) take a modest cash payment and go to Rwanda or Uganda; (2) go to jail for life. Between December 2013 and June 2017, 4,000 Eritrean and South Sudanese residents in Israel were relocated under this ‘voluntary departure program’ to Rwanda and Uganda. When they arrived in Rwanda and Uganda, they found that there had been no arrangements made for them. Residence papers were not provided, nor were they provided with any way to adjust to their new life.
The promise was a hoax. Rather than return to Eritrea and South Sudan, these migrants have been moving northward toward Libya—and then trying to make the perilous crossing into Europe across the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel is a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. As such it has to abide by the rules of the Convention and provide safe havens for asylum seekers. This has not been the case. Based on the terms of the Convention and the policies of the UN Refugee Agency, Israel took over the right in 2009 to determine who should be seen as a refugee. Since then, Israel has only recognized eight Eritreans and two South Sudanese as formal refugees. The rest are seen, as Netanyahu puts it, as ‘infiltrators.’
Meanwhile, the government has not touched the 12,000 asylum applications that have been filed by the Eritreans and the South Sudanese. There is a good reason why Israel has ignored these applications. Eritrean and South Sudanese asylum seekers have a high rate of being seen as eligible according to numbers from other countries—84 percent of Eritreans and 60 percent of South Sudanese migrants have their applications accepted elsewhere.
The Africans have been either placed in Saharonim Prison in the Negev desert or housed in the poorest sections of southern Tel Aviv. The prison was built in 2012 specifically to hold the Africans. It is thought to be the largest immigrant detention centers in the world. Detainees here have consistently protested against their incarceration and against the conditions in Saharonim. Hunger strikes have been common. But at no time have these African detainees been able to see any government officials. Instead, the Israeli Prison Service has used the hunger strikes as a pretext to deny the detainees even the smallest luxuries (food in the cells, for instance).
Israel faces a serious problem. New demographic data shows that the population of the land—from the Jordan River to the Sea—has a population almost equally divided between Jews and Palestinians. The Israeli parliament looked at these numbers on Monday. What does this mean for Israel? The two-state solution (Israel and Palestine) has been set aside by Israel’s aggressive settlement policy in the West Bank and its annexation of large parts of East Jerusalem. For all practical purposes, Israel/Palestine is one state, with equivalent Jewish and Palestinian populations. The laws of the land, however, treat the Jews and the Palestinians on different footing. No wonder, then, that it Israel’s one state is viewed almost universally as an apartheid state.
Apartheid as a social condition marks the attitude of people towards those whom they see as strangers. The Africans are not to be integrated into Israel—even though many speak fluent Hebrew—because they are neither Jewish nor white. It is this condition of being black and non-Jewish that sets them apart. An apartheid state is one in which social barriers are erected to deny certain people basic human rights. Israel’s apartheid policies towards the Palestinians certainly shape its view of the African asylum seekers. They are acceptable if they come for short periods of time to take low-wage jobs. They are unacceptable if they aim to get papers to remain in the country.
Israel in Africa.
In mid-March Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Rwanda. In anticipation of his trip, Israeli defense officials went to Rwanda to sell weapons and military technology. Israel’s International Defense Cooperation Directorate as well as officials from the arms industry (Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, IMI Systems, Soltam Systems) traveled to Rwanda. They signed deals worth an unknown amount for Rwanda to buy arms from Israel.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Israel’s arms sales to the African continent have increased dramatically—by 70 percent between 2015 and 2016 (the last available data). These weapons include drones, communications systems, assault rifles, howitzers and armored vehicles. The countries that have bought these Israeli systems include Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal.
But this is the tip of the iceberg. There is another aspect to Israel’s arms sales to the African continent. Israel has been selling weapons to South Sudan—both to the rebels and to the government. The most common gun in South Sudan is the Israeli-made Micro Galil ACE rifle (known in the Upper Nile State as Galaxies), sold by Israel before and during this terrible war. In 2016, a UN Panel of Experts filed a report that pointed a finger at the role of both Israeli and European arms dealers in fuelling this conflict. The report showed that the Israeli ACE rifles were given to the Mathiang Anyoor militia, which is responsible for starting the war in December 2013. Israel has not cooperated with the Panel to help them trace the arms back to the suppliers.
In sum, Israeli arms help create havoc in South Sudan. This chaos has produced one of the largest refugee migrations—2 million refugees. A small number of them have braved the journey through Sudan and Egypt into Israel. Israel’s arms industry made money in their displacement. Now they are held in prisons or threatened with deportation. The cause produces the effect, which denies the cause.