Mass anti-deportation rally rocks South Tel Aviv as expulsion deadline looms
Lotte Beilin, i24NEWS
A twenty thousand strong crowd descended upon the streets of South Tel Aviv on Saturday night united in their bid to “say no to deportation” as the deadline for expulsion set by the Israeli government looms and the lives of many Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers hang in the balance.
Brandishing signs that read “South Tel Aviv against deportation”, “human beings do not deport other human beings” and “rehabilitate the neighborhood” residents of the city, old and young, and activists stood shoulder-to-shoulder with asylum seekers delivering a shared message of hope amid the uncertainty.
“They say southern Tel Aviv is for deportation, I say it is against deportation!” hailed Shula Keshet, initiator of the demonstration and a resident of the locality that has since become the epicenter of the migrant debate. “We are all victims in the story, the old Israeli residents that live here and us the asylum-seekers,” Togod Omer Adam, a Sudanese refugee, said addressing the crowd.
“For the first time both our voices, Israeli and Eritrean, will be raised together against the deportation,” Helen Kidane, director of the Levinsky-based NGO, the Eritrean Women’s Center said in an interview with i24NEWS. “Our community of refugees will see that they are not alone, if we all speak out together we can bring about a change in policy.”
Earlier this year the Israeli government gave the some 38,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers a choice to either leave to a third-party African country with a one-time $3,500 cash payment, or, stay in Israel and endure indefinite incarceration in a prison facility with curbed freedoms and limited rights. Those with pending asylum claims will not be included.
The demonstration on Saturday occurred against the backdrop of the government’s bid to fulfill its promise of imprisoning those migrants refusing to select the option of “voluntary” deportation.
This week, seven working-age single Eritrean men, granted expulsion notices in February and deemed “infiltrators” by the authorities, were the first to be jailed in the Saharonim detention center. In response, 750 men imprisoned in Holot launched a hunger strike in opposition to the measure.
The catch-22 nature of the decision has left many questioning if there is even a choice at all. Testimonies of those who have fled to countries that Israel struck arrangements with, Uganda and Rwanda, reveal evidence of rights rescinded upon entry and authorities stealing documents amid continued rape, torture, and persecution for those fleeing from just that.
“We are are refugees - if we were not refugees, why would we leave our homes to come to Israel?” Mehabrahton, 27, from Eritrea said.
Amit, a 27 year-old Israeli activist, holding an emotive placard depicting the death of a migrant who made the decision to leave, said, “the asylum seekers that live in South Tel Aviv are our friends, we work with them, we live with them, they are like our family and its important we stick together to oppose the plans.”
Professor Shira Slorr Futterman who had traveled from Kfar Saba with a crowd of friends for the rally echoed, “it’s critical that there is a voice from the people to exert necessary pressure.”
- One city, two messages -
Meanwhile, only a stone’s throw away in the heart of Neve Sha’anan, a very different message sounded from the protesters loudspeaker. A counter-protest led by the anti-immigrant activist group ‘The South Tel Aviv Liberation Front’ gathered in their tens, holding signs reading “Liars, go home!”, a reference to the infiltrators versus refugee debate engulfing public discourse.
“Saturday night is the same day eight years ago that our friend Esther Galili was murdered by a drunk, illegal immigrant,” Miri Lavi, resident of South Tel Aviv and spokesperson for the Liberation Front group told i24NEWS. “The fact that they are holding a protest on the anniversary of her death summarizes the story: our sorrow is their celebration.”
Many residents of the area have expressed their support for the government’s highly-contested deportation policy, claiming there has been a deterioration in the conditions and security since the arrival of the asylum-seekers circa 2012. “We don’t feel secure to walk in our streets, we feel locked in our homes especially after midnight,” Lavi stated.
“The residents of South Tel Aviv seeking expulsion do not represent the majority,” Herzl Shubert, 68, resident of the area and demonstrator at the anti-deportation rally said.
Many, like Shubert, argue that the neighborhood of south Tel Aviv has long been neglected, blaming a chronic lack of government investment and arguing that dealing with the localities socioeconomic hardship has taken a back seat. “It is one of the poorest sections, this is true, but it has nothing to do with the refugees,” he added, “what the politicians are doing now is trying to make political gain.”
“We did not choose to arrive to southern Tel Aviv, one does not get a map in the Sinai desert to Levinsky Street,” Omer Adam declared. “When people got to the [Egyptian-Israeli] border they were handed one way bus tickets to the New Central Bus Station.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, said in a Knesset committee meeting on Monday that South Tel Aviv is living under a “reign of terrorism from illegal immigrants.” Miri Regev, Minister for Culture has in the past referred to migrants as “a cancer in the body” of the nation.
Whilst the situation has often been framed in “us versus them” terms, the anti-deportation rally organized by ASSAF, an NGO promoting the rights of asylum seekers, was publicized as a battle for both populations.
“We are also demonstrating for real solutions to the problems of the inhabitants of southern Tel Aviv and against cynical attempts of our corrupt government to incite the public against asylum-seekers,” MK for the Joint List and vocal advocate for protecting migrants, Dov Khenin told i24NEWS.
“I want to say to the people here today, thank you very much for standing by us,” Abraham, a 28-year old Eritrean refugee who arrived in Israel in 2011 after making the deadly journey across the Sinai where he was tortured. “We demonstrate against the policies of the government, not the people.”
Jesseca Manville is a journalist and news editor for the i24NEWS English web desk.
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