The red (flag) and black (face) shame of Eilat

By Adam Lebor, March 17, 2011
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Watch out -there's an African refugee about! In case you cannot spot him or her (black, thin, fearful) an Israeli municipality has helpfully launched a solidarity campaign. Solidarity, that is, not with those fleeing war and oppression but with locals who refuse to rent their homes to "infiltrators", as Meir Yitzhak Halevi, the mayor of Eilat, describes people who make the perilous trek from African war zones through the Sinai desert.

Eilat spent 12,000 shekels (£2,000) for 1,500 red flags as part of the "Protect Our Homes" campaign. The flags are both a warning against the future conquest of Eilat by "infiltrators" and a symbol of anti-immigrant solidarity, explained Halevi. "I want anyone who rents his house to infiltrators to feel uncomfortable when he looks at his neighbours and sees the red flags, which express collective solidarity with this struggle," he told Haaretz newspaper.

Mr Halevi warned that "a community of refugees has started to form here" and has also issued "I too protect our home" stickers.

In a way, such plain talk is refreshing. No need for euphemisms in Eilat. But - thankfully - the campaign caused outrage across Israel, and even the city's hard-headed hoteliers are opposed to it. For, without the refugees, many hotels would be closing down, as few native-born Israelis are willing to take low-paid jobs as cleaners or chambermaids. And, without hotels and tourists, what would Eilat be?

The Sudanese massacres are a kind of African holocaust

Eilat may be the entry point for most African refugees but many head to Tel Aviv. Refugees from eastern Africa, especially Sudan, are a common site around the bus station and in the poorer sections of the city. As the only democracy in the region, the Jewish state is a natural magnet for those fleeing oppression.

But, beyond geography, there is morality. Many of the refugees have fled the genocide in Sudan, where the government has for years waged a war against its own people in the western province of Darfur, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands. This conflict, although little reported in the western press, has resulted in the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, on charges of war crimes. Human rights organisations and the United Nations have chronicled the survivors' accounts in detail.

They make chilling reading, and the waves of massacres carried out by the Sudanese government are a kind of African holocaust.

The Holocaust is seared into Israel's national consciousness. A trip to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is now virtually compulsory for any visiting dignitary complete with solemn evocations of "Never Again". But when something similar unfolds in a neighbouring country, the response of reactionary elements in Israel is not sympathy but an outpouring of racism against refugees, complete with the same kind of canards that were once used against Jewish refugees: they are dirty, spread disease, impregnate (and worse) local women.

Of course, Israel cannot accommodate every refugee fleeing wars but it has both a moral and a legal duty, under several international conventions, to treat refugees humanely once they arrive. The benefits that refugees can bring to Israeli society are evident in the documentary, Strangers No More, about the Bialik- Rogozin school in Tel Aviv, where children from 48 countries study.

The film has just won an Oscar for Best Short Documentary but some of its stars could be deported in the next few months.

Israel's refugee policy, like so many other issues, is decided by sleazy horse-trading. About 1,200 children of refugees and migrant workers, many of whom were born in Israel, were candidates for deportation.

After a sustained campaign by human rights groups supported by left-wing politicians, including President Shimon Peres and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the government agreed to allow 800 to stay.

Under pressure from the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai of the Shas party, the government agreed that 400 children would be deported even though, had the children and their parents been Jewish, they would immediately have been granted Israeli citizenship.

The children speak Hebrew, love their new homeland and are keen to serve in the army when they are old enough (in contrast to an increasing number of young Israelis). Following further protests, the government has now ruled that no children enrolled in education will be deported - for the moment. The threat has been postponed, not cancelled. The government's flailing and ad-hoc decision-making has highlighted the lack of a meaningful policy on refugees.

After the outcry they caused, the red flags across Eilat have been taken down, replaced by Israeli ones. But someone should remind Mr Halevi and Eli Yishai that, if any country in the world can be described as a "community of refugees", it is Israel. And that Jews, of all people, know only too well what happens when they and their premises are marked out to separate them from their neighbours.

Adam LeBor is the author of City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa (Bloomsbury).

    Last updated: 11:29am, March 17 2011