As the first repatriation flight of South Sudanese immigrants took off from Tel Aviv on Sunday night, an improvised soup kitchen was being set up in Lewinski Park, near Tel Aviv’s central bus station, to cater for the large groups of Africans that gather in the area.
A taxi driver, Tiran Cohen, said: “You can only feel compassion when you look at these people. Compassion and a feeling for fellow human beings.”
Almost at the stroke of 7pm, a small but steady throng of Israelis started flowing towards an the soup kitchen, bringing huge vats of rice, beans, meat soup, pita bread, hummus and other food stuffs.
Blankets and clothes were gathered in another corner of the asphalted central area of the park.
Last Sunday’s deportation was co-ordinated with representatives of the new South Sudanese government, which has established diplomatic relations with Israel. Each former refugee was handed about £1000 in cash and some ID documents.
Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, who is trying to leverage the immigration issue ahead the next elections, sought to take credit for the deportation. “We need to guard our home, with all the sensitivity and pain that that entails,” he said.
Mr Yishai has vowed to clear Israel of all immigrants within three years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has echoed this hard line, saying on Sunday that all new arrivals would immediately be placed in detention.
Despite his tough stance, Mr Yishai is well aware that 50,000 of the immigrants are UN-recognised exiles from violent homelands, and as such cannot be deported.
The issue of immigration has fiercely divided Israeli public opinion. While many are sympathtic to their plight, the residents of South Tel Aviv have longed complained about rising crime, which they blame on the migrants. A recent anti-immigrant protest in the area turned violent when rioters assaulted black African passers-by.
Fikri Job, 36, spent 10 years in Egypt and 34 months in Israel, as a recognised refugee from South Sudan. In a week he will be flown back home. “I’m not happy about it,” he says. “The people of Israel are good, but Netanyahu is not good.”