Thirty-five prominent Israeli authors sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday, January 18, calling on him not to deport asylum-seekers. “We call on you to stop the deportation of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, men and women carrying horrific scars on their bodies and souls from their journey and from torture camps in Sinai, and children born in Israel who are asking of us only one thing: to live,” the letter said. Among the signatories to the letter also sent to Knesset members are the authors Amos Oz, Meir Shalev, Etgar Keret, David Grosman, A.B. Yehoshua, Zeruya Shalev, Orly Castel Bloom, Agi Mishol and Noa Yadlin as well as playwrights Edna Mazya and Joshua Sobol.
“In light of the huge wave of refugees inundating the West and Africa, the number of asylum-seekers in Israel is less than half of one percent of its population, and its gates have been locked to them since 2012,” the letter stated. “Israel has no refugee problem and has no economic difficulty taking them in, settling them and directing them to jobs in caregiving, agriculture and construction which are crying out for workers. While some 100,000 foreign nationals predominately from Eastern Europe are in Israel without permits, they are neither persecuted nor subjected to forced deportation. It is the 35,500 asylum seekers from Africa – fleeing from fire and needing every possible protection – that the Israeli government has made the objects of persecution and forced deportation,” said the letter.
The writers said the government’s claim that these people are not asylum seekers is baseless, and warned that torture and even execution await them in the third party country to which they will be sent. “Our history as a people is turning over in the grave that is being dug for it, and you have the privilege of preventing this.” Noting that deportation is set to begin just before Holocaust Memorial Day, the letter states: “We call on you to act morally, humanely and with compassion worthy of the Jewish people, and to stop the deportation of refugees to the hell from which they fled before it starts. Otherwise, we will have no reason to exist.”
“You have to remember that Israel is a signatory to the Geneva Convention,” playwright Sobol, who signed the public statement, told Yedioth Ahronoth. “The convention defines a refugee as one who left his country out of fear for his life. The convention forbids the countries that signed it to expel refugees back to where they escaped from, regardless of whether the asylum seeker entered the country legally or not. These rules were determined based on data gathered during the Nazi regime, when Jews were the ones crossing borders and seeking protection. So what does the State of Israel do? It expels the refugees, while wasting money, to a third country, Rwanda.”
The authors wrote the letter amid a number of other public pronouncements of protest over the past few days in opposition of asylum seeker deportation. Hundreds of people took part Wednesday, January 17, in a meeting at the Knesset initiated by members of Knesset Dov Khenin (Hadash – Joint List), Michal Rozin and Eyal Ben-Reuven (Zionist Union). “Soon tens of thousands of people will be deported to their deaths and we will stand aside,” Kheinin warned, addressing the Jerusalem auditorium filled by around two hundred protesters cheering and applauding in support. “We have to stop the expulsions!” he urged.
Eli Nehama, principal of the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, attended the meeting in the Knesset by many children of asylum-seekers, called on the government this week to prevent deportation with a warning that such a policy immoral and would be a tragedy for generations to come.
Outside the Knesset, a group of Eritrean asylum seekers and Israeli refugee advocates staged a mock slave auction outside the Knesset on Wednesday morning. Around 10 asylum seekers stood on make-shift auction blocks made of milk crates, while an auctioneer called out, “get your slaves, slaves for half price,” over a megaphone. A single member of Knesset, Dov Khenin, came outside to support the asylum seekers, and called Israel’s refugee policy inhumane and unacceptable.
Israeli officials have stated that starting in a matter of weeks, tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel will face a stark choice: indefinite imprisonment or agree to be sent to Rwanda or Uganda. Asylum seekers who have left Israel for the two countries in recent years have not received any legal status there, and faced dangerous conditions and choices, including heading toward Europe through Libya, where human trafficking and other types of violence is a constant danger.
Vowing to choose prison over deportation, Awad, one of the Eritrean asylum seekers who took part in the protest action as a would-be slave on the auction block, appealed to Israelis to listen and learn. “Before you deport us let’s sit and talk about our problem. Learn about what the problems are in Eritrea,” said Awad, who asked not to use his last name. “We are refugees, not infiltrators, not work migrants — we are refugees. We will stay here, in prison.”
Human rights and refugee advocacy organizations in Israel and abroad have condemned the far-right Israeli government’s plan and pledged to fight the deportations.
A similar event against deportation sponsored by the Hartman Institute and Rabbis for Human Rights was held in Jerusalem on Tuesday, January 16. Protests were also held Tuesday in front of ministers and right-wing coalition Knesset members’ homes in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and Haifa.
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