Thursday, August 7, 2014

Watching the dust settle on Operation Protective Edge

Damage to a house in Rafah refugee Camp
Looking back at my article from 2012 , "As the dust settles: In the aftermath of Pillar of Defense", I realized how little has actually changed.  With only changing years, names, and some details, the essence of my post still stands: not much has changed from two years ago, and I could probably just copy and paste it again right here in August 2014.

In 2012 I argued that while both Israel and Hamas will claim victory, no one actually won.  Once again, I stand by this statement.   Israel will say it weakened Hamas: after all, our goals weren't to destroy Hamas nor to reoccupy Gaza,  but simply Bibi's vague notion of "weakening" them and destroying tunnels.  On the other side, Hamas will also claim victory.  They're still here, and they've succeeded in bringing fear to Israelis and turning the IDF around and out of Gaza. They'll claim more and more Gazans will turn to terror and support Hamas, and that in fact we haven't found all their tunnels or destroyed all their rockets.

And just like I said in 2012, while both sides claim victory, there are no winners.  It certainly wasn't the
Israeli children take cover in a playground during a red alert siren
citizens of the south, who for one month lived in fear of constant rocket attacks and from fear of terror tunnels.  Nor was it the families of 64 soldiers, sitting shiva for some of the best boys our country had to offer.  And there is no victory for the citizens of Gaza, who will now return to their pile of bricks, their neighborhoods in ruins, and with too many of their family, friends and neighbors dead.  Once again, used as collateral damage by their own leaders.

And just like in 2012, we'll now return to normal. We'll turn to the good ol' status quo.  Hamas will begin to rearm.  More rockets will be made, and smuggled in, preparing to kill innocent Israelis.  In 6 months time, another tunnel will be built, (with all that aid money the world will now send to Gaza) preparing to kidnap one of our soldiers.  And the blockade will resume, crippling Gaza exports, essentially stifling their chance at business and prohibiting them from fishing on the coast. And Gaza economy will continue to crumble, bringing resentment to the hearts of the next generation. Back to normal. Back to quiet. Until the next time where we play our little game of war, destruction and death.

I don't want to argue on the justness of the war, and I don't want to argue on the necessity of the war.  I'm not a military expert or a lawyer versed in the international laws of war.  We've been told a lot of stuff by our leaders on those two points in the last month, and not everything has made 100% sense to me, and not everything has logically connected.  But that's because they're not just leaders, they're also our politicians, with their own goals and their own future in mind.

What I do want to argue on, is the exact same thing I argued in 2012, something that we didn't take advantage of within this time.  In the past two years, we had a chance to solve the real problem instead of putting a bandaid on it's symptom.  In 2012, I argued that the only real solution to Gaza lies in the West Bank.  The creation of a diplomatic peace solution with moderate forces.  In 2012, Abas claimed he would make sure there would be no third Intifada, that the solution could only be found through the diplomatic creation of a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel.  Then, in what I found to be an incredible revelation, he admitted that he was waiting to visit his hometown of Safed, not as a citizen, but as a visitor, in essence relinquishing the Palestinian right of return.  In my last article, I claimed that this statement, though small, was an incredible breakthrough on the Palestinian narrative of the right to return.  It's affirming Israel's right to stay Jewish, by admitting that it's unfeasible for scores of Palestinians to return to Israel proper, therefore drowning the Jewish majority.  To me, it was a sign of readiness to make peace.  Yet, what happened in those two years of opportunity?

In a recent Op-Ed the Times of Israel editor, David Horowitz, wrote an article titled "Netanyahu finally speaks his mind".  Here he argues that in a recent press conference, Bibi finally speaks his mind on the two state solution.  He says, "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan." For anyone unsure, this means, no full Palestinian sovereignty.  What happened to those two years of opportunity? For Bibi, it was never an opportunity he was willing to take advantage of.

Meanwhile, a few days ago, Abbas had another interview, once again like in 2012, on Channel 2, which slipped through the cracks of mainstream Israeli discourse. (It wasn't only aired on Israeli network but also Palestinian, for the Palestinian people as well)  He said that the Palestinians made a mistake 1947, by refusing the UN partition plan which split the land into two states, one for Jews, and one for the Arabs.

This is huge.  The current Palestinian narrative focuses on victimhood. They were victims of Jewish immigration to Palestine, victims of the colonial powers, victims of the 1948 war that made them refugees (known to them as Nakba), victims of occupation, victims of consistent occupation and Israeli aggression.  Abbas' statement shifts the narrative.  It complicates the narrative of victimhood, and carries implications that they made a mistake, and that they need to take some responsibility for this mistake.  To me, it's another hand for peace.  It's saying, we made a mistake in 1948, but today, in 2014, we realize the power of the diplomatic process and are willing to fix this mistake through compromise.

Israeli narrative is also heavily reliant on victimhood.  We were victims of antisemitism in Europe, (and still are) we were victims of Arabs in Palestine, we were victims of the entire Middle East, we were victims of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. We are victims of terrorism, and we are occupiers because we are victims of continued Palestinian terror, that we cannot allow to kill our children.

I'm not denying that either groups aren't victims: both narratives hold truth.  However, the story of the past is much more complicated than a string of victimhood. Both groups have acted in ways that have casted them as perpetrators and agents of their own future.  Both sides have made mistakes, and both sides need to make hard compromises.  Etgar Keret in his recent article in the LA times, says that we should stop calling it peace, and start calling it for what it truly is: compromise.  He writes, "That's why the first step might to be stop using the debilitating word "peace", which has long since taken on transcendental and messianic meanings to both the political left and right wings, and replace it immediately with the word "compromise." It might be less rousing word, but at least it reminds us that the solution we are so eager for can't be found in our prayers to God but in our insistence on a grueling not always perfect dialogue with the other side."

Because compromise means not only hard decisions, but also a compromise in our world view, in how we see and define ourselves and how we see and define the other.  It's a compromise we have to make, and that they have to make.

It's time we made a choice.  We can continue to live in our cycle of violence.  We can make ceasefire after ceasefire with Hamas, only for it to be broken.  Only for us to forcefully go back in, with gun in hand to bring back our quiet, bring back our status quo.  Until the next time of course.

Hamas is a crazy terrorist group, we can't negotiate with Hamas nor can we empower them.  But every time we make ceasefires, we empower them.  We tell them that their violence paid off. We affirm their narrative of victory.  And so instead, we must turn east, to the West Bank, to the PLO, to Abbas. They aren't perfect, they've made mistakes, and will probably make more in the future.  But when we turn inward, we realize that neither are we, neither have we been, and neither will we ever be.

Compromise is a process.  Peace can't come overnight. It will be a long hard road.  But it needs to start somewhere, sometime.  But broken peace talks that take us back to status quo will never secure our future, they'll only drag us into cycle after cycle of violence, like the one we just ended.  And only when will we begin to demand from our leaders that they take this road, can we repair the real problem, can we stop fear from dictating our future, and stop the never-ending cycle.  Because if not, in 2016, 2017 or maybe 2018, I'll be writing this same article, all over again.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Information Regarding the Refugee Situation in Israel: Staying Informed and Understanding the Situation

Many people have been asking questions and wanting more information on the Refugee Situation here in Israel at the moment.  We've put together an information leaflet in order that people can refer to it and find more information. 
Please share with anyone who has questions and needs more information.


Shallya and Hailey

Who are the Israeli Asylum Seekers?

Asylum seekers are African refugees fleeing from persecution mainly from Eritrea or Sudan, and asking for asylum in Israel.  They have found physical safety in Israel.

Why are the people fleeing Eritrea?

Eritrea is a dictatorship and is known to be one of the most oppressive regimes in the world today. The government destroyed the free press in 2001 and it controls all TV, radio and newspapers. All government opposition is suppressed. Internet access is limited and internet users are closely monitored. There are four recognized religions in Eritrea: Sunni Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of Eritrea. An adherent of any other religion is subject to arrest, can have their businesses confiscated, and faces threats and imprisonment. Since 2002 Eritrea uses mandatory "National Service" as a tool of oppression. Citizens are conscripted for most of their working life, forced to work 10-12 hours a day and paid low wages: an amount which is difficult to survive on.  Females face a high level of sexual abuse. Additionally, Eritrea commonly uses severe forms of punishment including torture. Due to severe economic problems exacerbated by droughts, there have been reports of food shortages yet these claims were denied by the government. Humanitarian organizations are not allowed into Eritrea although they do receive certain funding from UN run projects.1

Why are people fleeing Sudan?

Sudan, ruled by the National Congress Party (NCP) is fraught with a number of different conflicts. Since South Sudan's independence in July 2011, the two countries have been in conflict over the border, oil production and debt. Since the beginning of 2012 there have been cross-border attacks and armed clashes leaving many people displaced. There is also fighting between government forces and rebels in the Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile States, forcing many people to flee. Although an agreement was signed in the Darfur region in 2011 between Sudan and a Darfur rebel group, security in the region still remains problematic. Not all rebel groups were agreed to the agreement and so fighting in the region continues. The government continues to deny United Nations-Afican Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) access to many parts of Darfur. UNDAMID reports on arbitrary arrest and detentions. The ongoing conflict has disrupted the supply of humanitarian assistance, exacerbating the flow of refugees. Despite International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants which were issued in 2005, against six individuals (including President Omar al-Bashir) Sudan has not cooperated and denies all responsibility. Student led peaceful protests which were conducted in various towns in late 2011 and 2012 were met with severe violence, mass arrest, detainments and torture. People who are perceived to be a threat to the government are arrested and face harsh treatment.  Opposition to the government has been banned and free press is heavily censored.2

Citizens of Sudan and Eritrea may have fled for a variety of different reasons. They generally arrive in Israel via Egypt having crossed the Sinai Peninsula, sometimes being shot at by Egyptian soldiers, or after being released from kidnappers in the Sinai. (where their families were forced to pay a ransom and they were held against their will) They then arrive in the first safe country: Israel.

Does Israel have an obligation to help these Asylum seekers?

In 1951, Israel signed and ratified the UN refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol (together the "Convention") Under this Convention, we obligated ourselves to accept and assess the claims of refugees asking for asylum.  As a nation of refugees, emerging from the consequences of extreme antisemitism, this was an important moment that defined what kind of state we were to be: a beacon of social justice that champions freedom, equality and human rights.

Who is a refugee under the convention?

According the Refugee convention, a refugee is someone who  "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."3

What right are refugees entitled to and do they have obligations?

Among the rights enshrined in the Convention is the right of non-refoulment, (Article 33), according to this a person should not be sent back to a place where he faces fear to his life or freedom, the right not to punished for illegal entry in to country (Articles 31), the right to work (Article 17-19). A refugee is also obligated to abide by the laws of the host country.

Why should we grant asylum if they already passed through Egypt, why can't Egypt be responsible, not us?

According to the Convention the first safe country is responsible for the asylum seekers. Egypt is not considered 'safe' for asylum seekers.

Why doesn't American, Canada or wealthy western country take them?

As stated above, the convention says that the first safe country that the asylum seeker arrives at, is the one which has the responsibility to assess their claims. As Israel is considered "Safe'' other countries are not willing to take/resettle our asylum seekers.

How do we know who is a refugee and who isn't?

We don't. Netanyahu and Gideon Saar have been telling the public they know that they are migrant workers but they have no data or facts to back their statements.  According to the Convention, Refugee Status Determination ("RSD") is the process that will determine their status.  The process should ideally be individual in nature, procedures should be fair and efficient and asylum seekers should be given the right to appeal. In Israel, the RSD process is not transparent, very few claims have been examined and very few answers have been given. Until now Sudanese and Eritreans have been given "Group Protection", according to which they would not be sent out of Israel, but they are also not recognized as refugees.

Until a few years ago, the UN in Israel had the responsibility to check the appeals from the asylum seekers.  However, Israel asked the UN to step aside to begin the process of RSD themselves.  However, since the process was switched from the UN to Israel, very few cases have been checked and none have been answered.

We need to demand from our government to begin checking their claims so we can see who is a migrant worker and who is a refuge.

What percentage of Asylum claims are recognized in other countries?

According to HIAS, in other countries 80% of Eritreans have been confirmed refugees, and 35% of Sudanese

But if we give them refugee status, they'll stay in Israel. We are a small Jewish country, how can we integrate such large numbers of people who will threaten the Jewish character of our state?

First of all, let's put the numbers into perspective. There are right now about 53,000 asylum seekers. After we assess their cases as asylum seekers, the number will decrease. (Not the full number will be found to be a 
refugee under the convention)

Secondly, the current figure is only 0.6% of our population. That's hardly an overwhelming number.   Every year, Israel provides and integrates for the duration of their visas about 70,000 foreign workers, who do menial jobs Israelis won't do. That number isn't overwhelming us nor hurting the nature of our Jewish state. The government could lower the number of foreign workers to accommodate the refugees.

Many of the asylum seekers are educated yet are willing to work hard at menial jobs especially in the hotel and food industry and construction (where the majority are employed). They have proven to be dedicated workers, many employers including the CEO of Isrotel has spoken out in their defense.

Lastly,  according to the Convention, protection does not need to be permanent. A person will cease to be a refugee once the situation in their home countries improve and the basis of their refugee status no longer exists. It may also occur if refugees VOLUNTARILY return to their home country. Many asylum seekers want to return home- but not while 
their lives and rights as human beings are being threatened.

Have you stepped into south Tel Aviv and seen them there, do you not care about the residents there?

I have been to south Tel Aviv. There's a problem there, this we cannot deny. What I'm looking for is a solution.  Once they came into Israel from the Sinai, Israel jailed them in detention centers. Once released they were either dropped off or handed a bus ticket to south Tel Aviv, without any other support. The government has further exasperated the problem by making it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to work: therefore increasing the rate of unemployment. This has caused an increase in crime. Like any group of people, including Israeli society, there are criminals among them, however this is not representative of the whole population.  

It should also be noted that the crime statistics have been exaggerated by the government ministers. According to data represented at the Knesset's committee meeting on Migrant Workers in March 19, 2012 the crime rates for foreigners stood at 2.24% in 2011, while the crime rate among other populations in 2010 stood at 4.99%. The reported increases in crime where also explained by Police commissioner Yocahanan Danimo as crimes of desperation who advocated for asylum seekers to be allowed to work. 

The first step to helping the residents in South Tel Aviv is to face the problem by first assessing who has a claim as a refugee. Once we know who to grant refugee status to they will be granted the right to work. We can help relocate them to other parts of Israel that require menial workers. 

But if we are nice to them, more will come into Israel?

Last year, only 12 asylum seekers came into Israel because we built a fence over the border. This fence is what is preventing people accessing Israel.  Right now, we have essentially frozen the number at 53,000. 

Why have there been protests the last few days- why now?

The protests and the national strike has erupted for two main reasons. The first is that the government passed an amendment to the Anti Infiltration Law, (the "Ammendment"). Under the Amendment, asylum seekers can be sent to the "detention center" in the south called Holot. They can be sent there without any judicial process, and without judicial representation. (They have no right to a lawyer) The center is run by police. The prisoners need to be present three times a day for roll call. Upon entering Holot, they are given a number instead of their name. They can leave the jail in the day, but if are away for more than 48 hours, the police can arrest them and bring them back. There is no work in the area. No Israelis are allowed to enter the center. This is a jail, let's not kid ourselves.   When over 100 prisoners of Holot last week marched to Jerusalem in protest, they were arrested and returned to Holot.

This Initial draft of the Anti Infiltration Law was struck down by Israel's Supreme Court as unconstitutional for violating basic human rights. The Amendment will be discussed by the Supreme Court soon.

The second spark was a comment by the government that they will no longer be renewing visas. Right now, asylum seekers are provided a visa, valid only for 3-5 months, under "group protection". This visa, although not a work permit, insured that they will be allowed to stay in Israel. The government has had a policy of turning a blind eye to illegal employment, although it has recently threatened to enforce it as well. Every few months, asylum seekers hold their breathe in fear their visas won't get renewed as they jump through bureaucratic hoops. This time, they worry that their visas won't be renewed. If they have no visa, they can be arrested and taken to Holot.  Additionally they risk losing their jobs if they don't have a valid visa.

The Interior Ministry has limited the places, times and dates of when they will renew the visas.  For example, the office in Jerusalem will not hand out renewals anymore.  In the offices that are open, it is only twice a week for two and half hours.  Not having a valid visa is cause for being sent to Holot.  

Further, those that have been granted a renewal in their visas in the last few days, have been receiving "invitations" to Holot. This "invitation" declares that after the new visa expires (most of these renewals have only been one more month) they must go to Holot.  If they do not go to Holot, they will be arrested and sent to Holot.

Is Holot a good solution?

Holot construction and upkeep this year alone has cost Israeli taxpayers NIS 440 million dollars. Couldn't this money have been better used? Not just to help socially with the refugees, but even with other social issues within Israel?

Further, the detention center can only hold about 3,000 people. Is this Israel's solution? That still leaves 50,000 refugees. We've built a detention center to abuse the rights of 3,000 refugees without a humane and realistic solution to the problem. As discussed above refugees are not allowed to be punished for their illegal entry into the host country.  (Please note: That there are closed detention centers at the border also used by Israel, for example Saharonim, which can fit another 2,000 refugees.  It's likely that Israel will expand both facilities.) 

Aside from it's restriction size and it's drain on Israeli economy, Holot tramples on human rights.  The Israeli government has called it a "detention center" but according to the description above, it is clearly a jail.  Without any chance of a trial or legal representation, the asylum seekers' freedom as human beings is being threatened.  Additionally, indefinite detentions violates international norms. 

So if you demand one thing from the government what would it be?

The government should stand up to its international obligation and examine every case. Those who are deserving of refugee status should be given it. We should not be ignoring our legal and moral obligations.

Why do you support this cause, rather than other problems in Israel? Like poverty in Israel or disease?

My support for this cause doesn't negate my support for other causes. But I see a problem here. I see human rights being abused. I see freedom being taken away. I see racism.  I see Israel ignoring international law it agreed to. Because of this, I can't stand by and be silent. All we need are voices to encourage our government to listen: hear their cases. Assess their claims. After this, I'm open to debate about the next step. But right now the solution is to follow the law of the Convention.

Disclaimer: Please note that I am aware of the complexities of international law and the challenges Israel faces, I intend this information to be a starting point for further conversation, feel free to do your own research as well.  You can email either me or Shallya and we will try our best to answer questions and update the fact sheet.  

Also helpful is HIAS FAQ, which can be found here. And another page of information from ARDC, which can be found here

Written by Hailey Dilman and Shallya Scher