TEL AVIV — Last month, Israeli police, re-enforced by secret service personnel, scooped up 170 illegal African immigrants, men women and children, and flew them to an undisclosed destination — presumably Kenya.
From there, they were expected to make connections to their respective native lands, which do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
This was generally expected to be the start of an expulsion process that would affect an estimated 40,000 Africans most of whom slipped across the border from Egypt by way of the desolate Sinai Peninsula.
However, there has been no follow-up. Nor has controversial Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s earlier idea of deporting 400 African children whose parents brought them here by the same route been implemented to date. Questions were raised then about the effect this might have on boys and girls who were integrated into Israeli schools and whose native tongue is Hebrew.
Was this also to have been the beginning of a callous if not malicious process?
The most astonishing aspect of this situation is that Israel, which was established 64 years ago in part as a haven for Jewish refugees, among them survivors of the Nazi Holocaust as well as a place in which Jews, Arabs and others could live in a democratic framework in which their cultural values could survive and flourish without persecution or discrimination, could turn its back on impoverished immigrants who sought salvation here.
Although the number of illicit border crossings has increased to an estimated 1,000 per month during the past two years, Israel’s government failed to implement any kind of constructive program for the people involved. Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his mainly right-wing ministers embarked on two depressing projects: A border fence to bar entry to infiltrators and a detention camp for those already here or who managed to enter one way or another in the interim.
The border fence is expected to stretch across an estimated 125-mile long stretch of the harsh desert landscape and will cost about $3 billion. The detention camp is to be erected in southern Israel near one of this country’s biggest prisons. It is meant to accommodate at least 25,000 detainees who will receive food, shelter and medical care at the state’s expense.
As is, the African migrants are not allowed to work here. Despite official attempts to keep them away from the densely populated sectors of central Israel, thousands of Africans have gravitated toward Tel Aviv’s depressed southern districts, scrounging for enough money to share overcrowded apartments and creating a depressed environment of idleness tinged with mounting crime — burglary, rape and extortion.
Israeli educators and enlightened social workers have made herculean efforts to give the innocent African children a chance to live normal lives within the Israeli society. Many of them attend the Bialik school in southern Tel Aviv where it is quite normal to encounter African children speaking fluent Hebrew, reading Hebrew literature and learning the Bible and Jewish history.
When asked by sympathetic Israeli journalists if they wanted to remain in this country the uniform answer was in the affirmative. They answer was based on the feeling that this is their country, Hebrew is their native language and that they would not like to leave their schoolmates behind to go elsewhere.
If the security fence, which is expected to be finished within the next two years, stops the illegal influx — pessimists predict that an alternative route through southern Jordan will be inevitable (until it too is fenced off) — the real challenge facing Israel will be to help these uninvited newcomers cope with life in this country.
Considering the human tragedy on the background of which Israel came into being, May 15, 1948, one might expect that the Israelis would show the rest of the world how desperate human beings should be treated. Religious extremists, including several Orthodox rabbis, who fear that their long-term presence here will be a catalyst for intermarriage should take off their social blinders and think in positive humanitarian terms.
(Jay Bushinsky, and Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)