Analysis News

A year since protests, detained asylum seekers hint at new strategy

A year ago, 1,000 African asylum seekers marched out of the Holot detention facility toward the Egyptian border, hoping to draw the world’s attention to their plight. Since then, thousands have been pressured to leave Israel. As protests appear ineffectual, two asylum seekers discuss what comes next.

Oren Ziv

When I meet Jack outside the “Holot” desert detention facility in southern Israel, currently home to some 1,900 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, the first thing he wanted to tell me is what bothers him about the Israelis that come to visit him and his friends.

“Not many people come to visit us at Holot. The few that do come — they help us, and that’s great. But that is not going to change our situation here in Israel. We expect every Israeli to try and affect change through the political system — specifically, the government’s policy toward us, the refugees,” he says.

I met Jack almost exactly a year ago, when hundreds of asylum seekers detainees in Holot decided to up and leave the detention facility and march toward the Egyptian border, demanding that they be allowed to leave Israel.

They had lost hope of being recognized as refugees in Israel, they were unwilling to resign themselves to indefinite detention in the Israeli desert, and thought just maybe they could raise some international awareness. They hoped they could push the United Nations to address their refugee claims.

Jack at the protest camp along the Egyptian border in 2014.

Jack at the protest camp along the Egyptian border in 2014.

I had not seen Jack for exactly one year so I went down to Holot to meet him one afternoon last week. As I arrived, many of the detainees were taking advantage of the waning daylight hours when the heat breaks just long enough to take a walk or go for a run.

The asylum seekers detained at Holot are allowed to leave the facility during the day but they must be back in time for a 10 p.m. roll call. Because the detention facility is nearly 50 miles from the closest city, Beersheba, and without any real planned activities, many of the asylum seekers simply wander around the desert around the prison.

Like most of the people who marched on the Egyptian border a year ago, Jack is still detained at Holot. In the year that passed, Israel’s High Court struck down — for the second time — the law that authorized the indefinite detention of African asylum seekers. In response, the Knesset passed a new version of the law, this time limiting detention at Holot to 20 months and reducing the number of times detainees must be present for roll call.

Jack says he sleeps most of the day, breaking up his waking hours by teaching English and Hebrew to his bunkmates. His friend Tishome, from Eritrea, who was one of the leaders of the march on the border, joins us outside Holot’s gates at one of the picnic tables that make up its visiting area. Israel calls Holot an “open facility,” but authorities do not allow visitors inside – definitely not journalists.

The shaded picnic tables outside Holot’s gates where detainees can meet with visitors.

The shaded picnic tables outside Holot’s gates where detainees can meet with visitors.

Jack and Tishome were sent to Holot in February 2014. They arrived at the open prison one day apart. Jack is originally from Darfur and lived and worked in Jerusalem until he was imprisoned for being an asylum seeker. Tishome is from Eritrea and worked at a hotel in Eilat until he was sent to Holot.

Read also: The origins and politics of Israel’s refugee debate

The march last year was an act of desperation, Tishome explains. “We marched to the Egyptian border hoping that the UN would come and help us. We knew that the chances of the army actually opening the border and letting us cross were next to nothing, but we wanted to try.”

“The march and our time along the border was physically difficult,” he continues, “but it’s better to suffer for a short period of time and then receive protection than to wait aimlessly in prison for years and suffer mentally.”

African asylum seekers march from the Holot detention facility toward the Egyptian border.

African asylum seekers march from the Holot detention facility toward the Egyptian border.

An Israeli soldier stops asylum seekers from approaching the Egyptian border.

An Israeli soldier stops asylum seekers from approaching the Egyptian border.

That same Friday one year ago, after dozens of kilometers of marching, the Israeli army stopped the asylum seekers from approaching the actual Egyptian border. The soldiers began pushing them and threatening them with their weapons, they recall. So they decided to back up a few hundred meters, to a small forest, Nitzana, and to set up an improvised encampment next to the border. They stayed there for three days.

According to the law in force at the time, asylum seekers could not be brought back to Holot until they had been AWOL for two full days.

“We knew that the police would come after 48 hours but we never expected such violence,” Tishome says of the way police and immigration officers cleared their camp. “Officers hit us and used pepper spray and then sent us to prison for three months. We didn’t imagine that we would be punished for daring to protest.”

On the third day of the protest, June 29, 2014, hundreds of riot police, mounted officers and immigration officers surrounded the protest camp. The police officers wore black gloves and the immigration officers latex gloves.

“When they came to evict us, I asked one of the officers to let us cross into Egypt,” Jack tells me. “But they were agitated. They started hitting us and throwing us to the ground. Four officers carried me onto a bus, each of them holding one of my limbs.”

“I’ve been at a lot of protests,” Jack says. “This was different.” A total of 779 asylum seekers were arrested that day.

Israeli police and immigration officers arrest African asylum seekers at a makeshift encampment near the Egyptian border.

Israeli police and immigration officers arrest African asylum seekers at a makeshift encampment near the Egyptian border.

Israeli police pin down an asylum seeker who was part of a march on the Egyptian border demanding that the international community take responsibility for refugees in Israel.

Israeli police pin down an asylum seeker who was part of a march on the Egyptian border demanding that the international community take responsibility for refugees in Israel.

African asylum seekers hold onto one another in hopes of stopping Israeli riot police, seen in the background, from taking them back to the Holot detention facility.

African asylum seekers hold onto one another in hopes of stopping Israeli riot police, seen in the background, from taking them back to the Holot detention facility.

As we talk outside of Holot, the foot traffic in and out of the facility starts to get heavier. The detainees say the food in Holot is not healthy, or very good, and they are not allowed to bring food in from the outside. Some start hiking toward barbeque pits and sitting areas they have built in the surrounding hills. Others eat at makeshift restaurants along the facility’s gates, established by a few detainees with an entrepreneurial spirit.

In the year since the border protest camp was broken up, the asylum seekers who took part in the protest were sent to conventional prisons for a number of months — because they had left Holot for more than 48 hours. Unlike in Holot, where they were allowed to have cellular phones and laptop computers, in the real prison they had no contact with the outside world. They weren’t able to hear see how, or if, for that matter, the world had reacted to their protest.

“I was very depressed when I was in [the prison],” Jack tells me about the time after he was arrested. “I wasn’t disappointed about being in prison, because it was the expected consequence of our actions. I was disappointed by the United Nations. We marched toward the border with the aim of pushing the local UN office into action. Their representative is located at Nitzana, and still, they are not doing anything for us.”

In reality, there is no UN post along the Israel-Egypt border, but at the time that fictional plot of land was the marchers’ declared destination. That the strip of UN-controlled land does not exist did not deter the protesters at the time, and if anything, it was symbolic of their demands — that the absentee international community take responsibility for them.

African asylum seekers sleeping in their encampment in the Nitzana Forest, before Israeli authorities came and arrested over 700 of them.

African asylum seekers sleeping in their encampment in the Nitzana Forest, before Israeli authorities came and arrested over 700 of them.

Thousands of Sundanese and Eritrean asylum seekers have left Israel in the past year, mostly for Rwanda and Uganda. The Israeli government gives them cash and promises them some sort of status in their destination countries. Uganda has officially denied that it has any agreement to accept asylum seekers from Israel. Rwanda has never confirmed such a deal.

Read also: ‘I believed them when they said I could stay in Uganda’

“People didn’t leave Israel because of the police violence,” Jack says of all those who have left Israel. “People are leaving because they understand that the Israelis have closed off their hearts. They have closed their minds and closed their ears. The only thing they tell us is to leave.”

“We are willing to leave,” Jack says, “but to where? We need help, and nobody is answering our calls.”

“The people who left,” he continues, “are either in Sudanese prisons or are still wandering, looking for a safe place to live. Some of them died in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe. They chose to take a deadly chance in the sea instead of waiting 10 years in prison in Israel.”

I take out my laptop and show them photos of the police raid on their encampment a year earlier, which they are seeing for the first time. Tishome immediately spots a friend of his who has since left for Uganda. Jack sees another who left for Sudan. They ask me to blur the faces of the people who returned to their homelands, to protect their identities.

Jack and Tishome identified friends who have left Israel in photos of the protests. The pair asked that I blurred the faces of their friends, one from Sudan (top) and another from Eritrea (bottom), in order to protect their identities in their new countries.

Jack and Tishome identified friends who have left Israel in photos of the protests. The pair asked that I blurred the faces of their friends, one from Sudan (top) and another from Eritrea (bottom), in order to protect their identities in their new countries.

“People are willing to take a risk and to leave,” Tishome explains, “with the hope that they will find a better future somewhere else. People are suffering here, not only in Holot. The main problem is the government’s policy not to recognize a single refugee. We see that Israel doesn’t want us here, and when you’re not wanted you find your way out.”

The pressure seems to be working. Sigal Avivi, an activist working with asylum seekers who visits Holot regularly, says that state authorities have thus far refused to say how many people have left. “According to our own assessments,” however, “more than 9,000 asylum seekers have left Israel since the start of 2014.”

“More and more people are leaving since Holot was established,” Tishome explains, adding that. “the pressure on us has increased. Thousands have left because there is no future here, there is no hope that anything will change. With all of the racism, people have simply given up.”

Most of those who leave do not get legal status in the countries where they are sent by Israel, the two men explain, so they continue seeking refuge — often times in Europe. The boats that carry the asylum seekers from North Africa to the shores of Europe are notoriously unsafe and thousands have died on the journey in the past year or two. Others have met even more terrifying fates.

“One person who was in Holot, a friend of ours, was caught by ISIL in Libya on his way to Europe,” Tishome recalls. “They cut off his head and we recognized him in a video ISIL filmed. Out of 49 people who they executed, three of them came from Israel.”

But ISIL is not the biggest threat for those who leave Israel. “It’s hard to even imagine how many people have drowned in the sea and to this day, we don’t know what happened to so many others. Some died in the desert. Some are stuck without any money or documents in Rwanda or Uganda.”

So why do people keep leaving?

Asylum seekers in Israel do not leave in order to move to Rwanda or Uganda, Tishome explains. They want to start their quest for asylum from scratch, again. “We left Eritrea and Sudan in order to flee from danger and now in Israel we are doing the exact same thing: you embark on your journey, just as you did years ago in your home country, and you hope for the best.”

Tacoma standing outside Holot.

Tishome standing outside Holot.

Most people who leave Israel, who leave Holot, the pair explains, don’t tell anybody until the day they are supposed to leave for the airport.

“They know what they are doing, that they are taking an incredible risk,” Tishome adds. “Nobody would let their friend do such a thing, so the people who plan to leave keep it a secret.”

“I would tell a friend who is leaving: ‘stay, maybe things will change.’ But somebody who is leaving doesn’t want to hear such things,” he explains. “Some of them only call you from the airport. You can only wish them good luck and pray for them.”

It has been Israel’s expressed policy for years to encourage asylum seekers to leave Israel. Human and refugee rights organizations have reported that pressure exists even within the walls of Holot, which itself is a form of pressure to leave.

“I went to go collect my weekly stipend and they told me to go home!” Tishome says. “I never expected them to actually say such things. Even the doctor in Holot will tell you: ‘If you’re not happy here, leave, go back to your country, your country is better’.”

Detainees at Holot complain that the food provided to them inside the facility is often inedible. Authorities do not let them bring outside food inside. Entrepreneurial detainees have opened makeshift restaurants outside of the gates.

Detainees at Holot complain that the food provided to them inside the facility is often inedible. Authorities do not let them bring outside food inside. Entrepreneurial detainees have opened makeshift restaurants outside of the gates.

A new strategy

The protest march to the Egyptian border was not the first time asylum seekers in Israel tried to get the attention of the public — in Israel and abroad. A year earlier, hundreds of asylum seekers marched out of Holot and headed toward Jerusalem. A few months later, tens of thousands of asylum seekers held massive protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and even managed to organize a general strike.

“The main goal of our protests is get our message across and to raise awareness of our problem in Israel and internationally,” Jack says. “Our message has been delivered throughout Israel, and overseas, most countries are aware of our situation. We haven’t finished our struggle and we are willing to continue fighting for our rights, but we don’t think that launching more and more protests will help us.”

The new strategy they lay out goes far deeper and takes a far longer view.

“In the past we fought for our rights in Israel, but today we are focusing our activities on changing the situation in the countries from which we came,” Tishome explains. “It’s a solution for the root of the problem, to improve the situation in your home country and then go back to live there with your people.”

In the past we fought for our rights in Israel; today we’re focusing on changing the situation in the countries we came from.

But Tishome insists that the change in strategy is not a response to, or a result of the difficult conditions faced by asylum seekers in Israel. “People in Canada and Europe who have refugee status are also fighting to change the situation in Eritrea.”

As 10 p.m. approaches the asylum seekers outside the detention center’s gates prepare to go back inside for roll call. The owners of the makeshift restaurants clean their dishes and wooden tables. Jack and Tishome finish up their Sudanese meat stew, vegetables and flatbread. “The food inside is always either too salty or not cooked enough,” Jack says.

“I’m optimistic because that is how god made us,” Tishome says when I ask how they survive inside the detention center. “The fact that we have hope allows us to survive, because I have hope that tomorrow will be better. If you believe that you’re going to die tomorrow, you’ll never act today.”

Detainees at Holot eat dinner at makeshift restaurants outside the detention facility’s gates. The restaurants are the initiatives of entrepreneurial detainees.

Detainees at Holot eat dinner at makeshift restaurants outside the detention facility’s gates. The restaurants are the initiatives of entrepreneurial detainees.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      Information: Max Blumenthal’s latest book, “The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza” contains many details of last years conflict that went unreported in the mainstream press – the book has 200 footnotes drawn largely from Israeli news sources. One review on the back is by Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and author of “The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes”. He says –

      “You do not have to agree, but you better listen…here he opens a window onto scenes many did not want to see. His blow-by-blow account of the fifty-one day war should be one of the foundations of any future discourse on Israel-Palestine.”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Whiplash

      “In a Wonderland they lie,
      Dreaming as the days go by,
      Dreaming as the summers die;”

      I can see why these economic migrants are pissed. They paid human traffic smugglers good money to bring them into the wonderland of Israel. They had heard about the bright lights and good life of Tel Aviv. So they set out in that direction, dreaming about the land of milk and honey.

      Like a babbling brook they began to trickle into Israel followed by a torrent of economic migrants. Israel after years of migrants over flowing Israeli borders, Israel decided to stem the flow and dammed the ability of human traffic smugglers to flood the borders.

      Now the economic migrants lie and walk in the sun. The state provides them with food, shelter, medical care and a small stipend. Beyond this, they have no rights to work or participate in Israeli society. Israel is not their country.

      Ever since, far left wingers and extremists have been crying a river over Israel’s decision not to accept these economic migrants into Israeli society. They believe that Israel, unlike every other sovereign nation, does not have a right to establish and apply its own immigration laws, regulations and procedures and to enforce those laws and regulations.

      The economic migrants are illegally in Israel. They had no right to come to Israel as either migrants or refugees. Israel offers them a chance to go home or to another country of their choice or to stay in Israel with food, shelter and a small stipend until they leave. These are their choices.

      If the leftists and extremists really cared for these economic migrants, they would find them safe countries to go to where they could set down new roots. The leftists should also leave with them to make sure the economic migrants are treated well in their new countries.

      Reply to Comment
    3. where da black women at?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The frank racism of the Israeli right wing here is interesting for its irrepressibleness. They can’t even hide it. It’s like uncontrollable farting. It just bubbles up. They can’t contain themselves. So interesting.

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          Benny with his boring accusations again.

          Now Benny, do you think you have it in you to answer the question that I put to you here? Or are you just going to keep on running from it?

          http://972mag.com/michael-oren-diplomatic-psychobabble/108136/

          Too hard eh Benny? Easier to take someone’s comment and jump to general conclusions from it? But to nail your flag to your mast, and to tell us what your vision is, that’s a bit embarrassing huh, Benny?

          Questions you raise but you are very short on answers. Or at least answers which you are not shy about eh Benny?

          Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            BEN:“On the other hand, why not just end the occupation?”

            GUSTAV:”Simple isn’t it?

            End it how? Unilaterally? Without a signed peace deal? Remember our unilateral withdrawal from Gaza? How did that work out?

            Or by signing a suicidal peace deal? No thanks Benny, we won’t let up to 4 million Arabs settle in Israel proper.

            Oh, and sign a peace deal with Hamas? They won’t sign one with us. At best, they are willing to sign a 10 year Hudna (cease fire). And what will they do during those 10 years? They will prepare for war against us.

            Next, Benny, let’s hear your next bright idea…”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Holy Super Nudnik, Batman! He’s still at it! Gustav I’ve answered this question in so many words in so many many comments across these pages.

            You end the occupation by working out a meaningful, fair, non-humiliating deal on the basis of the ’67 lines with swaps and a shared Jerusalem and a limited symbolic RoR that will creatively materialize once you give the other side the basic dignity they are asking for in the provisions of the agreement so that they can swallow the limited symbolic RoR and their leaders can sell it to their people and face down the extremists. Olmert was able to empathize with Abu Mazen and treat him like a human being (and said he used to wince at the awful way Sharon treated Abu Mazen with open-faced contempt in meetings). Olmert and Abbas could have gotten there had Olmert not been forced out by his corruption issues.

            Netanyahu’s strategy on the other hand is maximal humiliation and contempt so as to provoke minimal danger of a real peace. You show every ability to understand what Israeli leaders can and can’t sell to their people at a given stage and zero ability to understand what Palestinian leaders can and can’t sell to their people at a given stage. The same contemptuous victor’s logic except you’re not a victor in this shared predicament no matter how much Jello fantasizes you are.

            Regarding humiliation, I’m gonna quote Gideon Spiro of Occupation Magazine:

            “The Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, was in the process of losing public standing, above all in the eyes of his own people. The government of Israel humiliates him, but he continues to use his armed forces to suppress any and all violent attacks on Israelis, including the settlers who have invaded Occupied Palestine and plundered its land. With the help of his police, who have received training in Jordan from European Union instructors, Abu Mazen is suppressing his people’s anger over the daily depredations of the Israeli settlers and army. Hence the absurdity that Abu Mazen’s regime is being used to ensure – among other things – freedom of movement on the apartheid highways for the occupying settlers whose very presence is a violation of international law. He stands ashamed before Hamas, which declares that the Israelis understand only the language of force and tauntingly ask him what he has achieved with his diplomatic approach. Given these facts, it is no wonder that there are those who have accused Abu Mazen of collaborating with the Israeli occupier in return for benefits of various kinds. Matters had come to such a pass that I heard a senior Palestinian figure refer to Abu Mazen as a Palestinian Pיtain.”

            http://www.kibush.co.il/show_file.asp?num=57262

            Now look, you either get that or you don’t, and you agree or you don’t, but you did not purchase a season ticket to chase after me and harass me with obnoxious accusations that your tendentious interpretations of a complex reality = 2 + 2 = 4 and that if I disagree then I am “dishonest.” You have been super offensive in your manners.

            Now you said you answered my questions but in the page you direct me to I see you did not: Do you, Gustav, see Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim as potentially returnable in a final agreement or are they deal killers for you? And do you, Gustav, see a return of ANY refugees, in a creative symbolic arrangement, as acceptable, or is that a deal killer for you?

            And while we’re at it, and since you press the issue, what say you to the comment of DerAsylant? My reaction to it is merely a boring accusation is that right? Please explain yourself.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            nsttnocontentcomment

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            nsttnocontentcomment

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Oh dear, I must have upset the sensitivities of a +972 gatekeeper.

            They point blank refuse to publish my two responses to Benny.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            I hope that the less radical readers who may visit this site condemn the type of censorship which has been applied to my posts.

            One cannot take a publication seriously if it takes it upon itself to silence opposition to it’s political views. If they haven’t even got the self confidence to air opposition to it’s dogma.

            How on earth can they be taken seriously and why should one bother giving oxygen to such a publication?

            Grow up boys and girls.

            Reply to Comment
          • E823

            Gustav, you are denying that you used to post here as Tzutzik, correct?

            Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          Everything is racism with you. The question to ask is why are 90% of the “refugees” men?

          Reply to Comment
      • Jello

        These ‘refugees’ left them back in their ‘extremely dangerous’ home countries along with their children.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Oops

      Sorry, guys. They are not asylum seeker. Just job seekers. Where are women and kids?
      About $1000 monthly salary in Israel is a fantastic income for those job-seekers but they ruin job market of Israel. Lower income of Israelis is a deliberately chosen purpose of these job-seekers supporters.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Jello

      Unless their new strategy is leaving it isn’t going to work.

      Reply to Comment