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Israel's 'backyards': First south Tel Aviv, then Holot

So long as the fight for asylum seekers’ rights — which I have taken part in — remains blind to the fact that Mizrahi slums are the only places carrying the burden of supporting and integrating asylum seekers, any celebration of the High Court to shut down Holot is premature.

By Shula Keshet (Translated from Hebrew by Michal Wertheimer Shimoni)

A south Tel Aviv apartment building that unwillingly became a way station for bus exhaust and pollution. (Photo by Roi Boshi/CC)

A south Tel Aviv apartment building that unwillingly became a way station for bus exhaust and pollution. (Photo by Roi Boshi/CC)

My neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, Neve Sha’anan, has been given many odd names over the years. Countless times, I’ve been told: “Ah, you live in the central bus station” — and for good reason. After all, two central stations – one of them, the second biggest in the world, called “the new station” — were imposed on this poor neighborhood, suffocating its miserable inhabitants with impossible air pollution. But hell, this is my home, which against my will was turned into a polluted transit hub.

My neighborhood has another name: foreigner land. Countless times, I’ve heard: “There are no residents there, only foreigners.” And I try with all my might to show that I was born there and still live there, and there are thousands like me. Why can’t you see us?! Our existence there as residents and old-timers there is wiped out in one fell swoop, and the migrant workers and asylum seekers have “gained” notoriety as foreigners.

I founded the action committee together with other local activists in 1989. We organized and were chosen by the residents to lead the struggle against the catastrophe called the central bus station. The long and arduous struggle included a drawn-out court case. After a precedent-setting win in 2000 awarded to us by Judge Telgam (RIP), which included tens of millions of shekels in compensation, we had to face an appeal in the Supreme Court. The court bullied us into a compromise with the defendants — the developer, the Tel Aviv municipality, the local committee, the Egged and Dan public transportation companies and others. Judge Dalia Dorner told us very clearly that we must reach a compromise – or else… And that’s what we did. We reached a compromise against our will, forcing us to compromise the amount of compensation given us, and to wait for the money for years on end.

Let’s go back a few years. On August 16, 1993, the new Tel Aviv central bus station was opened with a festive event featuring the then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Mayor Shlomo Lahat and other official delegates. The next morning, tens of thousands of buses flooded the little streets and allies around the monstrosity. The horrible noise, the thick smoke – I thought it couldn’t get worse. I was wrong. Evidently the stepsons and daughters of the state can always expect the worst. The smoky buses were joined by drug dealers and pimps who turned the neighborhood into a hub for the trafficking of women and for drug dealing — with the encouragement of the state. Doesn’t every democratic state need a backyard to protect its front yards?

As if that were not enough, when tens of thousands of migrant workers and asylum seekers arrived, fiercely protecting its front yards, the state gave them a one-way ticket to the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, specifically to Neve Sha’anan. It set up a poor and dense refugee camp lacking infrastructure and state services, be they health, education, cultural or social. The cries of local senior citizens, whose lives became hell, rose to high heaven. The cries and protests of all those abandoned and neglected asylum seekers rose to high heaven, too.

African asylum seekers hold flowers as residents of south Tel Aviv and right-wing activists protest against the Israeli High Court decision to cancel the "infiltrator law" and close the Holot detention center, South Tel Aviv, October 5, 2014. (Activestills)

African asylum seekers hold flowers as residents of south Tel Aviv and right-wing activists protest against the Israeli High Court decision to cancel the “infiltrator law” and close the Holot detention center, South Tel Aviv, October 5, 2014. (Activestills)

What does the State of Israel do then? It created a law against the “infiltration” of asylum seekers, and did what it does best – it built another backyard, a detention center called “Holot” in the south of Israel. It cost half a billion shekels to build.

The policy of building backyards is deeply rooted in Israel, as the existence of cultural-geographic ghettos cities in the periphery clearly demonstrates.

After the Supreme Court already annulled the law against infiltration, it then annulled the two suggested corrections to the law. The first is that whoever infiltrates into Israel against the law will be sent for a year of detention – without trial. The second correction declares that the asylum seekers living in cities will be sent to the “Holot” detention center for an indefinite period.

The court ordered the “open center” shut down within 90 days. It is inconceivable that people would be put in detention without trial or be sent to a detention center instead of reviewing their asylum claims and awarding them their rights according to the Refugee Convention, which Israel has signed.

I am celebrating together with the asylum seekers who will be released from Holot. Some are my friends and partners in a civil society organization called “power to the community,” which we founded together in Neve Sha’anan. Nevertheless, I do not rejoice in the Supreme Court ruling. Yes, it is progress, but it is also very incomplete. It is too narrow to bring about a solution to the problem of the asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, Arad, Eilat, Ashdod and Ashkelon. Once again we see that one eye looks toward the asylum seekers’ human rights, while the other is shut — blind to the breach of south Tel Aviv residents’ human rights.

African asylum seekers jailed in Holot detention center protest behind the prison's fence, as other asylum seekers take part in a protest outside the facility, in Israel's southern Negev desert, February 17, 2014.

African asylum seekers jailed in Holot detention center protest behind the prison’s fence, as other asylum seekers take part in a protest outside the facility, in Israel’s southern Negev desert, February 17, 2014.

As long as the asylum seekers’ human rights struggle remains blind to the human rights of the Mizrahi neighborhoods, which are the only ones burdened with taking in and integrating tens of thousands of asylum seekers, it is too early to rejoice.

Yes, huge amounts of resources should be given to troubled neighborhoods and there are many difficulties to be solved, ones that were created by 66 years of oppression. However, that is not enough. As far as I’m concerned, as long the only options are detention camps or south Tel Aviv, there are no judges and there is no government in Israel.

More then 10 years ago, the Supreme Court, in a very socially insensitive way, refrained from ruling on the appeal of those harmed by the new central bus station, and it sent them on a long journey of justice delayed on their way to compensation. A few months ago the Supreme Court gave an important ruling that takes into account justice as well as the asylum seekers’ human rights. Beyond showing some understanding toward the suffering of the south Tel Aviv residents, however, they did not include us in repairing the wrongs that have been done. You do not correct a wrong by doing more of the same. This ruling shall forever disgrace the government’s policy as well as the Supreme Court itself.

To all of the communities in south Tel Aviv, I wish for us to keep both our eyes open, looking to protect all of our rights, and may we live respectfully.

Instead of Holot, there shall be absorption centers for asylum seekers in wealthy communities. They should be given work permits in agriculture or building projects. Instead of the laws against infiltrators, they should be granted recognition and rights as refugees. And I for my community, instead of the wrongdoing, the oppression and the discrimination we have suffered for so many years, I hope for an equal distribution of resources, of rights and of carrying social burdens, as for the dismantling the Mizrahi ghettos.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

Israel’s High Court orders closure of ‘Holot’ refugee detention facility
The origins and politics of Israel’s refugee debate
PHOTOS: 24 hours outside Holot ‘open’ detention center

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    1. Amir

      To Mouna:
      To correct, the majority of the Israeli Jews are Mizrahim, meaning from origins of Arabic and Islamic countries. The minority, Ashkenazim, are from Eastern European and Western countries.
      This article is speaking about how the state puts all of the ‘undesirable people’ (including Mizrahi Jewish majority, Arabs, and African refugees) into poor areas such as the bus station and the periphery towns

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bryan

      Surely this is not merely an issue about asylum seekers which is a relatively recent phenomenon. This is about the dysfunctional Israeli social structure, which has for decades allowed its poorest citizens (Mizrahi Jewish Arabs and Palestinian non-Jewish Arabs) to be segregated into seedy underfunded development towns and impoverished suburbs, lacking social infrastructure and mired in poverty and unemployment and lacking decent education, whilst tax revenues are syphoned off to support the tax-breaks of the Ashkenazi elite, an overblown military and the subsidy of settlement activity without which the project would be impossible.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        The only problem with your rant is that Israel spends more per capita on assistance to Arab communities in Israel than other communities in green line Israel.

        With regard to the Mizrahi, Israel incorporated Jews from Arab countries by using money which Germany paid for harm to Ashkenazim to build towns, schools, roads and infrastructure for Jews while maintaining a strong standing army and reserves to meet all military attacks against all Israelis.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bryan

          Even if true your point that Palestinian Arabs in Israel receive more per capita in assistance proves rather than disproves that they are a disadvantaged group. Points to note (1) Can you actually demonstrate the point that Arab communities in Israel receive more in assistance than other communities? I haven’t seen statistics that break down support for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community but prima facie this is likely to be at least on a par with support for Arabs because the ultra-Orthodox exceed the Arabs in some of the main factors leading to assistance (i.e. poor education, large family size and low levels of participation in employment) (2) The Arab population is clearly under-privileged – its average income in 2012 was 34% below average (up from 25% below average in 2004), whereas average income for Ashkenazis was 42% above average (up from 36% above average in 2004), and for Mizrahi Jews was 9% above average (up 9% since 2004). Thus not only are Arabs under-privileged, they are becoming more under-privileged with each passing year. (3) Whatever assistance the non-Jewish community receives, it has little effect in alleviating poverty: in 2012 54.3% of Israeli non-Jewish families were below the poverty line (up from 49.9% in 2004) even after taking account of transfer payments. Equivalent figures for Israel Jewish families were 14.1% below the poverty line (down from 15.9% in 2004). (4) Israeli transfer payments to alleviate inequality were the lowest of any OECD country, standing at 15.9% of GDp in 2013, compared with an OECD average of 21.9%, and 33% for France and 26.2% for Germany. The reason for this I pointed out was due to tax-breaks for the rich (overwhelmingly Ashkenazi), the high cost of military expenditure and subsidies for settlement activity. For these statistics see an excellent report on Inequality in Israel at http://www.adva.org/uploaded/social-Eng-1.pdf

          With regard to the Mizrahi a cost to bear for their immigration, but this immigration was essential to provide unskilled labour following the expulsion of most of the native population during the Nakba.

          Reply to Comment
      • C’mon Bryan, you know there is absolutely No racism in israel toward Mizrahi Jews – ask any ashkenazi and they’ll tell you, nope, no racism is here, move along, nothing to see here…….

        Reply to Comment
        • Oriol

          Well, one guy in Tel Aviv told me in 2011 that “Jews and Arabs live in harmony in this country”.

          Reply to Comment