It seems that this particular battle in the fight for Israel to apply any lesson whatsoever from its much-touted heritage as the country of refugees has come to an end. After admitting the asylum-seekers were already on Israeli territory (the fence to which they clung was built several meters east of the actual border), and after getting a three-day breather from the Supreme Court (loathe as ever to force the state to abide by international law), the state proposed the starved, parched twenty people on the border a compromise. The women (one of whom had reportedly miscarried a few days back and was still not offered medical attention) and a 14-years-old boy will be taken into Israel. The 17 men will be handed over to Egyptian troops; at best, one might hope, they’ll be detained in Egypt. At worse, which is what Israeli reports are hinting at, they’ll be sent back to Eritrea – the one country in the world ranked under North Korea for press freedom, and by all respectable accounts the worst dictatorship on the African continent. As blogger Elisabeth Tsurkov (@elizrael) wrote on Facebook as the news broke out, it’s hard not to be awed by the self-sacrifice of the Eritrean men, who after all they have been to, agreed to be sucked into the vortex of imprisonment and possibly torture and death, simply to allow the two women and the teenager to be rescue. How petty and small the “western”, “enlightened,” “advanced” Israeli state with its vain proclamations of “never again” seems in comparison to the nobleness of these seventeen men.
Let there be no mistake – for Israel there was much more in stake in this affair than human lives (although establishing the exact worth of non-Jewish lives in the eyes of Interior Minister Eli Yishai is perhaps more of a matter for microbiologists than for political analysts). The state was already forced to admit in the court that the border fence, built with more fanfare than a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard inauguration ritual, was set within Israeli territory, removed from the actual borderline, and therefore, legally, completely worthless; the asylum seekers might well have been claiming their asylum in the centre of Tel Aviv. Establishing this fact in the public consciousness had to be avoided at all costs, and letting in and detaining three more Africans, under a preposterous flag of “humanitarian concern” (after starving the same people for six days) was probably deemed a reasonable price to pay to avoid this debacle, so long as the rest could be blackmailed to crawl away and die elsewhere. The army has also told the press (which it allowed nowhere near the group) that after not managing to communicate with the refugees enough to establish their medical situation, the soldiers suddenly found a common language and were relieved to learn the men “had come to Israel to look for work” and “made no mention of being persecuted in their country.” Considering only this morning the IDF was caught lying about having transferred food to the refugees, I’ll chance a libel suit and voice my disbelief that any such conversation took place.
This particular battle was won, overwhelmingly, by the state (although relentless public pressure on stage and behind the scenes did save three human lives, and there is every reason for those who pitched in to take pride in that). The stage is now set for the next group already making its way across the desert. Will they be chased away by tear gas? Intercepted, as reported last month, by IDF jeeps intruding deep into Sinai to hand them over to Egyptian troops? Raped and tortured to death by the mafiosi smugglers of Sinai? My only hope is that next time, it won’t take five days for us to learn of the next such group, and that we won’t bother with appeals and op-eds and court petitions. Priority from now one will be to establish contact with such groups before they are cordoned off by the IDF, to find out whether they claim asylum, and to offer them medical help if required. Legal tussle against the state can be postponed till later.
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