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The importance of being earnest about human rights

In an open letter, one of Israel’s foremost refugee rights lawyers calls on the deputy attorney general to follow her conscience.

By Asaf Weitzen

Thousands of African asylum seekers leave Holot detention center without intention to come, June 25, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Thousands of African asylum seekers leave Holot detention center without intention to come, June 25, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Dear Deputy Attorney General Dina Silber:

I am familiar with a bit of your academic work, including two books you authored and speeches that you give from time to time. You have demonstrated a deep commitment to basic rights and an understanding that the any government must be checked if and when it seeks to infringe upon basic rights. What I find incomprehensible is the disparity between those views and your intensive involvement in legislating the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Act. Hence this letter. Due to the importance of the issue at stake and its relevance to the public, I feel that it should be published and I would appreciate the publication of your response to it as well.

I am not trying to convince you that you are perpetrating an injustice. I am not calling on you to “refuse.” I am only asking you to help me understand. To reveal what it is that allows you to work with such devotion and intensity on the legislation of an additional amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Act. How do you remain so devoted to a law that translates into the continued deprivation of liberty, all while doing nothing for overburdened neighborhoods like south Tel Aviv that have high concentrations of asylum seekers and other non-deportable foreigners.

I make three basic assumptions in this letter. The first assumption is that you have freedom of choice and that you would not pay a catastrophic personal price should you refuse to take part in the legislative process. The second assumption is that you believe the denial of liberty from the innocent and harmless should be a last resort, and that every man and woman has a right to weave his or her own life story. In other words, I assume that if it were up to you, the phenomenon of unauthorized entry into the country — which has all but stopped — were to be addressed entirely differently than the current law, with its imprisonment and exclusionary mechanisms, and the tremendous cost of holding so many people in detention facilities. The third assumption is that you have read the High Court judgments that struck down two previous amendments to the law, and that you are aware of the existence of other solutions to the challenges it sought to address — those relating to the continued presence of non-deportable foreigners in our country.

For example, one such solution is reducing the number of foreign workers who are brought to Israel. Another is to improve the process of examining asylum requests and increase compliance with international standards (so that the recognition rate for asylum seekers who fled the genocide in Darfur, for example, might be higher than zero, as it is today). Rather than invest in detention centers, the state could incentivize the geographic dispersal of asylum seekers throughout the country and invest in the disadvantaged south Tel Aviv neighborhoods that bear the burden.

African asylum seekers wake up in Levinsky Park, South Tel Aviv, on the second day of a sit-in after spending the night on the ground, February 3, 2013. The African community is continuing its struggle for refugee rights, determined to reach a full solution. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

African asylum seekers wake up in Levinsky Park, South Tel Aviv, on the second day of a sit-in after spending the night on the ground, February 3, 2013. The African community is continuing its struggle for refugee rights, determined to reach a full solution. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

I suppose that if I were in your position and was being asked similar questions, I would explain the difference between elected officials and civil servants. You are a civil servant, and it is your job to assist elected officials in implementing their policies within the framework of the law, not to dictate policies according to your own worldview. After all, a state where civil servants dictate how to act to elected officials is not a democracy.

You might have added that if you weren’t the one doing it, somebody else would. And that other person would almost certainly be much less sensitive to human rights and not as steadfast in their adherence to the relevant Supreme Court rulings. It is also possible that if you were not the gatekeeper, more far-reaching and egregious constitutional changes seeking to dramatically weaken the Supreme Court would be implemented, consequently worsening the human rights situation for both citizens and foreigners alike. In fact, such threats are being made today more than ever and, indeed, you are there to stand in their way. Those are the facts.

Moreover, you might argue that our lives – professional and otherwise – are made up of tradeoffs and compromises. It is only by making compromises that you can have a humanistic and liberal worldview that empowers disadvantaged populations and other marginalized groups. For example, you recently reversed a decision that would have prevented B’Tselem from employing youths performing national service, and in an opinion piece in Haaretz, you wrote about the various effects of excluding women from the public sphere, as part of your role as “supervisor for implementing the report on preventing the exclusion of women.”

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

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

If you were to argue all of the above, I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how to rebut. I, too, believe that the fifth amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Act would be legislated with or without you; I am willing to assume that you are making considerable efforts to mitigate the harm Gideon Sa’ar and his friends are trying to inflict upon Israeli legal system and asylum seekers in particular. Indeed, life is often a game of compromise in an endless chain of means and ends. Maybe you being there is one way to achieve a less harmful law.

If those were your arguments, you would win our imaginary debate. But in that victory, the true failure would reveal itself. Because a political system and a moral worldview that is constantly deal with the means and the ends by which we achieve them, push aside what can only be called justice.

It is an injustice that Mutasim Ali is in the Holot detention center, while his asylum case has languished for more than two years.

Mutasim Ali says goodbye to friends before being driven to Holot. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Mutasim Ali says goodbye to friends before being driven to Holot. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

It is not just that a man whose only crime is surviving genocide in Darfur be held in jail for two-and-a-half years. It is not just that an asylum seeker whose application is not being processed is held in a prison facility (referred to as an “open” camp). It is not just that a man is sent to jail for an indefinite amount of time because he does not have a receipt for his bicycle. Above all, it is not just that Israel has the lowest rate of refugee recognition in the world and the longest periods of incarceration. There is not an iota of justice in incarcerating people without trial and without them having broken the law. When this is the state of affairs, it really doesn’t matter how much worse it could have been without you.

When one of us legitimizes these injustices and many other evils, and when it is done knowingly, after the High Court has already twice nullified similar legislation, the world we share loses one of its fundamental foundations: words and deeds are detached from one another. Perhaps refusing to take part in legislating the law wouldn’t make a difference in the end, but nonetheless, because of what is at stake, it is ever so critical.

Since your actions prove that you disagree with me on this, I would appreciate a response to my letter. If not for the asylum seekers then at least for the Israeli public, which, I believe, we both care for.

Asaf Weitzen

* * *

Epilogue: This letter was published in in Hebrew in Haaretz on November 3, 2014. The response came in the form of the anticipated new amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, this time allowing the imprisonment of asylum seekers for a three-month period, followed by another 20 months in the Holot facility. A High Court petition was submitted a day after the law was published and the hearing is scheduled for February 3, 2015. I hope that the Supreme Court will give us all another chance to be human and to rid ourselves of the shame our treatment of asylum seekers brings upon us. After all, as Salman Rushdie once wrote: “Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.”

Asaf Weitzen is the head of the legal department at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli human rights NGO that promotes the rights of asylum-seekers, migrants and human trafficking victims.

The origins and politics of Israel’s refugee debate
Asylum seekers to stay in prison while Israelis hit the polls
How jailed asylum seekers are taking over Israeli Facebook feeds

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    1. Bruce Gould

      Apartheid 101: For the first time, a Physicians for Human Rights–Israel report analyses the health metrics gaps between the Israeli citizens and residents of the Occupied Territories. Palestinians live 10 years less than Israelis, infant mortality is five times higher than in Israel, and the mortality of women at childbirth is four times as high. “As long as the occupation continues, it is Israel’s responsibility to equalize the health conditions of the populations”….The report also reviews the Israeli mechanisms of control, which prevent the Palestinian Ministry of Health – which has its own faults – from providing full health services to the residents of the Occupied Territories, with detrimental impacts on their health. Israel’s imposed limitations on the freedom of movement of patients, medical staff and medications is one such mechanism of control.


      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Before someone comes in here and admonishes you to “stay on topic for once,” Bruce, Gideon Levy wrote an article linking Holot and the territories here, showing why you are on topic:


        “…Israel’s attitude toward these two marginal groups is identical. That is, of course, not coincidental but the result of a systematic and intentional policy, dictated from above.

        Israel is convinced that if it makes life miserable enough for the Africans, if it piles on their suffering, they will leave the country “voluntarily” – its fantasy.

        It has the exact same goal in the Jordan Valley. Since Israel decided that it will remain in its hands, it has set its goal to purify it of Palestinian residents. Shepherds are, of course, the weak link, and this quiet policy of transfer is directed against them. More and more demolition, everything in the name of the law – the apartheid law that discriminates between settlements and a community of shepherds.

        The shepherds will pitch their tents anew, Israel will once again demolish them – until they are fed up and leave on their own, like the Africans.

        But here is what the government needs to know: Neither of them will leave. Why? They have nowhere to go. “They don’t like us here, and we have nowhere to go,” Fathi Zaidan, from Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, told me last week at the entrance to Holot. Zaidan’s first wife was murdered in Sudan, while his second wife and their young daughter are hiding in Egypt. He has been jailed here for nearly a year.

        To achieve these victories over the weakest of the weak, Israel does not rule out any methods. To prevent superfluous moral misgivings, the victims are declared to be nonpersons: The Africans do not need heat; the shepherds do not need shelter.

        After that, the regular brainwashing and justifications are enlisted. The Africans entered Israel illegally (as if African refugees can enter Israel legally), and the shepherds planted their tents without permits (as if Israel allows legal construction). Both of these groups “endanger” the existence of Israel and “undermine” its rule of law.

        Then the work is amazingly easy: The jailers freeze, the Civil Administration employees destroy, the media ignores, the public yawns, no one appeals – and may peace be on Israel.

        At the margins, at the very ends of the country, these actions are being carried out as a matter of routine. They are far out of sight and far from the heart. But they are determining the true face of the country.”

        Reply to Comment
        • ICat

          Of course, Brian and Bruce Gould, let’s not stay on topic and discuss African refugees. Let’s talk about Jews and “occupation” and “apartheid”. Who could ever accuse you of being a TROLL as long as you are smearing Jews and Israel? Indeed, Jews and Israel are not only occupying the West Bank, they evidently occupy your poor empty lives – as you manically fixate on- and obsess with Jews and Israel the entire day.

          Jews and Israel are also not only to blame for Palestinian incompetency and low standard of living, but also for yours as well, because your maniacal fixation on- and obsession with Jews and Israel prevent you from finding a job and supporting yourself, and force you to survive on food-stamps provided by the United States government with my tax dollars. You can’t even think and create something original. You constantly have to copy and paste the opinion of pundits to compensate for your own incompetence and delude yourself.

          Reply to Comment
          • ICat

            BEFORE Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza, the life expectancy and the standard of living of the Palestinians were as abysmal as those of their fellow countrymen in Jordan (West Bank was part of Jordan) and Egypt (Gaza was part of Egypt). AFTER Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza (from Egypt and Jordan in 1967), Palestinian economy, life expectancy and standard of living skyrocketed and was recorded by the UN as above those of most Arab countries including Syria and Morocco! AFTER the PLO/Palestinian Authority took over from Israel and started ruling the Palestinians, things got bad again and started spiraling downwards. But hey, anti-Semitism is by nature irrational. Its first rule is blame the Jews for everything including the incompetence of those who want them dead. BTW, life expectancy in Israel is higher than that in the UK, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Saudi Arabia, etc. Soon, you will start blaming Israel for that as well.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            You’ve found some inaccuracies in the report by Physicians for Human Rights?

            Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            Two killer arguments there, Icat. (1) An American who is often the first to post here defending any criticism of Israeli politics or policies, accuses fellow Americans of fixation and obsession with Israel; (2) Anyone taking the trouble to post on this site must be unemployed and biting the hand that feeds it. Outrageous hypocrisy attempting to silence those who take a similar, but thankfully different, interest in world affairs. Have you no sense of awareness to understand how feeble your whinging is?

            Reply to Comment
    2. Mikesailor

      Wasn’t it Hannah Arendt who coined the phrase “banality of evil”? Isn’t that what we are witnessing? The basic assumption:”..the victims are declared to be nonpersons..”. And their subsequent treatment becomes alarmingly simple. For, after all, what rights do nonpersons have? My argument has always been that the premise of Zionism is that all non-Jews,(and some “self-hating” Jews also) are basically nonpersons. And why negotiate with someone who “isn’t there”. Why not kill them and steal from them with impunity?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mikesailor

      Hairball: A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Unfortunately, my tax dollars went to educate an ill-mannered, ignorant lout were completely wasted on a supposed countryman who hasn’t had an independent thought since he was, I dare hope, toilet-trained. Or at least litter-box trained. Neither Brian nor Bruce is obsessed with anything other than Justice as they, and much of the world, see it. Considering the Israelis determine what goes in and out of the occupied territories, and can steal and/or skim any monies owed to the Palestinians, isn’t your whine about the Palestinians being responsible for their poor standard of living just so much kitty crap? Israel controls their lives; that is the definition of occupation. So climb back in your carrier and read the papers lining it, preferably something other than Israel Hayom or other Zionist rags, and you might learn something. We can only hope.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Pedro X

      The article or letter does not address whether the people seeking asylum in Israel are refugees or economic immigrants. If they were primarily economic immigrants there would be no reason to allow them to stay in Israel. Like other countries Israel has a right to detain these peoples until the refugees can be sorted out from the overwhelming majority of economic immigrants who are illegally in the country.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mikesailor

      Little Pedro: Wouldn’t that be a reason to have asylum hearings rather than just lumping everyone together and labeling them ‘infiltrators”? That seem to be the major problem for most acknowledge that the majority of them have at least colorable asylum claims but such are never adjudicated. Why? Because they aren’t Jews? Partially. The real reasons seem to be two-fold: 1) They aren’t Jews and 2) If Israel adjudicates these cases and the “infiltrators” are found to have a “well-founded fear of persecution” if returned to their home countries, then Israel would be obligated under treaty to allow them to stay. If you don’t give hearings, then you don’t have to come up against the strictures of #2 and can continue to sell your brain-dead countrymen on the fiction the African asylum-seekers are all “economic” migrants. Simple rationales for simple minds.

      Reply to Comment