Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Darfur refugees fable

Why, please tell me, oh why do they insist on arguing for Israel's holiness? It would be so much easier to defend the country under a realism-based approach! But no -- they need to claim that Israel is uniquely good. A light unto the nations -- sound familiar?

The latest such defense was put up by Gabriel Latner, a 19-year-old Cambridge student, at a recent debate of the prestigious university’s debating society centered on the motion that “Israel is a rogue state.” His speech was called by The Irish Independent “the most brilliantly audacious defence of Israel since Moses parted the Red Sea.”

This is why blogs like this are needed. Latner's speech is brilliant only in how skilfully it exploits the public's ignorance and the general perception among the educated elite that Jews are particularly moral. Latner contends that Israel is, in fact, rogue, but in the definition of the word as “aberrant, anomalous; misplaced, occurring (esp. in isolation) at an unexpected place or time.” And how is Israel anomalous? Well -- by being exceptionally good.


The second argument concerns Israel’s humanitarianism, in particular, Israel’s response to a refugee crisis. Not the Palestinian refugee crisis -- for I am sure that the other speakers will cover that -- but the issue of Darfurian refugees. Everyone knows that what happened and is still happening in Darfur is genocide, whether or not the UN and the Arab League will call it such. (I actually hoped that Mr. Massih would be able to speak about -- he's actually somewhat of an expert on the crisis in Darfur, in fact, it's his expertise that has called him away to represent the former dictator of Sudan while he is being investigated by the ICC.)

There has been a mass exodus from Darfur as the oppressed seek safety. They have not had much luck. Many have gone north to Egypt -- where they are treated despicably. The brave make a run through the desert in a bid to make it to Israel. Not only do they face the natural threats of the Sinai, they are also used for target practice by the Egyptian soldiers patrolling the border. Why would they take the risk?

Because in Israel they are treated with compassion -- they are treated as the refugees that they are – and perhaps Israel's cultural memory of genocide is to blame. The Israeli government has even gone so far as to grant several hundred Darfurian refugees citizenship. This alone sets Israel apart from the rest of the world.

This is a load of lies. Since the Darfur crisis started, Egypt has taken 2 million Sudanese refugees. The comparable figure for Israel would be 200,000. Instead, Israel has a meager 17,000 illegal residents from all of Africa. Indeed, Israel, one of the richest countries in the world, is set apart from Egypt, one of the poorest, in that the latter has been immensely more generous in absorbing Darfur refugees. It is also set apart from other advanced economies: it has the lowest percent of temporary refugee status requests granted compared to western states - 1% in 2005, under 0.5% in 2006, and in 2007, 350 refugees got temporary protection, 805 others were denied, and 863 were under review, after which most were rejected.

It's true that Israel granted citizenship to a few hundred Darfurians -- but only after it announced that all further refugees would be blocked from entering the country. As the Washington Post reported:

CAIRO, Aug. 19 -- Israel closed the door Sunday on a surge of asylum-seekers from Sudan's Darfur region and from other African countries, the largest influx of non-Jewish refugees in the modern history of the Jewish state.

Authorities announced that they had expelled 48 of more than 2,000 African refugees who have entered illegally from Egypt in recent weeks. Officials said they would allow 500 Darfurians among them to remain, but would deport everyone else back to Egypt and accept no more illegal migrants from Darfur or other places.

In accordance with this policy, Haaretz reported one year later:

Israel to expel 2,000 African refugees who fled to Eilat

The Interior Ministry has decided to expel from Eilat some 2,000 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, and prohibit them from working if they do not hold work permits.

They are among some 11,000 asylum seekers in Israel who will continue to live in the country since they are exempt from deportation while the United Nations decides whether to recognize them as refugees, though they will not be able to earn money legally.

Human rights groups condemned the "Interior Ministry's unrestrained conduct" Tuesday. "This draconian decision contravenes international and Israeli law on impairing basic human rights[."]

Not content with that, the government instituted a policy called "Gedera-Hadera," whereby refugees were blocked from living in Tel Aviv and the center of the country (i.e., where they were most likely to find jobs) -- hardly a "compassionate" move. The policy (illegal under international standards) was later rolled back -- not because of humanitarian concerns, but because the North and the South complained.

Also, no "cultural memory of genocide" prevented the Israeli government from attempting to enact an Infiltration Prevention Bill which called for the jailing for up to five years of all people illegally entering the country, including asylum-seekers. The bill was pulled after it was pointed out by human rights organizations that it constituted a blatant violation of Israel's commitments as a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

What do the refugees themselves have to say? Nothing very complimentary of Israel. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, one of them noted:

The [Israeli] authorities treat us not like refugees escaping danger and death, but like criminals and infiltrators or like people who came here for work. It seems that they could not care less about our welfare.

The local community, on the other hand, seems to understand that we are, indeed, refugees and accepts our situation. But, by labeling all foreigners as immigrant workers, I sense that the authorities are trying to set Israelis against us, as a threat to their work places and homes, and I deeply regret that.

In sum, Israel has done next to nothing to absorb asylum seekers, and has even attempted a few illegal steps to keep them outside of its borders. Please, tell me that Israel's situation is difficult; that reality trumps ideals; that it faces challenges unknown to other democracies; whatever you want along those lines. But don't present it to me as a compassionate refugee heaven with a better record than any other country in the world because that is utter bullshit.