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Refugees join Palestinians as the reviled 'other' in Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu's government is not tough only on Palestinians. Israel is also making life hard on Africa refugees and migrant workers.

On Tuesday, Israelis woke up to the surprising news that the early elections announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday had been cancelled. In a deal made while the country was asleep, Mr Netanyahu forged a new coalition with the centre-right party Kadima. Now the Knesset will march in lockstep behind the prime minister, meaning little will change. Not that elections would have made much of a difference, anyway - the popular Mr Netanyahu had been expected to win by a landslide.

Nor will key planks of the government agenda change very much in all probability. "Social justice" - a term Israelis use not about ending the occupation of Palestinian land, but about building a more egalitarian economy - remains elusive. Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu's government uses policy and rhetoric not only against Palestinians but also against Israel's other "others" - migrant workers and African refugees.

Public support for him is somewhat surprising. Last summer's protests against the cost of living suggested that many Israelis were less than satisfied with the state of the state. Almost a year later, housing is as unaffordable as ever and wages are relatively low. The gap between Israel's rich and poor remains one of the highest in the western world. This winter saw a steep increase in electricity and gas prices. And, despite last year's "cottage cheese protests", food prices continue to rise.

Those concerns dominate Israel's domestic politics, but it has been Palestinians who have truly been squeezed by this administration: increased settlement growth; a dramatic rise in demolition of Palestinian and Bedouin homes in East Jerusalem and Israeli-controlled Area C in the West Bank; and the approval of the Prawer Plan, which will see tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens of Israel forcibly removed from their villages in the Negev to make way for Israeli settlers.

Africans and refugees are under pressure, too. The examples include a government campaign in which paid actors claimed that they were unemployed because foreigners took their jobs. Israel-born children of migrant workers have been deported, even though the Supreme Court overturned a policy that made their parents "illegal". The world's largest detention centre is being built to jail African refugees, including women and children. There, asylum seekers will be held without trial, many for up to three years, and some indefinitely.

Their only crime will be that they violated Israel's 1954 Infiltration Prevention law, intended to criminalise the actions of Palestinian "infiltrators" - refugees who attempted to enter the newly created state of Israel to return to the homes and lands from which they had been expelled in 1948. Last year, the law was modified to include undocumented migrants who enter Israel via Egypt. A large majority of those coming in through the southern border are African asylum seekers.

And then there is the modified 1952 Entry to Israel law, which conferred privileges on Jews while preventing Palestinians from returning. It now places severe restrictions on the freedom of foreign caregivers, going as far as to limit them to a set region of the country.

It's no coincidence that Israel is using laws intended to discriminate against Palestinians to tread on the human rights of other non-Jewish groups.

In 2003, Mr Netanyahu, then finance minister, called Arab citizens of the state a "demographic problem", adding that the separation barrier would stop a "demographic spillover" of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. Fast forward to 2010: Prime Minister Netanyahu calls African asylum seekers a "concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country" and promises another separation barrier, this one to run the length of the border between Egypt and Israel.

When considered through the lens of the goal of maintaining a "Jewish and democratic" country, every non-Jew - Arab or African, Christian or Muslim - becomes a "threat" to the state.

The state's policies have implications for citizens' behaviour. As the state steps up its persecution of and incitement against foreigners - whipping the public into a nationalistic frenzy - Jewish Israelis are emboldened to further violence and discrimination against migrants. In Eilat, for example, African refugees have been banned from municipal schools. Several schools in Tel Aviv have also barred foreign children.

In south Tel Aviv, Jewish Israelis have held protests against the presence of Africans, calling on the state to deport them. Right-wing Knesset members have taken part in these demonstrations, lending an air of governmental approval.

South Tel Aviv is becoming a flashpoint for tensions. Last month, a 20-year-old Israeli threw Molotov cocktails at a kindergarten and four apartments that serve African refugees. A week later, two firebombs were hurled at the home of Nigerian immigrants.

In 2011, three teenage girls - the Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking daughters of African migrants - were beaten by a group of Jewish teenagers. The attackers, one of whom was armed with a knife, allegedly called them "dirty niggers". One of the girls needed medical treatment for her injuries.

This new coalition just means more of the same: discrimination and violence against non-Jews on both sides of the Green Line. Whether that violence comes from the state or citizens, whether it takes the form of bulldozers or firebombs, the goal is the same: the preservation of privilege in a "Jewish and democratic" state.


Journalist Mya Guarnieri is working on a book about migrant workers in Israel. She blogs at 972mag.com

Updated: May 10, 2012 04:00 AM