Israel abandons plan to forcibly deport African migrants

FILE PHOTO: A boy takes part in a protest against the Israeli government’s plan to deport African migrants, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Corinna Kern/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli government said on Tuesday it had abandoned a plan to forcibly deport African migrants who entered the country illegally after failing to find a willing country to take in the migrants.

The government had been working for months on an arrangement to expel thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese men who crossed into Israel through Egypt’s Sinai desert.

“At this stage, the possibility of carrying out an unwilling deportation to a third country is not on the agenda,” the government wrote in a response to Israel’s Supreme Court, which has been examining the case.

The migrants will again be able to renew residency permits every 60 days, as they were before the deportation push, the government said.

The migrants and rights groups say they are seeking asylum and are fleeing war and persecution. The government says they are job seekers and that it has every right to protect its borders.

Despite Tuesday’s climbdown, the government said immigration authorities would still try to deport migrants voluntarily, drawing criticism from rights group Amnesty International.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later said that after failing to reach agreement with any country to take them in, he would try to draft legislation that would allow the reopening of detention centers in Israel for the migrants.

The Supreme Court has previously struck down legislation that permits such detention and ordered the facilities shut.


The government’s U-turn was welcomed by those targeted for expulsion.

“I’m thrilled. I’m speechless. I was so scared every day. If I can stay here it will be good, I’ve lived here so long – I have a job, I have Israeli friends. I am used to the place,” said Ristom Haliesilase, a 34-year-old Eritrean who lives in Tel Aviv, working as a carer for the elderly.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home.

Around 4,000 migrants have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda since 2013 under a voluntary program, but Netanyahu has come under pressure from his right-wing voter base to expel thousands more.

After pulling out of a U.N.-backed relocation plan a few weeks ago, Israel shifted efforts toward finalizing an arrangement to send the migrants against their will to Uganda.

A number of migrant rights groups then petitioned the Supreme Court to block any such policy.

Amnesty also welcomed Tuesday’s decision but criticized Israel’s plan to continue with voluntary deportations.

“… in reality there is nothing voluntary about them. Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers agree to them under pressure. Israel remains under the obligation not to transfer anyone to a country” where they would be unsafe, said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty will closely monitor the deportations, it said.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israel at 70: the drummer, the baker, the rescuer

Amin Alaev (R), 55 (R), Aviva Alaev (2nd R), 22, Allo Alaev (C), 85, Amanda Alaev (2nd L), 13, Ariel Alaev (L), 51, and Avraham Alaev, 7, pose for a photograph in their rehearsal studio in Rishon Lezion, Israel March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Amir Cohen

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – The cantor’s grandson came from Tajikistan. The baker, who survived Auschwitz, came from Czechoslovakia. The emergency responder is a sixth-generation Jerusalemite. Together in one land, they celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary on Wednesday evening.

Since 1948, Israel has been home to Jewish immigrants from around the world. And when they arrived in their new home, many stuck to what they knew, and who they knew, handing down family trades from generation to generation.

Dressed in a traditional Bukharan floral gown and embroidered cap, 85-year-old Allo Alaev plays the doyra – a central-Asian frame drum.

The Alaevs came to Israel from Tajikistan in 1991, one family among the 1 million Jews who have moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the fall of communism in 1990.

The master percussionist is accompanied by two sons and five of his grandchildren playing rhythmic, fast-tempo folk music on an accordion, violins and a darbuka drum.

“My father was a famous singer there, his father was a cantor and my mother was a famous doyra player. I learned how to play it from her,” said Allo, the family patriarch.

Israel’s cultural mix has been a boon. “It’s only made our music better,” said his son Ariel, 51. “Music has no borders.”

Amit Dagan (R), 55, Hadar Dagan-Abeles (2nd R), 28, Baruch Dagan (C), 45, Bat-Sehva Dagan (2nd L), 77, and Mordechai Dagan, 49, pose for a photograph with a picture of the family's late patriarch Yehezkel Dagan (1937-2016), at Hishtil Nursery in Nehalim, Israel March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Amit Dagan (R), 55, Hadar Dagan-Abeles (2nd R), 28, Baruch Dagan (C), 45, Bat-Sehva Dagan (2nd L), 77, and Mordechai Dagan, 49, pose for a photograph with a picture of the family’s late patriarch Yehezkel Dagan (1937-2016), at Hishtil Nursery in Nehalim, Israel March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen


Keeping a family trade has provided a sense of stability for some Jewish immigrants who survived the Holocaust.

Jolanda Wilheim came to Israel in 1949, after she and her husband had been in the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.

Their daughter, Myriam Zweigenbaum, said her father’s father had owned a bakery before the war, so when her parents moved to a new land where they had nothing else to fall back on, they drew on family knowledge to start their own bakery.

Wilheim, 96, still works in that small bakery in central Israel, with her daughter and two granddaughters.

“I feel I’m living out what it was that the Nazis had tried to cut down more than 70 years ago,” said Wilheim’s granddaughter, Keren Zweigenbaum, 38.

Despite the wars that Israel has fought with its Arab neighbors – and the still-unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Israel is seen by many Jewish immigrants as a safe haven in the Middle East.

The oldest Israelis remember the anti-Jewish sentiment that swept through the Middle East in the middle of the 20th century, fanned by Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism. The turmoil saw entire Jewish communities leave countries in which they had lived for centuries, even millennia.

That flight only accelerated after the establishment of Israel and the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, which fueled anger across the Arab world at the plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the conflict.

The fate of those Palestinians – the vast majority of whom have never been able to return – is inextricably linked with that of Israel. The events of 70 years ago that Israelis celebrate are cause for mourning among Palestinians, who commemorate them as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”.


But not all Israelis are newcomers. David Weissenstern’s ancestors have been in Jerusalem for six generations. They were among the first families who moved out of the walled Old City in the 19th century, and built the first Jewish neighborhoods outside it.

Weissenstern, his son and grandson are part of Zaka, an Israeli emergency rescue and recover organization. Most of its volunteers, like him, are ultra-Orthodox Jews. Often first on the scene of car accidents and militant attacks, one of their tasks is to collect the body parts of victims, to ensure their proper burial.

“Treatment of the dead is one of the greatest Jewish edicts,” said Weissenstern, 71. His family, he said, has always kept communal Jewish edicts of charity and care for the other:

“If you make a dollar more or a dollar less, that’s less important. What matters is what you’ve given to others.”

By contrast, Aharon Ben Hur, 84, only came to Israel in 1951 from Iraq, once home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the Middle East.

Ben Hur’s father and young brother were among 180 Baghdad Jews killed in 1941, in a pogrom known as the Farhud. He now runs two falafel restaurants in Tel Aviv, with his son and grandson.

“In Iraq, as a boy, my parents suffered,” he said. “When we came to Israel, it was another life.”

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Kevin Liffey)