Israel Grapples With Influx of Africans as Tensions Grow
Israel has stepped up its efforts to round up and repatriate South Sudanese migrants and is building a tent-city detention center in the desert, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government struggles to stem the monthly tide of thousands of Africans crossing illegally from Egypt.
The South Sudanese represent a fraction of some 60,000 Africans who took advantage of lax Egyptian border controls in recent years to slip into Israel. With human-rights groups calling them asylum seekers and the Israeli government insisting they are looking for jobs, the Africans' growing presence has become a lightning rod for racial violence in Tel Aviv and other cities.
In June, Mr. Netanyahu began the repatriation program, a month after naming the African illegal immigrants as a national threat to Israel—along with Iran and missile stockpiles in the region. He warned that their numbers could reach into the hundred thousands and change the character of the state of eight million, while acknowledging that the majority—who hail from Eritrea and Sudan—can't be swiftly deported.
To deter new arrivals, Israel is building a fence along its border with Egypt and detention facilities in the desert near the border.
"Maybe I sound like a racist, or unenlightened, hateful of foreigners," said Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has been the most vocal advocate of deporting the Africans, in a post on his Facebook page. "This is not a campaign against the infiltrators, but rather a campaign to preserve the identity of the Jewish Zionist state."
Both Israelis and the Africans say they are afraid of one another.
"It's not safe for a black person to walk around in some areas," said Yohannes Bayu, director of the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv.
Israel's parliament earlier this year mandated a three-year incarceration for the illegal immigrants, and the Defense Ministry began building detention centers to hold as many as 25,000 migrants in the desert region near the border.