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African refugees in Israel get a cold shoulder and worse

TEL AVIV — The first Molotov cocktail ignited a backyard fence, just a couple of feet from where three Eritrean refugees were sleeping outdoors on makeshift beds of wood planks atop old TV sets. One man burned his arm trying to extinguish the flames with a blanket.

Moments later, a second firebomb was tossed through an open air vent into the adjacent apartment, where another family of African asylum-seekers was sleeping. It exploded in the shower without causing injury.

The post-midnight attacks last month by unknown assailants continued across Tel Aviv's dilapidated Shapira neighborhood, striking another refugee house and a kindergarten catering to African children.

"We're just looking for some peace in our life," said Berhun Gergrehra, 60, a former Eritrean soldier who fled poverty and repression there two years ago, arriving in Israel after walking through Sudan and Egypt with his teenage son and daughter. "But everyone here just hates us. Why?"

Israel is a nation founded by refugees, mostly Jews escaping persecution in Europe and the Middle East. It grew and prospered thanks to additional immigration from Russia, Ethiopia and other nations.

But now Israel's identity as a refuge is being challenged by an influx of tens of thousands of Africans, who also see the country as a haven from oppression in their native lands. Since 2006, more than 60,000 Africans — mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, including the latter's Darfur region — have poured over the border from Egypt's Sinai desert, taking advantage of Israel's proximity as one of the nearest modern democracies accessible to African refugees.

But unlike past waves of Jewish immigrants, the flood of Africans is triggering an ugly and sometimes violent backlash in Israel. Refugee activists say some government leaders are fostering the intolerance and anger toward Africans, who are accused of committing crimes, stealing jobs from Israelis and potentially undermining the Jewish character of the country.

At a Tel Aviv rally last week, hundreds of Israelis gathered to protest the presence of African refugees. Right-wing lawmaker Miri Regev called Sudanese arrivals a "cancer" on Israel and urged immigration officials to deport all African "infiltrators."

Soon after, angry mobs rioted through the neighborhood, smashing store windows and attacking a car carrying Africans, police said. Seventeen rioters, mostly minors, were arrested.

It was the latest in a string of attacks, disturbances and incidents of harassment in the last month, after three Eritrean migrants were arrested in connection with the rape of an Israeli woman.

Amid a national uproar over the rape, Interior Minster Eli Yishai called most African immigrants "criminals" and vowed to either deport or jail them. He said on Israel Radio that a firm response was the only way to discourage more refugees from entering the country. "Once they're in jail, they won't want to come over here anymore," he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the sentiment, saying the presence of African migrants in Israel "is extremely serious and threatens Israel's social fabric and national security."

Most of the African refugees walk into Israel via the Sinai desert, paying Bedouin smugglers thousands of dollars to deliver them from Egypt. In response, the Israeli government has begun construction of a massive fence along the border and an 8,000-bed detention facility in the southern Negev desert to hold those who get through. Both are expected to be completed this year.

After a brief detention at a military facility, most African refugees are released without government assistance and are given short-term visas that prohibit them from working. Many end up homeless in the resort city of Eilat or in the poor areas of cities like Tel Aviv, where they sleep in parks and seek jobs as construction workers or dishwashers, for which they are paid under the table. Children are allowed to attend school, but their parents receive no health insurance or other social benefits.

Interior Ministry officials say they are doing their best to deal with the influx, their goal being to provide basic protection without offering so much that it will encourage more arrivals.

"There's a pull factor," said Daniel Solomon, a legal advisor for the ministry. "If the government gives them a sense of permanence, millions more in Africa might come."

Critics call the government's treatment coldhearted and say the recent tone is fueling hatred, racism and xenophobia. In Eilat over the last month, there's been an increase in reports of Africans being pelted with rocks or doused with white paint.

Aid groups that have come to the defense of refugees say they, too, are coming under attack, receiving anonymous death threats.

"It's a frightening situation," said Orit Rubin, social coordinator at Assaf, a Tel Aviv-based organization that assists asylum seekers. Rather than calming tension, she said, government leaders are demonizing refugees, perhaps in an attempt to deflect attention from what she said is the government's failure to cope with the influx.

"The government is feeding on the fear and manipulating Israeli society, Rubin said. "If we don't start treating these people like human beings, we are going to lose our own humanity."

Critics also contend that the legal process appears designed to prevent the Africans from obtaining formal status as refugees.

"The government goes to great lengths to avoid calling these people refugees or asylum-seekers because that would imply certain responsibilities," said William Tall, senior protection officer with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Instead of conducting interviews and providing individual refugee status, Israel has determined that refugees from Eritrea, Darfur and northern Sudan should receive collective protection against deportation. As a result, only a few hundred African refugees have been officially declared refugees, which triggers certain rights and protections under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, of which Israel was a founding signatory.

By not classifying individual Eritreans and Sudanese as refugees, Israel is "not in compliance with the full spirit of the convention," Tall said.

Solomon said the government was too overwhelmed to conduct individual interviews, but will offer them before any deportations occur. "The bottom line is that Israel is granting these people protection, and that's the spirit of the convention," the legal advisor said.

Yishai, the interior minister, said this week that he would move to deport more than 700 South Sudanese asylum-seekers, arguing that the creation of the state of South Sudan last year removed any rights they had for blanket protection. An Israeli court is expected to rule on the issue shortly.

Solomon said the government hopes many refugees will decide to leave voluntarily. And some say that given the recent hostility, they are thinking about doing exactly that.

Leaning against the charred remains of his fence, Gergrehra said the recent attack was the second time his house had been firebombed in a year.

"We're thinking about leaving," he said. "This country just won't accept us."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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