About 60,000 African migrants live in Israel, often in exploitative circumstances. Increasingly, they are under under threat of violence from militants. Joseph Dana visited South Tel Aviv, to find out more

Words by Joseph Dana | 21 Sep, 2013

Neatly tucked inside the crooked, cobbled alleyways of Jaffa’s old city sits an idyllic café. Popular among locals, Café Napoleon’s soft music and Middle Eastern food provides ideal respite from the heat and commotion of Israel’s unofficial capital city. An ancient port city, which once served as Palestine’s commercial centre, Jaffa is now part of the Tel Aviv municipality and at the very heart of the city’s aggressive gentrification wave. Restaurants and cafés are popping up at a dizzying rate, bringing with them a fleet of migrant workers. In a dingy closet, at the very back of Café Napoleon, an Eritrean man named Kesede quietly cleans dishes and sometimes prepares food. With a slight build and quick smile, Kesede greets customers as if they were old friends popping by for coffee at his home.

During the day Kesede works in another café, in the upmarket Basel neighbourhood of north Tel Aviv, where one cup of coffee costs about $5. After his day shift in the north, he returns to the south and continues to work into the early hours of the morning. The leafy streets of north Tel Aviv, filled with well-dressed Tel Avivians, are a far cry from the area of town Kesede calls home. At the end of each workday Kesede cycles ten minutes to a cramped flat just steps away from Tel Aviv’s derelict central bus station. This neglected area of town, known by many as “south Tel Aviv”, is a dystopian world of drug dealers, sex workers, and neon lights. It is also the unofficial capital of thousands of African refugees, asylum seekers and East Asian migrants living in Israel.

The only option for refugees and asylum seekers like Kesede is to live in a state of legal limbo in south Tel Aviv, working multiple jobs to stay afloat, sending whatever money is available back home

Kesede’s flat is at the top floor of a decrepit whitewashed building. The fluorescent lights illuminating the stairwell, which give the place the feeling of an Egyptian interrogation centre. Inside the flat, eight people share two cramped rooms. A simple stove and television are the only furnishings other than a series of mattresses that occupy almost every available inch of floorspace. The place is littered with Nokia cellphone chargers. Despite resembling a tenement building in New York’s Lower East side, the monthly rental is on par with the most expensive flats in central Tel Aviv and totals nearly $2,250.

Kesede and his flatmates all fled the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea. If they return, they face certain imprisonment and possibly death as unofficially leaving the country is considered an act of treason.

“I left my home for a better life,” Kesede tells me as he closes up at Café Napoleon one evening. It is one in the morning and a strong breeze from the Mediterranean engulfs the café. Kesede has been working since six the previous morning. “But now I have no place to go. I am trying to get my wife to Israel. We can start a new life, but the costs and the risks are so high.”

The only option for refugees and asylum seekers like Kesede is to live in a state of legal limbo in south Tel Aviv, working multiple jobs to stay afloat, sending whatever money is available back home. Without legal rights, Israeli landlords tend to charge exorbitant rents, well above market price. If migrants don’t pay the rent or opt to quibble over the conditions, landlords simply call the Ministry of Interior’s immigration and border unit, known as Oz.

Scenes like this are unfolding throughout major Israeli cities at the moment: African migrants, many living in the country illegally, conduct the physical labour necessary to keep Israel afloat, only to return to ghetto-like conditions such as those on Tel Aviv’s southern edge. Work that was once done by Palestinians from the occupied territories in the late 1980s is now chiefly the preserve of Africans and East Asians. As Israel’s economy continues to grow and the cost of living in Tel Aviv spirals to levels comparable with Paris or New York, so the migrant and refugee labour force has swelled—spurring social unrest.

Israel, a country primarily founded by refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe, has a short but storied history. Founded in 1948, the country has long operated a sophisticated scheme to bring Jewish immigrants to the country. Known as Aliyah (to ascend in Hebrew), it saw millions of Jews move to Israel from all corners of the globe. In some cases, the Israeli national airline, El Al, even provided free transportation to Israel for new immigrants. In the last decade, Jewish immigration to Israel has however slowed to a trickle. The last major wave of immigrants—many from the former Soviet Union—closed a major chapter in the country’s immigration history.

The decline of Jewish immigration, along with the rise in Palestinian birth rates, has prompted Israeli politicians to warn of a “demographic threat”—non-Jews will soon outnumber Jews in Israel. This entrenched binary, which pits Jewish Israeli against Palestinian, has been complicated by the arrival of asylum seekers fleeing the ongoing conflicts in Eritrea, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Bordering Asia and Africa, with lucrative access to Europe, Israel is in many ways perfectly sited to receive this influx.

According to best estimates there are roughly 60,000 asylum seekers and refugees of African origin living in Israel, the largest majority (more than 60%) coming from Eritrea

Jean Luc, an undocumented refugee from the DRC, has lived in Tel Aviv for five years. Israel, he says, was a logical country to seek refuge in because of the Jewish state’s image as a “country of refugees”. At a sidewalk café in south Tel Aviv, he recounted his experience walking across the Sinai and the feeling that he was following in the footsteps of the ancient Israelites reaching the Promised Land. Despite his status as an illegal migrant, Jean Luc and other African migrants like him have created a strong community in Israel. Churches serve as the primary meeting place for the various diasporas, allowing them to recreate community institutions and maintain bonds that extend back to the homeland. Additionally, Jean Luc volunteers his time and experience at the African Refugee Development Centre (ARDC), an Israeli NGOs that aims to protect the rights of African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. Political in nature, the ARDC is one of the few places that people fleeing violence in African can find a helping hand in Israel.

Getting into Israel is not easy. Migrants typically make their way to Egypt first, where they journey overland into Israel via Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In this lawless, inhospitable corner of Egypt, Bedouin smugglers move people from Cairo to the Israeli border. Tales of rape, torture and random shooting are common, and have been extensively documented by Physicians for Human Rights, an Israeli NGO. The next step involves physically entering Israel, which is becoming increasingly more difficult due to a state-of-the-art barrier, which is near completion. After recent cross-border violence between Israeli soldiers and Egyptian militants, Israel took the bold step of entering Sinai in order to pre-emptively arrest Africans it suspected of wanting to enter the country on foot. The Israeli army has increased its military presence along the Sinai border with the explicit intention to end African migration, once and for all. It appears to be working.

Notwithstanding, many Africans have successfully made the passage. According to best estimates there are roughly 60,000 asylum seekers and refugees of African origin living in Israel, the largest majority (more than 60%) coming from Eritrea. Israel’s total migrant work force numbers roughly 180,000, with East Asian nationals constituting the largest ethnic grouping.

Israeli authorities have been ruthless in dealing with the problem of illegal immigration. Children of migrant workers, who have only known Israel as their home and Hebrew as their language, have recently been deported. According to Hotline for Migrant Workers, one of the primary Israeli NGOs dedicated to assisting and documenting the plight of migrant workers in Israel, over 50% lack legal work status. The Israeli state refers to African asylum seekers as “infiltrators”—a terminology adopted by the Israeli media and part of a wider rejection of the rights of non-Jewish refugees to live in Israel. Since the founding of the country seven decades ago, less than 200 non-Jews have received political asylum. Despite the well-documented crimes and violence of the Eritrean regime, as well the high global recognition rate for Eritrean (84%) and Sudanese (74%) asylum claims, according to a position paper by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the country has not budged on this issue.

The waves of anti-African violence currently engulfing the country have yet to start a serious discussion about Israel’s relationship—both current and historical—with the African continent

Israel’s relationship with the African continent is a complex one. In the early part of the 1950s, the Israeli state invested heavily in sub-Saharan Africa, attempting to win support at the United Nations from newly independent African countries. The relationship was marked by Israeli export of agricultural knowledge, water technology and, in some cases, military training, in exchange for United Nations support.

But the relationship went sour when Israel threw its weight behind the apartheid regime in South Africa. By the late 1960s, Israel began an elaborate and secretive relationship with South Africa marked by military collusion. In exchange for military equipment, expertise and assistance in circumventing international boycotts of apartheid South Africa, Israel received huge amounts of raw materials and cash throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, a time in which global economic markets looked similar to today. This secret relationship ended Israel’s warm relations with many African states, who lent diplomatic and martial support to the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

The waves of anti-African violence currently engulfing the country have yet to start a serious discussion about Israel’s relationship—both current and historical—with the African continent. Indeed, the country has used the presence of black Ethiopian Jews to convince the international community that it is a bastion of multiculturalism, notwithstanding the fact that this minority has been discriminated against heavily in virtually all sectors of Israeli society. Currently, some Ethiopian Jews have taken to wearing shirts stating that they are not African asylum seekers so as to avoid attacks in Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv’s central Rothschild Boulevard, with its grand oak trees imported by the British during their mandate over Palestine, bears striking resemblances to Europe. Quaint cafés line the street and rows of Parisian-style chairs and tables lure passersby with the promise of fine coffee. Construction sounds are ever present: new glass towers overlooking the Mediterranean are being built at a fever pitch. Tel Aviv may not be the most beautiful city on the planet, but the appearance of wealth is highly visible.

In the summer of 2011, a small group of young, middle to upper class Israelis pitched tents on Rothschild Boulevard. What looked like a garden party in the middle of built up urban area was the beginning of an economic rights and urban access movement which would sweep up Israel and change the complexion of Israel’s next parliament. Under the banner of “the nation wants social justice,” young Israelis protested the high cost of living in Israel and the deep economic gaps, which have created massive social inequality in the society.

While the protesters were reticent to confront issues relating to Palestinians, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as well as the plight of African asylum seekers just blocks away from central Tel Aviv, they did manage to start a new discussion in Israel about rights to the city and the high cost of living affecting large portions of the country. At its height some 500,000 Israelis participated in the protest. Some of its leaders are now Israeli parliamentarians, ironically on the Labour Party’s ticket—this establishment party is largely responsible for the growing inequality that led to the protests in the first place.

Three blocks to the south of Rothschild Boulevard the inequality underpinning the state of Israel is plainly visible. The calm inviting air of central Tel Aviv is replaced by the unrelenting din of car horns, choking pollution and the unrelenting heat of the Middle Eastern sun beating down on bare pavements. Rows of stalls sell everything from fresh fruit to wholesale refrigerators and knock-off DVDs. There are brothels, drug dealers, even stores that sell pork (a meat banned by Jewish religious law and not commonly found in Israel). The area is also the centre for Israel’s elaborate human trafficking rings, rumoured to be some of the most expansive in the world. At the heart of this concrete landscape is the city’s central bus station, an ugly brutalist-style building which was started in 1967, but only to be opened in 1993.

A recent city plan dubbed Tel Aviv 5,000 motivated for the bus station’s demolition, citing the building’s history as a drug den and hub for Tel Aviv’s underworld. Inside the dank halls adverts for cheap calling cards for various African countries vie for space with those for knock-off designer jeans. Israeli soldiers, in olive green uniforms carrying M16 rifles, catch buses here destined for far off military bases in the desert. There is even a library of Yiddish books in an unmarked corner on the sixth floor.

Over the years, the bus station has become a haven for the African diaspora in Israel. There are free health clinics, NGOs providing legal assistance for refugees, even grocery stores stocking speciality foods from various corners of the globe. The strong sense of identification with this area has seen some refugees take it upon themselves to clean up the station by asking the sex workers and drug dealers to leave.

“This was the first place I came to in Tel Aviv,” says Emmanual, a young man from Eritrea. It is unlikely that this is his real name as it is increasingly common for asylum seekers to adopt Israeli sounding names. “There is not enough room for me in my flat to spend time, so I come here. It is one of the only places in the city where I am not working or have to pay money.”

Over the last decade, life for African migrants has fanned out from the confines of the central bus station. Levinksy Park, a nondescript patch of grass with a few basketball courts, is a popular meeting point. Eritrean and Sudanese restaurants have opened on the narrow streets that crisscross the neighbourhood. There has been so much activity recently that the Israeli government has tried to limit the number of business permits given to Eritreans.

Before south Tel Aviv gained its current image as the heartland for African refugees and migrant workers, this cluster of low-income neighbourhoods was known chiefly for its cheap municipal taxes, especially in Hatikva and Neve Sha’anan. Both minutes from the bus station, these neighbourhoods have long been home to Mizrahi Israelis—Jews from Arab countries. Feeling neglected by the government and pinched by the ever-increasing cost of living in Tel Aviv, it was these residents that took to the streets last year to protest what they consider to be the African takeover of south Tel Aviv.

Since May of 2012, violent outbreaks of anti-African sentiment have flared up across south Tel Aviv. In July, an Israeli man entered an internet cafe and stabbed three Eritreans. The attacks have since spread to Jerusalem, where two apartments belonging to Sudanese migrants were firebombed in the dead of night. The attacks have continued over the past year and the Israeli government has started the unprecedented process of repatriating Eritreans. Few, if any, Western countries have taken such punitive measures.

According to Jesse Fox, a Tel Aviv based journalist and urban planner, south Tel Aviv has been targeted by the municipality because of a proposed gentrification programme. “The city wants to turn south Tel Aviv into a kind of Chinatown,” says Fox. “The residents in these areas are being squeezed out by the government, and anti-African anger is an outlet for their anger.”

In May of 2012, in the southern Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Hatikva (The Hope), some 1,000 residents attended an outdoor rally against the presence of African migrants. The rally featured fiery speeches by Israeli parliamentarians Miri Regev, Danny Danon, Yari Levin and Michael Ben-Ari. During her speech Miri Regev, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, claimed that the African migrants were a “cancer” in Israeli society. Days later, she publicly apologised to cancer patients but not Africans for her remarks. When the speeches concluded, the crowd marched to Tel Aviv’s central bus station where they destroyed African-owned storefronts, attacked African women and children, and shouted racist slogans.

“There were protesters everywhere smashing shop and car windows,” a Nigerian man told the UK’s Independent. “A group of about 10 or 15 boys stopped one black kid cycling on his bike. They pulled him off and were punching and kicking him in his head. The police just stood and watched until it got really out of control.”

The violence, which was widely reported on, was the most extreme outbreak of anti-African sentiment Tel Aviv had ever experienced. According to Mya Guarnieri, a journalist working on a forthcoming book about migrant workers in Israel, protests against African migrants in south Tel Aviv date back to 2010. Right-wing politicians have attended these protests since their outset; populist politicians have followed suit. “While anti-African sentiment is most apparent in the right and far right, it does have roots in the foundation of the state itself,” says Guarnieri.

Indeed, former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a member of the right-wing religious party Shas, has been a leading voice behind the new wave of xenophobia. In an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv, Yishai noted that “most of the people [immigrants] coming here are Muslims who think the land doesn’t belong to us, to the white man … The infiltrators, along with the Palestinians, will quickly bring us to the end of the Zionist dream.”

Yishai has also backed a slew of laws that criminalise the presence of illegal African migrants in Israel. The Israeli parliament has passed the Prevention of Infiltration Law that allows the state to detain asylum seekers for up to three years without trial. This can be renewed indefinitely after the initial three-year detention. Notably, the law groups all African refugees, regardless of their intentions, as simply “enemy infiltrators”. Israel has agreed not to deport Eritreans given the punishments they would face on return. The legal foundation for the new law is similar—in spirit and language—to a piece of legislation from 1954, which labelled Palestinian refugees and militants returning to their land inside of newly minted Israeli state as “enemy infiltrators”.

Off the back of these new laws, Israel is currently building one of the world’s largest prisons in the Negev desert to house illegal African migrants

Off the back of these new laws, Israel is currently building one of the world’s largest prisons in the Negev desert to house illegal African migrants. Night raids by Israeli police are common in African communities and observers believe that the prison, once completed, will quickly fill to capacity. Currently, some Africans are detained in the Ketziot prison near the Gaza Strip, also in the Negev desert. Writing in the online Israeli magazine +972, Yonatan Berman, an attorney and director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the Academic Center of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, a city east of Tel Aviv, describes the prison’s scorching heat and abysmal conditions:

“The heat in the courtyard is unbearable, and one can only imagine what it feels like in the prison wings, and particularly for the women and children, who are held in tents during this scorching summer. Most of the detainees are Eritrean. ‘They’re not refugees,’ we’re told by the Interior Minister and the Prime Minister, who in the same breath admit that we can’t deport them, because deportation would place their lives at risk. The camp, therefore, is not meant for the ‘illegal immigrants’ awaiting deportation, but intended to exhaust and discourage the asylum seekers who can’t be deported.”

In addition to creating expensive prisons for African migrants, Israel is aggressively lobbying African governments—such as South Sudan and Ivory Coast—to repatriate their citizens. Israel has reportedly offered military assistance to various African countries in exchange for refugees. In July 2013, Israel repatriated 14 Eritreans, a tragic move considering Israel’s key role in drafting the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which establishes protection for people around the world escaping persecution. Israel has also reportedly reached an agreement to deport all refugees from the Ivory Coast after signing a deal with the country’s new leader Alassane Ouattara. Weeks after news of the deportation was announced, a handful of African diplomats in Tel Aviv, including the ambassador of Ivory Coast, complained to the Israeli president that they were unable to walk the streets of Tel Aviv because of continued harassment. The diplomats also reported that their partners feared going to the grocery store due to the escalating racism.

Mya Guarnieri has some pointed views on the current state of affairs in Israel. “We can’t talk about Israel as a democracy,” she says. “We can only talk about a defined democratic space—and that democratic space is defined for Jews, and for a particular section of Jews.” Guarnieri believes the status quo favours right wing Israelis and sanctions hate speech. “You can say that Africans are a cancer.” By contrast, people on the political left are less able to voice protest, she argues. Publicly advocating for the boycott of Israel is tantamount to treason, for right-wingers. “We see that the democratic space in Israel is growing smaller and smaller, and more defined,” says Guarnieri, who believes racism in Israel is not only bubbling up from below but being fashioned by elites. The current wave of anti-African sentiment is being fanned by populist, mostly right-wing politicians aiming to reach out to disgruntled low-income voters, whose anger further feeds the growing xenophobia.

The situation is complicated by the urban make-up of the larger metropolitan area of Tel Aviv. In profound ways, the city of Tel Aviv has failed to create an inclusive urban environment and ignored the legitimate demands for infrastructure by those in the south. Instead of addressing these problems head on, Israeli politicians have been expeditiously fanning anti-migrant sentiment. The use of racist anti-immigrant rhetoric to mask social ills is nothing new in Israeli society, as elsewhere. The increasingly violent attacks on African migrants, while alarming, share similarities with incidents in the west. Israeli authorities have however been slack in policing the problem. Without clear state direction on how to handle especially illegal African migrants—other than to build bigger prisons—violence will undoubtedly continue to remain a feature of street life in south Tel Aviv.

There is another layer to the immigration issue. For more than 60 years, Israel has outwardly struggled with the question of self-definition. Tel Aviv, specifically, remains awkward in its own skin. What began as a project in the sand dunes surrounding Jaffa has grown into a confident and successful western-style metropolis. Israelis like to think of Tel Aviv as a bastion of liberal thinking in a sea of religious conservatism, both in Israel and in the Middle East. But the reality is that the city is desperately segregated and divided along ethnic and class lines. As much as its citizens might deny it, Tel Aviv is unavoidably part of Israel and its convoluted identity politics. This is visible in the growing urban divide in Tel Aviv. Across the course of its short history, Israel has perfected a form of military government that completely deprives the rights of non-Jews. Palestinians have all but been erased from Tel Aviv’s streets, while African migrants, many drawn to Israel by the lure of its economic prosperity, are ruthlessly exploited as cheap labour and rent-paying resource.

Joseph Dana is a writer and journalist based in the Middle East. He is Monocle Magazine’s Tel a Viv Correspondent