As Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) reaches South African shores on 12 March, in the wake of similar programmes in 250 cities around the globe, the iniquitous racist Israeli system that has poisoned Palestinians for 70 years has now afflicted African refugees as well. Thousands, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, have been placed in what is a concentration camp in all but name in the Negev Desert called the Holot Prison. Another 40,000 plus languish in dilapidated slums on the outskirts of Tel Aviv facing daily insults and humiliation as they await deportation.
This has been the plight of the 10 million Palestinian Christians and Muslims for the past 70 years. They are forced to live in refugee camps within their own country as well as in neighbouring states, and are deprived of the basic human right to live in dignity in the land of their birth.
Journalist and author David Hirst has described life in refugee camps vividly: “The squalid sheds, their roofs of tin or corrugated iron weighted down with stones to stop them blowing away; the walls of squashed petrol cans, a few plants growing in rusty tins, the clouds of flies, the stink of animals and excrement; the long lines of women queuing up for rice or kerosene, or flour; above all the faces of women, worn and vacant, exhausted by years of carrying water and heavy loads, of children, wide-eyed and dirty, of men who push past sullenly, saying nothing.”
Life for a Palestinian, as it is for any refugee, whether African, Rohingya or Syrian, means a life of perpetual degradation. You are forced to live in accommodation which even the UN calls “shelters” rather than “houses”; often very small, the shelters equally often have leaky roofs and might be partitioned with cardboard boxes. Families, no matter what their size, all too frequently have to live in such cramped conditions, sometimes for years on end.
Undernourished children have nowhere to play; men have no work. Farmers who once worked their own fields must now choose between unemployment and selling lottery tickets; women wait in queues to beg for handfuls of rice and sugar, while their children stand bare-footed trying to sell chewing-gum to passing motorists.
Such is the forlorn and insecure environment facing African refugees in Israel. They experience humiliation and constant interference by ruthless police and security forces as well as a hostile population. Their situation is something with which most Black South Africans who experienced Apartheid rule can easily empathise.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ministers Eli Yishai and Gideon Saar, and parliamentarian Miri Regev are on record vilifying African refugees with racist slurs: “a cancer in our body”; a “sanitation hazard”; and “a threat to the social fabric of society… national security [and the] identity and existence [of the] Jewish and democratic state.” As “infiltrators” they should be “encourage[d]… to leave” and “lock[ed]… up to make their lives miserable.”
These repugnant rants by Israeli government officials incite hate campaigns and lynch mobs against African refugees. Mobs have repeatedly assaulted Africans in the streets encouraged by Jewish leaders calling them vile names and hurling racist slurs. Ironically, the majority of these Israelis are themselves immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, the USA and France, and are responsible for the ongoing theft of Palestinian land.
Israel is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees and is therefore legally obligated to offer asylum to the Africans seeking refuge therein, but it casually ignores its responsibilities. The Zionist state, meanwhile, has no problem fast-tracking citizenship for Jewish settlers and placing them on illegally-occupied and colonised Palestinian territory.
The deafening silence of the African Union (AU) or, at best, the muted response from African countries is shameful. Two of the AU’s member states, Uganda and Rwanda, have been confirmed by the UNHCR as assisting Israel in its deportation of the hapless African refugees in return for financial compensation.
A South African company, Cape Gate, has a subsidiary called Yehuda Fences Company which has been complicit in the anguish of African refugees by erecting barriers that obstruct desperate asylum seekers seeking safety.
The treatment meted out to the tormented African refugees in violation of international law exposes Israel’s claim that “security” justifies its crimes against the Palestinian people. Security has nothing to do with it; it is a sham of an excuse because Israel, as its treatment of African refugees demonstrates clearly, is a racist, Apartheid state, and Palestinians as well as Africans are its victims.
As the IAW campaign radiates around the world, Israel will, just as pre-1994 South Africa did, find it increasingly difficult to conceal and defend its irrefutable Apartheid policies.
- Dr Firoz Osman is an Executive Member of the Media Review Network, a South African advocacy group based in Johannesburg.