Israel wants to return to Africa. But it doesn't want Africans to come to Israel.
The African continent has been popping up on the agenda of Israeli policymakers frequently in recent years. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used to tweet photos showing the hospitality of African leaders, Israeli newspapers speak of Israel’s return to Africa.
However, it is not a bed of roses.
Another Africa-related issue that popped up as a headache for Israeli politicians was Africans seeking asylum in Israel. Frequent statements have been made regarding their prospective deportation from the country or being jailed in Israel.
In February, Israeli border authority officials announced that it will start issuing deportation notices for 40,000 African migrants residing in its territory.
Despite the Supreme Court halting the decision temporarily, their future remains in limbo. As a result of the Supreme Court's decision, the Border Authority came up with another plan to deport 20,000 single men. In that case, the director of the authority said, women and children seeking asylum can have permanent status.
An International Scandal
The majority of the nearly 40,000 African migrants in Israel hail from Sudan and Eritrea.
Eritrea produces a disproportionate level of refugees owing to the hermetic state's unapologetic authoritarianism.
UN documents show that “[Eritrea] has widespread networks of informants, coerced by the state, and those suspected of treasonous behaviour are subject to arbitrary arrest, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture”.
Ordinary Eritrean citizens are forcefully conscripted into endless military and state service with meagre salaries. Those that manage to escape face danger if they return, as they are stigmatised as “deserters.”
Since the early 2000s, people from Sudan’s Darfur region have been witnessing continuous ethnic violence in which conflicting parties use torture, mutilation and rape as weapons of war.
Asylum seekers from both nations are genuinely under threat in their countries.
The forced expulsion of these persecuted migrants clearly depicts not only Israel’s failure of its larger moral responsibilities towards refugees, but further its disregard of the legal responsibilities it agreed to when it signed the Refugee Convention.
Second, this plan serves as a signpost of the dreadful political measures fueling the international refugee crisis across the world where anti-refugee sentiment and policies are on the rise.
Lastly, this mass deportation order clearly indicates the failure of the international community to uphold and honour their commitments to refugees by pressuring the Israeli government to reverse its controversial plan.
The Israel deportation plan — which many human rights agencies say is in violation of international law because deportees are being sent to countries that cannot safeguard their safety — is of course a major international scandal.
A backlash of Israel-Africa relations
The proposed expulsion of African migrants currently residing in Israel who have fled their countries mainly due to conflicts and poverty will result in a backlash to Israel’s recent efforts to woo Africa under the slogan “Israel is returning to Africa”.
Although Israel has long wanted to deport African migrants residing in Israel to their countries of origin or third party states, it is believed Israel’s ultimatum for the migrants has a lot to do with the UN General Assembly’s vote against US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to accept Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Almost 40 African states, including Ethiopia — Israel’s long-term African ally — voted in favour of the decision, which rejected and condemned Trump’s move. While only one African country, Togo, supported Trump’s decision, 12 other African states, including those Israel considers its friends such as Senegal, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya abstained.
Additionally, some African nations, including South Africa, took steps and downgraded their diplomatic relations with Israel in solidarity with the "Oppressed People of Palestine".
It is believed that Israel’s ultimatum to deport African refugees is a retaliatory gesture against the majority of African states' stance on Jerusalem.
The deportation plan will further complicate Israel’s relations with Africa, especially its recent bid to secure an observer status at the African Union (AU).
Although Israel had this status at the organisation of the African Unity (OAU)—the predecessor organisation of the AU, it lost it when the OAU was replaced by AU in 2002. Since then Israel has campaigned, unsuccessfully, to regain that seat.
In contrast, the State of Palestine — Israel’s rival — was granted an observer status at the AU in 2013 and the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, addresses the heads of African states.
Another major blow to Israel’s relations with Africa was the cancellation of the first Israel-Africa summit last September, after the majority of African states boycotted it.
This was regarded as a strong signal of African solidarity with Palestine rather than the influence of the Arab–African relationship. In 2001, Israel suffered the same political blow at the world conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances in Durban, South Africa.
The summit draft declaration equated Zionism with racism based on ethnic origin by Israel as the occupying power and subsequently resulted in the walking out of Israel and the US.
Furthermore, many African political and academic circles maintain anti-Israel sentiments mainly due to Israel’s support for Idi Amin, Uganda’s brutal dictator, and its alleged arms supplies to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.
The deportation plan will only increase the bad blood. Therefore, it may not be the wisest timing for Israel to carry out mass deportations.
Nevertheless, despite Israel’s search for friends in Africa, Israel does not seem likely to change its prospective deport-or-jail policy in the face of international calls to provide shelter for the Africans who fled to country.
This might well lead African leaders to question persistent Israeli attitudes “to return to Africa” in the face of a geopolitical competition from all over the world to find spots in the continent.
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