Tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers in Israel held a week-long workers strike from January 5 to 12. The decision came in response to the Israeli government’s redoubled efforts to remove non-Jewish Africans from its city centers and was inspired by a march on Jerusalem a few weeks earlier by 150 Africans, who had been among the first group of refugees detained at a desert halfway house.
Numbering approximately 55,000, Israel’s African asylum-seekers did not come to the country for the mostly menial jobs they are forced to perform out of economic desperation. Instead they crossed Africa’s desert border with Israel fleeing from ethnic cleansing and political persecution in their own countries. The Israeli government has said it fears this influx of non-Jews and is determined to preserve the state’s Jewish majority and preclude the spread of other cultural influences in the country.
On the first day of the strike, African asylum-seekers from around Israel descended on Tel Aviv, where most currently live, and staged a massive demonstration in Rabin Square. Israeli police estimated the crowd at approximately 30,000 people and confessed they were impressed by the discipline that prevailed among demonstrators. Over the course of the week, massive protests were held in front of Tel Aviv’s city hall, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, diplomatic missions of various foreign countries, and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
On the second day of the strike, the asylum-seekers broke into groups of a few thousand each and marched to the embassies of Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the European Union, the African Union, and Ethiopia. After delivering letters to the heads of each of these missions, the groups all coalesced in a huge throng in front of the American Embassy, where they chanted for hours.
On the third day of the strike, representatives chosen by the asylum-seekers made their case to the media, holding a press conference in Tel Aviv. The spokespeople appealed to the government in Hebrew and in English to stop snatching Africans off the streets and transferring them to desert jails, to release all African asylum-seekers already being held in detention, and to fairly and transparently examine asylum requests.
On the fourth day of the strike, over ten thousand asylum-seekers traveled to Jerusalem to protest in front of the Israeli legislature. Although they planned to send representatives inside the building to submit a letter to lawmakers, Interior Committee Chair Miri Regev – who in May 2012 ignited an anti-African race riot in Tel Aviv after describing them as a “cancer” – convinced the Speaker of the Knesset to bar the group’s entry, saying their presence would “disrespect the Knesset.”
After a week of striking, the African asylum-seekers called for an end to the strike, citing the difficulty for their community, which has few sources of income, to go without work for an extended period of time. Though they have now returned to their jobs, they say their struggle against the government’s plan to expel them and related fight for refugee rights will continue until all their goals are achieved.
Empowered by a week of actions, women from the African asylum-seeking community organized a meeting for themselves and worked to ensure it would be a safe and receptive space for women’s voices, which often go unheard. The following week, the women marched with their children, two to three thousand strong, to the UNHCR offices in Tel Aviv, Rabin Square, and the American Embassy, to express their grievances and demand their rights as refugees.
In response to the strike, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sternly insisted that no amount of protests or strikes would deter the government from its plan to deport the Africans. Israeli immigration police have continued their sweeps through the South Tel Aviv neighborhoods populated by large numbers of Africans, shuttling them off to desert detention without pause.
*David Sheen is a staff writer at Muftah. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSheen.