Israel: Mean Streets
Doors smashed down in the middle of night. Suspects manacled on their way to work. The drive to oust illegal foreign laborers is gathering pace.
As the pounding on their door began in the dead of night, Alice (33), John (35), and their two Israel-born daughters (6? and 5) woke up in fear and confusion. They heard the calls, "Police! Open up!" but hesitated to comply. "We’ve become prey to all kinds of criminals who claim to be the police and use this method to break into homes at night and rob us," explains Alice, one of the approximately 200,000 illegal foreign workers that the Israeli government is now determined to drive out. "We don’t know who’s who anymore. So when we heard the shouts outside the door, we didn’t know what to do."
While they hesitated, an ax was brought in to hack away at the wall and wooden doorpost, destroying them so that the steel-reinforced security door could be lifted off its hinges. "Then the police -- there were about six or seven of them, not all in uniform -- came in and ransacked our bedroom," Alice continues, probably in search of the couple’s passports. The girls, who were crying in terror, were removed to the hall. "When I protested, the policemen threw me against a wall and slapped me," Alice relates, struggling to suppress her rising anger. "Then they manacled my husband hand and foot, beat him and kicked him in the groin -- for which he required hospital treatment -- and carried him down the stairs, headfirst."
Five of the six apartments in this building in the Neveh Sha’anan quarter of South Tel Aviv -- with "f*** the niggers" spray-painted at the entrance -- were raided that night. (The sixth, occupied by an Israeli family, with a sticker bearing a Jewish star on the door, was "passed over.") Alice’s upstairs neighbor, Robert, from Ghana, was also taken off to detention. His wife, Ella, requires surgery and can’t proceed with it unless he is released on bail. But Robert had still not even had a hearing before a judge. "What if he’s deported directly, or you’re forced to leave the country before the surgery can be performed?" we ask.
"I’ll just go back home and die there," Ella sighs.
When The Report spoke with Alice and her neighbors, 10 days after the fact, John was still in detention in Ramlah’s Ma’asiyahu Prison. By appealing for donations from friends, Alice had managed to raise John’s bail, set at 12,000 shekels ($2,700), and purchase four plane tickets back to their native Ghana (another $4,000). These were the conditions for John’s release, so that he can put his affairs in order, collect his belongings, and leave Israel -- within 30 days. The bail money will be returned once the family is on a flight out. But the loans raised for the plane fare must be repaid to their friends before they go. John works as a house cleaner. They have no savings, Alice reports, and barely make ends meet as it is. Now they’re in a multiple pickle.
"Give me more time!" Alice thunders, a refrain heard repeatedly during the conversation. "I need at least three months to prepare: School doesn’t let out until the end of June. We’ve worked hard for everything we have here," she says nodding in the direction of the TV and VCR in the rundown but immaculate apartment, "and we need time to ship things back home. So if they give us only 30 days, I won’t go!" she declares. "They can kill me, but I won’t go!"
Flora, a Romanian woman in her late 30s who worked as a housekeeper, has already gone. She was so terrorized by her experience with the Emigration Police that she and her husband left Israel the very day he was arrested. "Flora is an extremely intelligent and moral woman with the kind of work ethic you don’t find among many Israelis," says Rinna, her former employer. "She had been working for us for five years, and we treated her like a member of the family. You know the saying that every career woman needs a wife," she adds, referring to her own status. "Well, Flora was my wife."
In recent months, though, Flora and her husband began living in fear, due to the government’s crusade to deport illegals at an ever growing pace. "They intended to return home this summer," Rinna relates, "and began shipping their belongings back to Romania." Then, early one March morning, as he was making his way to work -- as a house cleaner -- Flora’s husband was stopped on the street by the Emigration Police. "They brought him home in shackles, told Flora that he was being taken into custody, and threatened to return and arrest her too, unless they both left the country by the end of the day." Rinna continues. "She called me in tears; spent the rest of the day buying the tickets and running around to pay her phone bill and the like." Her husband was released in the airport that night, just before they were to board their flight.
"I can understand a country’s policy to protect it’s own workers," Rinna says angrily. "But why do they have to subject these people to such humiliation? They’re illegals, but they’re not criminals. And we brought the problem of migrant workers on ourselves. Now it’s a golem that has turned on its creator, and we’ve turned into a hard-hearted nation, insensible to the distress and pain of others."
AT THEIR REQUEST, THE NAMES of all the people interviewed for this article have been changed, to protect them. That alone is an indication of the fear that has settled over Israel’s migrant-worker community (and, to a lesser extent, their employers) in recent months. They’ve been aware of the state’s intention to deport illegals -- in the hope that such actions will encourage many more to leave on their own -- at least since last September, when the Emigration Authority (EA) was established, as a division of the Police, for that purpose. But recently this inhospitable stance has been aggravated by complaints of police brutality in effecting arrests or, at the very least, a mixture of intimidation and humiliation as these workers’ last taste of life in Israel.
"There’s always been an element of violence in carrying out these arrests, but recently it’s gotten much worse," charges Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an NGO that ministers to the needs of the detainees. "We submit complaints to the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation Department, but only in a tiny portion of the incidents, since most people are too frightened even to complain." And even if they do, Rozen explains, by the time the incidents are investigated, victims of violence have usually been deported and cannot testify.
Often illegals are deported immediately -- at the taxpayers’ expense -- to prevent them from receiving a hearing before a special supervisory court. "If the Emigration Authority has already bought a plane ticket for a detaineee," says Rozen, "the court is not allowed to postpone his deportation. So although arrested illegals have a right to a bail hearing, the EA can stymie this."
The EA usually gives greater consideration to men with families here. But not always. "I know of a man who was arrested on the street and deported, despite the fact that his wife and young son remain here, now without any means of support," says Roly, a member of the Filipino community. "He cannot afford to send her money for plane fare, so his wife hopes Israel will buy the tickets for them. But I am doubtful."
Some of the illegals believed matters would improve with the appointment of Avraham Poraz, of Shinui, as interior minister -- as Poraz had lent them a sympathetic ear as a member of the last Knesset. "But since Shinui has been in the government, things have become worse," Roly laments. "Now they’re carrying out deportation raids systematically, block by block, like the Germans did during the Holocaust. People are moving out of the Neveh Sha’anan area for this very reason, and some have decided to leave the country altogether, for fear of being arrested at any moment." (A spokesman for Poraz referred The Report back to the EA.)
IN FACT, SAYS EA SPOKESMAN Ofer Leffler, of the 40,000 migrant workers who have left Israel since last September, when the authority was established, 25,000 did so of their own accord (the other 15,000 having been deported). As to police brutality, Leffler says that, to date, the papers of 120,000 foreign workers have been checked by the EA, "on the street, in their homes," and the number of complaints about violent behavior is very low. "Any complaint is cause for concern," he continues, "and we take them very seriously. But if people don’t open their doors -- and we enter every home only with a court order -- there’s no choice but to make the arrest in a violent manner."
In the first week of May alone, Leffler notes, "we arrested about 90 illegals in their homes," and that, he surmises, has probably fueled the complaints of police brutality. "If our contacts with illegals are unpleasant, we apologize," he is quick to add. "Brutal encounters shouldn’t happen. But they have in the past and they will in the future. Our mission is so complex, so unpleasant by its very nature, that sometimes this is inevitable."
As the targets of "unpleasantness," various groups in the migrant-worker community have suggested ways to deal with their problem in a more humane fashion. One proposal is that the government pay the return plane fare of workers who entered the country with legal work permits, but subsequently left their employers (which invalidated both these permits and their visas). "At any rate, the state pays for the tickets of those it deports directly from detention," Roly reasons. "So why not make this option available to everyone? It would be a humane way of treating a very sore problem."
The Union of African Workers in Israel has long been suggesting that, in return for depositing an agreed sum with the government, as a guarantee of their departure, members of their community be allowed to stay for a defined period -- let’s say a year or two.
But Leffler scoffs at this notion. "They won’t leave after the agreed period," he responds.
To support this assertion, he cites an EA check of how many illegals recently released on bail -- of between 10,000 and 30,000 shekels ($2,200-6,700) -- actually left the country at the end of the stipulated 30-day period. "Out of the 447 people released, only 45 left the country. All the rest blended back into the population and forfeited the sum, because this is the land of milk and honey." The average wage in Africa, he says, is $30 a month. "So do the math: If they had returned to Africa with the equivalent of 30,000 shekels, they could live like kings there. But they didn’t. And we can only conclude that people who have defied the law here will continue to do so, regardless of any agreement they may sign."
HARDENED SUSPICION, ALONGside increasing bitterness on the part of the illegals, is in any case turning the contacts between the two sides into a dialogue of the deaf. Leffler claims that the "removal" of foreign workers has brought unemployed Israelis back into the work force; the migrants claim that they’re doing work (like housecleaning and dishwashing in restaurants) that no Israeli deigns to do. Worse yet, the simmering acrimony may well boomerang against Israel and the many countries to which the illegals are being forcibly returned.
"I’m an illegal -- I don’t dispute it. But that’s no reason to treat me like an animal," John fumed to The Report after being released on bail. "In Africa, we think of Israelis as God’s people -- we learned that from the Bible. There are many Jews in Africa -- in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa -- and no one treats them badly. But here, their behavior is poisoning our minds against them.
"So the government must rethink its policy," he goes on. "Because one day things may turn against Israel and it will need friends. But people who have been raised to love God’s people will remember only the bad in them."