Arab leaders in Israel side with consensus on African immigrants

Palestinian MK Ahmad Tibi [Raam-Taal] tweeted this status on Friday:

I oppose the entrance of infiltrators from Eritrea because they are coming to work instead of the Palestinians, but if they are here, they should be treated in a humane way, and not with the barbarity of (MK Danny) Danon and (MK Miri) Regev

Some Israeli liberals on Twitter attacked Tibi for the first part of the sentence, and he later said that he should have not used the term “infiltrators” but instead refer to the Africans as immigrants who seek work. Eritrean citizens comprise most of the Africans who have entered Israeli in recent years, and most Eritreans are recognized as refugees by the rest of the world, due to the murderous dictatorship in their country. Tibi, like most of the Israeli public, prefers to see them as illegal aliens who seek a better life in Israel.

This is not the first time that the Palestinian leadership in Israel refuses to take part in opposing measures taken against the African asylum seekers. In many ways, the Africans are indeed “the other’s others” here. Though I never heard from Palestinian MKs the kind of angry and often racist rhetoric right-wing Knesset members use on this issue, it’s clear that the Arab leaders are reluctant to stand in solidarity with the asylum seekers, as much of the Israeli left sometimes tries to do. In January, when the Knesset voted in favor of the infamous infiltration bill – making it possible to detain illegal aliens, including minors, for three years or more – not a single Palestinian MK joined Labor and Meretz in opposition to the bill. The only non-Zionist MK to oppose it was Dov Khenin, a Jew from Hadash.

It’s easy to understand why Palestinians do not welcome the asylum seekers. Not unlike poor Jews living in south Tel Aviv, they see the Africans as an economic threat, competing with them for the same limited resources, and for the low-paid positions available to them. “They are brought to replace the Arab workers!” replied Tibi to a tweet criticizing him.

Arab leaders in Israel side with consensus on African immigrants
Tweet by MK Ahmad Tibi, opposing the entry of African 'infiltrators' into Israel but also the racist comments against them

Though I think MK Tibi got things wrong – Eritreans are not “brought” to Israel – the angry comments he got from leftists Jews showed to what extent they project their liberal views on the Palestinian population they claim to support. This is a practice that is bound to lead the left to many more such disappointments. Both sides of this debate don’t get the other’s position: Tibi doesn’t understand that liberals apply the same universal values to the Palestinians and the African asylum seekers, and his critics miss the special position of the Palestinians of ’48 vis a vis “the new other,” who can be seen as yet another invader to whom they are losing their land. Israelis also overlook the special place the word “refugees” holds in Palestinian discourse: “If [you have] refugees [enter], why not refugees who have emotional, family or historical attachment to this land?” wrote Tibi to one of his critics.

What I find lacking in this conversation is a regional, or even international, perspective. Both Israelis and the few Palestinians who take part in this debate treat the refugees as if they are a new and very local problem. The world has seen waves of immigration from poverty stricken or war-torn countries in the past, and will continue to do so in the future (probably in greater numbers than ever). Any modern country should come up with a policy  regarding this unauthorized immigration, comprised of more than the creation of high fences and huge mega-prisons – one that reflects a balance between international commitments and the values and the needs of the community. The main problem in Israel right now is that a huge coalition led by a powerful prime minister is doing nothing but inciting the Jewish public against the Africans.

Moreover, Israelis have become accustomed to seeing Africa as a playground for commercial initiatives and arm deals. It’s hardly surprising that we are one of a handful of countries who have full diplomatic contacts – and maybe more – with the Eritrean dictatorship, the same one leading to the flight of its citizens to our southern borders. Ephraim Sneh, a former security official and Labor minister, is a proxy to the president of Eritrea; this week he was running between TV studios, assuring everyone that it’s perfectly safe to deport the asylums seekers back to their country, despite the opposite opinion held by most of the international community.

More responsible political behavior and a real interest in Africa should also be one of the lessons of the racial riot in Tel Aviv.