Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Thursday to “give back” south Tel Aviv to Israeli residents by keeping out “illegal infiltrators” seeking asylum from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea who inhabit the beleaguered neighborhood.
Accompanied by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Culture Minister Miri Regev, Netanyahu met with a select group of residents who accused the refugees of propagating the dismal conditions, before taking a brief tour of the dystopian area.
However, longtime Israeli residents who attended a forcibly disbanded protest during the tour contend that the refugees living there are being scapegoated by the prime minister for an area long neglected by the city’s municipality.
Netanyahu’s visit comes amid dueling calls from the High Court to cease indefinite detentions and forced deportation to Rwanda of African asylum-seekers and a renewed pledge from Interior Minister Arye Deri to deport them against their will.
“We are here on a mission to give back south Tel Aviv to the Israeli residents,” the prime minister said. “We have a very clear policy: We are dealing with illegal infiltrators – not with refugees, illegal infiltrators – and the right of the State of Israel to maintain its borders and to remove illegal infiltrators from it.”
Netanyahu continued: “What I hear is pain and terrible distress. People are afraid to leave the house... Together with the foreign, culture and interior ministers, we will enforce a much stronger enforcement vis-à-vis employers, the lawless infiltrators and everything we need to do to increase enforcement.”
The prime minister noted that on Sunday, a special ministerial committee he heads will convene with concerned residents to delineate appropriate solutions.
While conceding that the area is indeed dystopian, Itamar Zigler, a 40-year-old resident who attempted to join the protest – which police moved out of sight from the cordoned-off area where Netanyahu walked – said he came out of concern for possible misdirected violence against the asylum-seekers.
“What happens is that very frustrated and angry people from these neighborhoods – whose frustration I do understand – are pointing their fingers in the wrong direction, which is at people who fled violent countries,” said Zigler.
“But, these people protesting live in the neighborhoods, and they’re saying: ‘No, no Bibi. You’re not coming here now and pretending that you are helping us by calling the refugees infiltrators and kicking them out.’”
Zigler continued: “That’s not the problem here. Before the Africans came, we had the same problems: pollution, prostitution and junkies.”
Dismissing Netanyahu’s appearance as political pandering to his constituents, Zigler said the real problem is the country’s abdication of responsibility to the human rights of asylum-seekers who have been sequestered in south Tel Aviv’s ghettos, and then blamed for its conditions.
“The problem is the government’s policy regarding the refugees,” he said. “As a democracy, Israel has a humanitarian and legal commitment to [deliberate] on their status, but they aren’t doing that because they know if they do they will have to give them equal rights if they determine they truly are refugees.”
Instead, Zigler said Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition dehumanizes the asylum-seekers as “infiltrators,” whom Regev once referred to as “a cancer in our society” that needs to be removed.
“This is Nazi stuff that creates the tension and hatred against them,” he added. “I think it’s just for political gain.”
Michael Engel, a middle- aged resident who has lived in south Tel Aviv for 21 years, echoed Zigler’s sentiments, holding a Hebrew placard stating “Bibi is a fake.”
“We’re against the racial discrimination that has been shown toward the African refugees, and now we’re trying to say that it’s about time someone did something about the real problems, which are the drugs and the prostitution here,” said Engel.
“We want the south of Tel Aviv to be livable so that everyone will feel comfortable here. The real problem is that no one pays attention to civic issues or the needs of the people who inhabit this area, which has been neglected for many, many years.”
Inbal Egoz, a 26-year-old resident born and raised in the area who is a member of a local NGO that works with refugees called Power to the Community, said the government is attempting to create unnecessary tension for political purposes.
“The government and media talk about all the crimes the refugees are supposedly committing here, but they are not to blame for the situation,” she said. “When the refugees first came, the government sent them to Tel Aviv because south Tel Aviv is like the backyard of Israel.
“This area was neglected for many years before they came, but the government wants to make it look like they are to blame for the conditions here, and that if we deport them everything will be fine, and that’s not true.”
Echoing Zigler, Egoz said the government is purposely referring to the refugees as opportunistic “infiltrators” in an attempt to dehumanize and scapegoat them for problems of their own making.
“Many of the refugees are my friends, and I have learned that life in Eritrea and Sudan is incredibly dangerous, and that they came here for their safety,” she said.
“Look around you,” Egoz added. “This is not exactly heaven, so, if they came here, imagine how bad it was there. And people are still saying to them: ‘Go, we hate you. You are responsible for all of this.’”
Meanwhile, sitting near a cordoned-off area of Netanyahu’s path with her three-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, Mbrak Hogos, a refugee from Eritrea, said she did not understand the hostility directed at her and other African asylum-seekers.
“I go to work every day at the supermarket, and when I finish I come home to take care of my children, to take them to the park to play, make them dinner and clean the apartment,” she said.
“I don’t have time to make problems.”