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The plight of Eritreans in Israeli should not be linked to judicial reforms

Eritrean asylum seekers who oppose the regime in Eritrea and pro-regime activists clash with Israeli police in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Photo: Omer Fichman/Flash90)

First, the reforms were vital because they were long-awaited solutions that would bring greater order to a flawed system. Then the reforms were vital because our democracy depended upon it. Without them, the judicial system would have too much authority. Now, the real reason for the reforms is to curb the Eritrean problem and future unrest that could come from migrants who are seeking refuge from their war-torn countries.

But is what happened in south Tel Aviv on Saturday a convenient excuse to push through reforms, in the name of the civil unrest which occurred within the Eritrean community?

It all began when riots erupted in the southern part of the city, which is home to a large number of the 23,000 Eritrean asylum seekers who live in the country. Many came illegally through the Sinai Peninsula, as early as 2006, resulting from persecution and fleeing compulsory conscription in what they refer to as “slavery-like conditions.” 

Despite that hardship, under United Nations' guidelines, they are not eligible for refugee status, and although their lives in Israel have not been easy, they believe that living here freely is preferable to living in their own country. While the Israeli government has allowed them to stay temporarily, that may change quickly after Saturday’s incident. 

It was then that violence erupted over a bitter political conflict, at an event which was organized by the Eritrean embassy, which supports their government. Migrants who oppose the government, and view it as a dictatorship, were angered by the optics of a show of solidarity, feeling that this could jeopardize their continued stay here. After all, it might lead some to wonder, “If Eritreans support their government, why don’t they just go home?” In the end, the two factions brought their fight onto our territory, resulting in a reported 125 being injured as Israeli police were forced to step in and break up the two factions. 

While previous Israeli governments have sought to resolve this issue, none have found a solution, and, perhaps, Saturday’s riot has made it a bit easier. The dishonesty, though, is that the coalition is pointing to this unrest and piling it onto the already long list of why reforms are needed in Israeli society.  

One thing is for sure. This present Eritrean crisis has finally ignited the need for a serious discussion concerning the best way to deal with a humanitarian crisis while, at the same time, not hurting ourselves, because, much to our regret, this is not the first time that Eritreans have proven to be problematic for Israel. 

Residents in the area have long complained about crimes they frequently commit, including rape, theft and drug use. But up until now, Israel said they would deport the Eritreans only when the compulsory military service ends. The problem is that there has been no end date for that happening.

Finding a solution to this problem is paramount, but the issue shouldn’t be used as another reason for the passage of reforms. If there was a bit of honesty, the coalition would candidly admit that they want to change the character of Israel, by having it conform more to their religious values and standards. That is the real reason that they hope to enact new laws that would limit the freedoms of citizens, but that kind of transparency will never happen. 

No one should believe that rushed-through legislation, which is not wanted by the majority of Israelis, will resolve the Eritrean crisis which has finally come to a head. Yet, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir seems to have taken the advice, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” He proposed legislation that would be an “override clause on Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.” Of course, this would relate to the Eritreans, as well as other illegal immigrants. 

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, laying the blame on the judicial system, said, “For years, we have been warning that the High Court has prevented any action that would allow the infiltrators to be returned to their homes.” 

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, likewise, stated that the court “counteracted any attempts by the government to solve the longstanding problems associated with infiltrations, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, citing a series of decisions from 2013-2020 which allegedly exacerbated the issues.” Because of this, Levin now says, “If anyone had any doubts as to why the reform is so important and what we are fighting for, they received a crushing answer today.”

But here is the irony. No one really knows what the court decided since the files pertaining to hearings on the matter have been classified and “the Foreign Ministry is not required to release the secret documents or its official opinion on the human rights situation in Eritrea.”

There is a claim that releasing the information could hurt Israel’s foreign relations. Nevertheless, we do know that, according to international law, no country is able to “forcibly send them back to a country where their life or liberty may be at risk.”

This leaves us a bit in the dark as to what really transpired in the court system, but the one thing we do know is that most of it happened under Netanyahu’s watch, during a time when reforms were not being pushed, so it’s really disingenuous to try to link the need for judicial reforms and the Eritreans together.

It’s truly unfortunate that the Eritrean community took the bait and injured their cause by reacting violently to those among them who support their home government. As visitors in a country where they have no rights, but which has allowed them to stay indefinitely, they needed to show restraint and refrain from violence that resulted in damage to local shops, necessitating riot police to be dispatched.

Israel has some very challenging days ahead, but the lack of honesty in using the Eritrean community to press reforms is just more reason to be suspicious about the government’s real motives. There is no question that the Eritrean situation needs immediate review and a viable solution. 

What doesn’t need to happen is for this issue to get packaged into yet another reform bill and used to advance legislation that, along with this item, has other unwanted changes hidden in the mix that could adversely impact our freedoms.  

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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