The first plane carrying South Sudanese "returnees" out of Israel arrived in Juba, South Sudan, on June 19.
Amidst escalating tensions over African migration to Israel, Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai described the eventual "return to their homes and countries" of [migrants] as "inevitable." Of Israel's 60,000 African migrants, the majority come from Eritrea and the two Sudans.
Greeting the plane in Juba, Joseph Lual Achuil, South Sudan's minister of humanitarian affairs, claimed that the process of return was voluntary: "People are not being deported. We have agreed with the Israeli government for our people to be peacefully and voluntarily repatriated," he said. While ‘returnees' are being offered a stipend of $1300 per adult and $500 per child by the Israeli government, the degree to which repatriation is truly a matter of choice is debatable.
While those who left Israel on the first plane volunteered to do so, the crackdown, known under the code name "Operation Going Home," has rounded up and arrested hundreds of migrants so far. The usually bustling neighborhood of ‘Little Africa' in South Tel Aviv is reportedly deserted. New laws allowing migrants to be jailed for up to three years without trial or deportation came into effect on June 3. In addition, any Israeli citizen harboring or helping migrants can now face jail time of up to 15 years.
The current government campaign to stem the flow of African migrants has begun with newly independent South Sudan -- the only one of the top three source countries which maintains diplomatic relations with Israel.
Many South Sudanese fled to Israel to escape the ongoing violence at home, often crossing the Sinai desert from Egypt by foot to reach Israel. Last week, an Israeli court ruled that 1,500 South Sudanese are no longer at risk in their homeland and can be returned home, giving the government the legal right to deport them.
Recent months have seen protests and acts of vandalism targeting African communities in Israel, an atmosphere that many claim has been instigated by the comments of some politicians. The deportation drive is also creating immense discomfort amongst many Israeli citizens, who are acutely of aware of their own identity as an immigrant nation founded by Jews fleeing persecution in Europe after World War II.
The subtext beneath the deportation process is a racial argument that cuts to the core of competing views about what Israel's identity as a ‘Jewish state' should entail. For the current government, identity is clearly framed by ethno-religious demographics. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu argues:
"If we don't stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state. This phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity."
Whether such a view can be justified as commensurate with Jewish values remains to be decided.