This article originally appeared in the Times of Israel here.
The Eritrean asylum seekers who made their way to Israel via Egypt last month, found themselves trapped between the two countries for days in severe heat and without food or water. This tragic situation, reminds us of the difficult situation that Israel faces. Despite diplomatic sources which estimate that up until the completion of the Sinai border fence, more asylum seekers will be infiltrating Israel than will be deported, there have been no mass demonstrations taking place like we saw earlier this year. It’s as if this issue has fallen off of the public’s radar.
Enlisting in a campaign without noticing
As Israelis, we get used to the idea that our very existence is relentlessly threatened. When the media presents us with a new threat, we tend to react apathetically. So what made hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets recently to demonstrate the threat that the refugees in Israel present to Israeli life?
After returning from a trip abroad this spring and looking closely at the photographs taken at the demonstrations, I realized that many of us fell for a slick PR campaign without even noticing.
My professional background has allowed me to participate in the organization of several protests and demonstrations both in Israel and abroad. I have come to recognize a notable difference between a spontaneous outburst of public frustration and an organized, sponsored demonstration.
Each demonstration we witnessed earlier this year, regarding illegal workers, would have easily cost anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 Shekels. Someone had to foot the bill for the organizers, publicists, stage, sound system, municipal approval, and signs. So who was it that organized, financed and mobilized these demonstrations? Let’s see if we can identify the sponsor from the messages printed on the giant banners distributed:
“Let Eli Win – Eli Yishai people with you”
“Yishai was right – Eli Yishai the people are with you”
“We have no other country – Eli Yishai the people are with you”
Some of the signs seen at this year’s protests
So what exactly drove our Minister of Interior to spend hundreds of thousands of Shekels on a campaign against illegal immigrants and asylum seekers? On June 20th , the State Comptroller’s office released a 506 page report on the 2010 Carmel forest fire, determining that Eli Yishai (along with Finance minister Yuval Steinitz) bear “special responsibility” for the outcome of the fire which claimed 44 lives. The report implicates Yishai for failing to oversee operational readiness of Israel’s firefighting services. Yishai invested sizeable amounts of money to divert the public’s opinion away from his considerable negligence.
I am far from one to make up conspiracy theories about our government, but it seems all too convenient that Yishai’s witch hunt of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants culminated on the 17th of June when he was photographed at the airport during operation “Returning Home” holding the hand of a Sudanese deportee upon his departure from Israel.
Where is the real fire?
Three days later, the State Comptroller published his final report on the fire citing operational failures and personal negligence were major contributing factors to the devastating aftermath of the fire. Three days later, Yishai said in response: “My heart goes out to the bereaved families on this difficult and painful day. The report proves that ministers’ demands on life-saving issues must be taken seriously… what is most important now is to learn lessons that will prevent a similar disaster in the future. I intend to request a discussion in the cabinet to ensure the lessons of the report are learned and new rules are set for dealing with life-saving issues.”
Naturally, we all forgave our Interior Minister for his remarkable failure, since, after all, he is delivering us from the catastrophe of the illegal immigrants and asylum seekers in Israel. I cannot help but wonder if he will actually “request a discussion” on the matter or if he has even bothered to read the report. Regrettably, the whole world watched as African immigrants become the scape goat for Yishai’s failure to upgrade and equip Israel’s firefighting infrastructure. I suggest that the next time our Interior Minister is “saving us” from a perilous threat that we ask where the real fire is burning.