January 2, 2013, 10:35 am By SHMUEL ROSNER
TEL AVIV — The good news came in the form of statistics: In the last days of December, the number of illegal immigrants entering Israel dropped to zero for the first time in more than half a decade. The new fence that Israel is constructing along its border with Egypt, coupled with enhanced border-security measures, seems to be working.
The bad news came in the form of a human tragedy: Two weeks ago an Eritrean man was accused of raping an 83-year-old woman in southern Tel Aviv, reviving fear about the drizzle of Africans who come to Israel.
It’s an outdated concern. Not only has the number of illegal immigrants significantly declined in recent months, many of them have also been expelled: 10,365 came into Israel during 2012, but 9,200 were sent out. Yet in some areas, where the presence of illegal migrants is still a burden, the fear is real — and easy to exploit.
The judge in charge of approving the arrest of the alleged rapist criticized the police for stoking such worries by saying both too little and too much about the case: After withholding the story from the public for 10 days, it then disclosed, for no apparent reason, that the suspect was Eritrean. And this disclosure, the judge said, risked compromising “the public’s safety.”
She might have had in mind the ugly anti-immigrant demonstrations that took place last year; as it happened, though, the recent crime brought only 150 or so demonstrators into the streets of Tel Aviv on Monday. The judge’s warning should have been directed less at the police than at politicians, who are trying to use the immigrant issue in the run-up to the Jan. 22 general election.
The outcome of the election is pretty much set — another term for a coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But there’s a fierce battle among smaller parties, and all are attempting to seize on an agenda that will win them more votes. Illegal immigration is a handy issue.
(Nir Elias/Reuters) African immigrants waited in September at the border fence between Israel and Egypt near the Israeli village of Be’er Milcha.
The Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the religious Sephardic party Shas, was prompt to seize on it. “This shocking rape illustrates the lost sense of security Israeli citizens feel in areas with a high concentration of infiltrators,” he said.
Then the ultra-right Otzma Party tried to make the most of the situation: Speaking at the small protest — which Otzma had largely convened — the member of Parliament Michael Ben-Ari slammed Shas for being opportunistic about the crime. “Is the poor showing of Shas in recent polls” the reason for such a move, Ben-Ari wondered.
Actually, Shas isn’t doing badly at the polls. But it has been trying to use the immigration card against the Zionist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party in the hopes of securing third place for the number of seats won in the Knesset, after Likud and Labor. (Otzma, for its part, is small and struggling.)
The same day Yishai made his grand statement about infiltrators it was reported that Shas had prepared an anti-immigrant video with racist undertones. The party decided not to use the material in its campaign, but the footage was leaked and still is available online.
It features an Israeli woman blaming immigrants for the rising costs of housing in Israel. And a voice-over says that “they control neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod and other cities.” And a resident of one of those cities says that the Sudanese will “continue to stab and continue to rape our women.”
Such positions could boost support for Shas in some neighborhoods and among rightwing Israelis who still haven’t decide which party on the right they’ll vote for. But it could also bring onto the party a barrage of criticism. Is that why the video was shelved only to be leaked to the press?
Statistically, illegal immigrants account for far fewer rapes than Israel’s legal residents. Yet statistics don’t mean much in the lead-up to election day or in areas where immigrants are heavily concentrated. There, those figures don’t do much for the locals, who feel scared in their own neighborhoods, or the immigrants, who often live in inadequate conditions and face discrimination from residents, or the local authorities, who have to manage a problem their superiors seem uninterested in solving.
Does anyone benefit from the renewed interest in illegal migrants? The politicians do. For them, making the most of a sordid rape case during campaign season hardly seems to be a crime.