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Current developments and future challenges | Israel (2008) |

Current developments and future challenges

Jan Schneider

/ 12 Minuten zu lesen

It has meanwhile become clear that it is not possible for the policy of deporting illegally employed foreigners to reduce the number of irregular migrants in the country over the long term.

Measures against the exploitation of foreign workers

After deporting, on average, more than 1,500 people a month during the years 2003 and 2004, since 2005 the criminal prosecution authorities have focused on two points: penalising employers who employ migrants illegally, and attempting to track down "black sheep" in the system of private employment agencies, because placing guest workers in temporary jobs has developed over recent years into a full-blown industry, often with illegal practices. According to law, licensed agencies may only demand brokerage fees of a few hundred US dollars from recruited workers. In fact, however, illegal demands for money made by agents for obtaining a work permit are becoming exorbitant: according to organisations lobbying for the rights of foreign workers the average fees paid by Thais amount to between 8,000 and 10,000 US dollars, and by Chinese people to as much as 16,000 to 18,000 US dollars. For the employment agents involved it is, therefore, highly lucrative to recruit new migrants and pocket the relevant fees; guest workers who are dismissed or lose their jobs for other reasons are "released into illegality". In recent years there has been no shortage of grounds for believing that parliamentary and governmental circles are also involved in this illegal business.

Through the first steps towards reform in 2004, the dependence of guest workers on their employers has already been reduced. Measures to limit the power of employment agencies and to strengthen the individual rights of foreign employees, discussed by a separate parliamentary committee in the Knesset, have to be the next steps. In addition to this, the improvement of health provision for these migrants is on the agenda.

Border security

In recent years, the prostitution industry in Israel has increasingly become a market for professional human traffickers and smugglers who deal in the sexual exploitation of women, in particular, from the former states of the Soviet Union. Further efforts on the part of Israeli migration control are thus concentrated on securing external borders. The more than 200 km long Green Line with Egypt, which runs primarily through hard-to-access desert areas between the Negev and Sinai, is paricularly favoured by human traffickers. Sinai is deemed a transit route for transporting drugs and weaponry. In January 2008 the border was opened by force, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to cross over into Egypt and stay there temporarily. Consequently, the Israeli government finalised its already existing plans to secure the southwestern border with Egypt. The government fears that the opening of the border might have allowed Palestinian terrorists to cross through Egypt into the south of Israel where they could carry out attacks. Government circles close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed the expansion of border installations, estimating that the erection of a continuous border fence would cost in excess of 1 billion US dollars. By contrast, the border barriers between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, on which construction started at the beginning of the millennium, are quite far along and already form an effective means of migration control. In conjunction with hundreds of checkpoints inside the Occupied Territories, however, they drastically restrict mobility and further reduce the remaining Palestinian settlement area. The fact that the security installation – part fence, part wall – has been built predominantly on Palestinian territory and, in places, extends far inside the area of any future Palestinian state creates a serious handicap to the peace process.

Refugee and asylum policy

Although Israel was among the first to sign the Geneva Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, and even participated in drafting them, it does not have, as yet, any established system or law for receiving or protecting refugees. Until recently, asylum seekers were dealt with by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on whose recommendation Israel repeatedly accepted small contingents of refugees. Only in the year 2002 did an inter-ministerial working group draw up an internal directive on the treatment of asylum applicants and introduce a governmental committee to screen asylum seekers. Since then, this "National Status Granting Body", made up predominantly of government representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of the Interior, has been responsible for screening applications for asylum. The UNHCR continues to play an important role, assisting the committee with preliminary screening and with recommendations.

At the end of 2006, 837 recognised refugees were living in Israel, while decisions had not yet been made with regard to a further 863 asylum seekers (files pending). During the course of the year 2006, 1,348 new applications for asylum were filed and 1,425 cases decided. This included only five recognised applications but 805 rejections; in a further 339 cases deportation was suspended on humanitarian grounds, and 276 cases were otherwise resolved.

A relatively recent refugee movement has left Israel facing new challenges. Hundreds of refugees from the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan have fled to Israel via Egypt since 2005. The immigration of Sudanese via Egypt increased especially in the middle of the year 2007, when at times more than two hundred civil war refugees per month arrived in Israel. According to some estimates, at the beginning of 2008 more than 2,000 Sudanese were staying in the country of whom, however, only some filed applications for asylum. They were initially accommodated in prisons and in temporary reception centres. The city council of Tel Aviv, in whose area of responsibility the considerable majority of Africans stay, fears a humanitarian crisis and is pleading for rapid integration in the labour and accommodation market. Together with the Ministry of the Interior, it is currently discussing plans for financial assistance so that the refugees can settle independently; as early as the summer of 2007 Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit were deliberating offering Israeli citizenship to several hundred Sudanese from Darfur.

In terms of transparency and refugee protection, Israel´s still young asylum program has yet to prove itself. There are repeated reports from African refugees of being rejected at the border without a hearing. Refugee aid organisations criticise, among other things, the precarious provisions made for refugees during their case, the absence of any opportunity for independent legal examination of the asylum decisions, as well as the fact that the ultimate decision-making about refugee recognition always lies with the Ministry of the Interior.

The question of Palestinian refugees and the demographic factor in the peace process

Palestinians are a special group in the greater international refugee situation. At the end of 1949 the United Nations founded a special organisation to look after the Palestinian refugees in the Middle East: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). It provides assistance with infrastructure and finance in particular to those Palestinians who live in the refugee camps of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and also the neighbouring Arab states (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria). These currently number about 4.4 million people. Supported by numerous UN resolutions, the international community of nations assumes these Palestinians have a right of return – a right that Israel has so far categorically rejected since it would massively change the current population structure and with it the Jewish character of the country.

The ratio of Arabs to Jews has been the subject of intense debate and consideration with regard to population and political strategy ever since the Jews started to migrate to historical Palestine. Despite massive immigration on the Jewish side, over the decades the population growth on the Arab side has been greater, due to relatively high birth rates. The Arab population of Israel is currently about 20 %. According to moderate prognoses, however, already in the year 2025 it will be about 25 %. (The Arab-Palestinian population in the part Israeli, part Palestinian National Authority-administered communes of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is also growing rapidly. If we include them in the demographic analysis and consider the entire territory of the former Palestinian Mandate, then the Palestinian population growth is more readily apparent: by 2006 both groups – Jews and Palestinians – were the same size in numeric terms with just over 5 million persons each (demographic parity).

In view of these figures, Israeli discourse refers alternatively to the "demographic question", "demographic problem" or even the "demographic threat" that challenges the character of Israel as a Jewish state in the medium term. In addition to rejecting any right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israeli territory, right-wing politicians are therefore also considering the exclusion of predominantly Arab-populated areas in the context of negotiations around a two-state solution. By implication, this is intended to increase acceptance for incorporating Jewish towns and communities in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, now rendered virtually permanent as a result of Israel´s offensive aggressive settlement policy, into the Israeli state. The idea of a "land swap" is, however, vehemently rejected, particulary by Israel's Arab citizens. It remains to be seen whether, and in what context, a land swap appears on the agenda in the course of the negotiations for a final status, which were resumed at the end of 2007.

The demand for a solution to the refugee issue is, for the Palestinian side, a dead pledge in these negotiations. In all probability Israel will agree, at best, to a right of return in a highly limited sense. For this reason, solutions are currently being devised that aim for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that provides financial compensation for giving up the right of return.

Pluralisation of society

As a result of the mass immigration of Jews from the entire world, Israeli society has been in a state of permanent transformation since the founding of the state. This process of change has taken place with greater intensity in the last 25 years than in any previous phase. The street scene is characterised by ethnic diversity: Ethiopians and sub-Saharan Africans, Asians and Latin Americans are equally present in the cities. Some streets in the poorer residential districts of Tel Aviv are meanwhile clearly dominated by Romanian guest workers, while areas around the bus station in the south of the city metamorphose at weekends into "Little Bangkok". Yet probably no migration movement has stamped the public life of Israel so markedly as the immigration of more than one million people from the former Soviet Union.

Population of Israel by religious affiliation since 1950 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

The Russian language has become firmly established despite comprehensive promotion of Hebrew; even some Russian-born Knesset MPs are unable to make parliamentary speeches in either of the two official Israeli languages (Hebrew and Arabic). There exists a broad palette of Russian-language media and a lively cultural landscape. Added to that is the fact that far from all immigrants from the Soviet Union are Jews. In the first half of the 1990s, 20% of immigrants were received as non-Jewish family members in accordance with the Law of Return, and between 1995 and 1999 this figure even exceeded 40% – a total of about 300,000 persons, with numbers rising (see also the Fig.). Conflict is brought about, for example, by their demand for pork, the consumption of which is not compatible with Jewish dietary rules.

Through the emergence of new parties and group-specific voting preferences, the political system has also undergone significant changes. Israeli election researchers attribute to the "Russian vote" the function of an independent – and for some elections already decisive – political force. In the 1996 elections Natan Sharansky's "Yisrael B'Aliya" party, founded as a collection of moderate conservative movements, celebrated major successes in the new immigrants´ camp, gathering 44 % of their combined votes. Russian-born voters incline predominantly towards the parties of the right-wing or national camp. Since the end of the 1990s the "Yisrael Beiteinu" party (Israel is Our Home) has dominated in this group. The party leader is Avigdor Lieberman, the former Deputy Prime Minister. In the 2006 elections the party gained – not least through the votes of about half the Russian-born voters – 11 of the 120 seats in Parliament (9 %) and, up until it´s withdrawal in January 2008, had two ministers in the coalition government.

Parallel to this there is a type of "orientalisation" running through Israel's political and cultural landscape in the form of a rise in the importance of Sephardic Judaism. The Sephardic Jews, also known as mizrachim (Orientals), migrated from North African and Middle Eastern/West Asian countries after the founding of Israel and are mostly descended from the Jews driven out of Spain in the 15th century. The founding generation of Israel and the political establishment, by contrast, consisted of Ashkenazi Jews – immigrants from Europe and (rarer) North America with roots in central and east European Judaism. They have dominated public and cultural life as well as the sense of identity and self-understanding compared with the less educated Sephardim who were often regarded as culturally inferior and not uncommonly treated paternalistically. This turn towards oriental or Arab Judaism is expressed culturally, for example, through the growing popularity of oriental music. Even if income and educational opportunities continue to be unequally distributed , the situation of oriental Jews, and especially their political representation and self-awareness as a social group has improved in recent years.

The fundamental conflict of multiethnic cohabitation however lies in the opposition between Jewish and Arab-Muslim Israelis. The latter are disadvantaged or even excluded in many areas. Despite Arab political representation in the Knesset and in autonomous municipal administrations, it is, more often than not, the Jewish population that receives the benefit of political decisions concerning development planning, infrastructure and education. Access to universities is generally more difficult for those who qualify from within the separate Arab school system. In many sectors, segregated labour markets with limited movement from one to the other exist because, among other reasons, they are categorised as "security-related", thereby virtually excluding the employment of Palestinians.

Recently, consideration has been given to the introduction of a voluntary civil service, which would be open to all Israelis; with the exception of the Bedouin and Druze, most Arabs to date have been excluded from military service, which is extremely important for professional advancement. With regard to Jews and Arabs living together inside Israel, the just demand for full and equal integration is faced by a political and social reality which makes it seem impossible to achieve. Tackling this dilemma in a constructive manner is one of the central challenges facing social policy in the multiethnic state of Israel.

Israel´s future as an immigration country

Non-Jewish immigration to Israel in the foreseeable future seems likely to be very limited. The future of the country as an immigration country remains closely tied to the Law of Return, even if, for pragmatic reasons, Israel adheres to the system of temporary recruitment of foreign workers. In mid-2005 a government-introduced advisory commission, primarily made up of lawyers and chaired by the renowned former minister Amnon Rubinstein, was to take a close look at Israeli migration policy. Its objective was to define an immigration policy for the state of Israel that was not exclusively oriented towards security considerations, but rather to ensure the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In its interim report the commission assumed that immigration for those persons who fall outside the Law of Return would be possible in the future, at least for those who marry either an Israeli citizen or a person with a permanent right of residence. It recommended a series of restrictions to these rights of entry, in particular banning the entry of foreign spouses from countries and regions hostile to Israel. In this way it confirmed the government's restrictive citizenship and residence policy (see above). The commission made recommendations aimed at a liberalisation of migration policy on humanitarian grounds solely with regard to guest worker families.

In fact, parallel to the commission's work, the Israeli government has already, uniquely, created a relatively uncomplicated route to citizenship for children of guest workers: whether or not their parents were residing in Israel legally, up to a fixed deadline children of guest workers who had reached the age of ten years were able to apply for a permanent right of residence with the option of naturalisation. To do this they had to have been born in Israel and integrated in the Israeli education system as well as able to speak Hebrew. In line with this, their parents and siblings could also become regularised. In total, by the end of 2005 more than 2,000 people had benefited from the regulation.

Regularisation for guest workers remained for the time being just one episode in Israel´s otherwise restrictive migration and citizenship regime. Even the Rubinstein commission never presented a final report owing to the change in government after the 2006 elections. A major breakthrough in Israeli migration policy is, thus, yet to come. In the meantime, the chance of a renunciation of the dominant ethnonational understanding of belonging appears very small – on the one hand because of the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, on the other hand because a predominant majority in the country will also in future declare themselves in favour of the ethnoreligious characterisation of Israel through Judaism.

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