"I was dancing with joy when I arrived. It was one of the happiest days of my life." So spoke Ismail Abdul-Rasul, a father of four from Darfur in Sudan, describing his 2007 reception in Israel after five miserable years in Egypt and a hellish journey across the Sinai Peninsula.
Generally forgotten today, a large influx of Africans—Eritreans and Sudanese especially—made their way without authorization during the years 2006-12 to live in Israel. Their immigration temporarily traumatized Israelis and left a substantial body of Africans living in the country, mainly in Tel Aviv. The total number of illegal migrants to Israel from Africa is estimated at 55,000, with about 35,000 living in the country today. This episode is worth recalling for its drama, horror, resolution, and implications.
Muslim Africans nearly all reached the Jewish state by land. The influx began in 2006, apparently due to some Egyptian smugglers helping a few hundred Africans to enter Israel and the Israeli government treating them leniently. As word got back to Egypt and more distant parts of the continent, larger numbers followed. Journalist Uriel
Heilman in 2009 captured the motives of Africans living in Egypt:
On one side lies peril and poverty—crowded refugee camps, scarce jobs, and overzealous Egyptian soldiers ready to open fire on anyone trying to flee to Israel. ... On the other side lies relative prosperity and protection—a westernized country, a more sympathetic government, and a broad array of refugee services including, in some cases, jobs.
"It's good. I love Israel. There's good people here," said Emanuel, a 16-year-old Sudanese boy who made it safely across. ... Emanuel sleeps on a clean bed, gets three meals a day, and occasionally gets taken to swimming pools, summer camps, and nature excursions.
A Sudanese woman explained why she walked more than two hundred miles across Egypt and the Sinai desert to the Israeli border: Egyptians "spit on us and called us monkeys and animals" while she heard that she would be treated well in Israel. And, indeed, she was: "They gave us chocolate and juice and handcuffed us."
As this semi-good life in Israel, with its chocolate, juice, and handcuffs, became known, human trafficking followed. . . .