Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

An Exodus from Sinai

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The Egyptian Sinai Peninsula has become breeding ground for terrorism and violence.

Egypt reported that two Egyptian soldiers were killed on November 23 near the Israel-Egypt border during a shootout with suspected Bedouin drug smugglers. In a separate incident, IDF forces shot at Egyptians, believed to be drug smugglers, who crossed into Israel.

In August, a terrorist squad infiltrated Israel from Sinai, which resulted in the deaths of eight Israelis along Highway 12, which runs along the border.

Israel has recently been working on constructing a 240-kilometer long fence along its border with Egypt, which is aimed at boosting security.

The Sinai is not only a haven for terrorists, but it also a centre of people and organ smuggling.

The depth of the lawlessness was recently captured in CNN documentary "Death in the Desert", which reported on unimaginable violence experienced by Africans who cross the Sinai in the desperate attempt to make it to Israel.

Africans particularly from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea fleeing their local hardships pay Bedouin tribes in the border area between Sudan and Egypt around $2,000 to be smuggled into Israel. But these smugglers often imprison and blackmail the helpless refugees or sell them to other Sinai Bedouin, who do the same, rather than fulfilling the deal, according to the documentary.

Many of the asylum seekers are only able to tell their stories if they make it to Israel. Ibrahim Yehia of Eritrea said:

"When we arrived to Sinai, the Bedouins tied me up with metal chains in the desert. They tortured us. Many of us died...They wanted me to pay $12,000 and forced us to call our families to transfer the money. My family sold all their lands and even their donkey to collect the money. They transferred $6,000 to the Bedouins."

If the Africans cannot pay the ransom, and sometimes even if they do pay, they are enslaved, raped, tortured and killed. Some of the refugees are forced into slave labor, often working marijuana fields that flourish all over Northern Sinai.

Many African corpses have been found in the Sinai with organs missing. Organ trafficking is rife in the Sinai and it is apparently even more lucrative than drug and weapons trafficking.

Africans who manage to survive the journey are often shot at the border by Egyptian border guards. Abdallah Mohammed, was shot and killed by Egyptian border guards. He said in a video statement before his death: "I wanted to build a good future for my family, but I failed".

Egypt appears unable to stop the lawlessness in the Sinai. Egyptian police units were forced out of most areas in North Sinai after the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak.

Meanwhile, an Israeli reserve soldier, Aron Adler was stationed on the Egypt/Israel border and has witnessed first hand Africans attempting to cross the border into Israel, has just written to call attention to their plight.

In a note to his parents, which he asked them to distrbute publicly, he said he wanted to "tell you and the entire world what's really happening down here on the Egyptian/Israel border", he wrote:

"We increasingly hear horror stories of the atrocities these refugees suffer on their way to freedom. They are subject to, and victims of extortion, rape, murder, and even organ theft, their bodies left to rot in the desert. Then, if lucky, after surviving this gruesome experience whose prize is freedom, when only a barbed wire fence separates them from Israel and their goal, they must go through the final death run and try to evade the bullets of the Egyptian soldiers stationed along the border. Egypt's soldiers are ordered to shoot to kill anyone trying to cross the border OUT of Egypt and into Israel. It's an almost nightly event.

For those who finally get across the border, the first people they encounter are Israeli soldiers, people like me and those in my unit, who are tasked with a primary mission of defending the lives of the Israeli people. On one side of the border soldiers shoot to kill. On the other side, they know they will be treated with more respect than in any of the countries they crossed to get to this point.

The region where it all happens is highly sensitive and risky from a security point of view, an area stricken with terror at every turn. It's just a few miles south of the place where Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. And yet the Israeli soldiers who are confronted with these refugees do it not with rifles aimed at them, but with a helping hand and an open heart. The refugees are taken to a nearby IDF base, given clean clothes, a hot drink, food and medical attention. They are finally safe.

...Today, when African refugees flood our borders in search of freedom and better lives, and some for fear of their lives, it is particularly noteworthy how Israel deals with them, despite the enormous strain it puts on our country on so many levels. Our young and thriving Jewish people and country, built from the ashes of the Holocaust, do not turn their backs on humanity. Though I already knew that, this week I once again experienced it firsthand. I am overwhelmed with emotion and immensely proud to be a member of this nation."

The numbers of African refugees arriving in Israel has been increasing each year and there is considerable debate in Israel about both policy options towards these asylum seekers and how they should be treated as Amotz Asa-El discussed in the November 2009 Australia/Israel Review (not currently available online). Yet, the mere fact that Africans are willing to risk their lives to come to Israel, and that they find safety in Israel should cause critics of Israel to pause and think.

Sharyn Mittelman

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