Photo courtesy of Sigal Avivi.

Several hundred African asylum-seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, were brutally arrested by Israeli authorities on Sunday evening after attempting to cross the border into Egypt. These men had walked out of their detention facility in Israel’s Negev desert, hoping that if they made it across the border, the United Nations might come to their aid. Our Observer, who witnessed the arrests, was shocked by the violence of the authorities’ intervention.

On Friday afternoon, the men had walked out of Holot, which is an “open prison” where they must check in several times a day and are locked up at night. This controversial new facility currently houses 2,400 men who say they are refugees fleeing violence back home, but whom the government accuses of being mainly economic migrants. Faced with indefinite detention, these men – many of whom spent years living in Israel on temporary visas before the government hardened its policies – have held frequent protests over the past months. With little hope left, hundreds of them decided the only solution was to head to neighbouring Egypt.

“It looked like hell on earth”

Sigal Avivi is a human rights activist who lives in Tel Aviv. She has formed close ties with many in the African migrant community.

I and a few other Israeli activists joined the protesters on Friday afternoon, on their walk towards the Egyptian border. They told us that they no longer wanted to stay in Israel, since Israel is not treating them like refugees. Their idea was not to go live in Egypt, but rather to leave Israel’s territory in the hopes that this would force the United Nations to take care of them. [Editors' Note: UNHCR officials indicated that this was not a likely scenario.]

On the road to the Egyptian border. Photo courtesy of Sigal Avivi. 

Soldiers stopped them 300 metres from the border. There was a bit of a scuffle, but after we mediated between both sides, the asylum seekers agreed to retreat a little way back, and settled down in a small grove of trees. We spent the night there with them, and when I awoke at the break of dawn, I was amazed: they had already hung blankets from the trees to create tents, and divided this makeshift camp into the same sections as their detention facility. They had a generator, and men from each section would take turns charging their mobile phones, 20 minutes each.
"They agreed they would resist arrest, but would not use violence"

Members of the Sudanese and Eritrean communities back in Tel Aviv soon came to deliver food and supplies, which was rationed so that everybody would have the same amount. Regular meetings were held between the Sudanese and the Eritreans to decide on strategy; they agreed they would resist arrest, but would not use violence. For two days, it was very peaceful, with only occasional visits from the police.
At the makeshift camp. Photo courtesy of Sigal Avivi. 

As the 48-hour deadline drew near, we prepared for the authorities to crack down. [Editor’s Note: Forty-eight hours is the maximum amount of time detainees can stay away from Holot before being arrested and sent to a closed prison]. The men had brought all their belongings with them, so my friends and I, who had brought our cars, offered to safeguard their most valuable belongings. I was very touched by one Eritrean man, whose only valuable item was his family photo album.

The phone-charging station.
“The police knocked them to the ground, hit them, kicked them”

A huge force arrived to arrest them: Police, army, from a wide variety of units; some on horseback, others with water cannons. They started dragging the men into buses, one by one. There were four or five policemen on top of each migrant, and they were brutal. They knocked them to the ground, hit them, kicked them; some insulted them in Hebrew. I tried to protect one young man, and got insulted and pushed away. This lasted for more than two hours. There were clouds of dust, and the string of pepper spray; it looked like hell on earth. The handful of journalists and activists at the scene did their best to record it all, but several people had their cameras snatched away by plainclothes police officers. Several representatives from UNHCR showed up, but they were powerless to do anything but watch.

Migrants getting arrested. 

I saw several men injured, including one who got hit in the kneecap and couldn’t walk. Two guys fainted; I know one was diabetic. I had to convince the medics to use stretchers rather than drag them away.

The police tore the camp to shreds. We salvaged what belongings we could in the early hours of the morning. It took us a long time to get back to Tel Aviv, since three tyres were punctured on one of our two cars.

I’ve witnessed many protests, some in which people were even shot, but I had never seen anything quite like this. There was just something so disturbing about seeing these men, so weak, who had fled from violence – and are staunchly against violence – being treated like this.
Those arrested were taken to Saharonim, a closed prison facility not far from Holot. It remains unclear whether they will be kept there or sent back to Holot.

Another video showing Sunday's arrests.

A video filmed by one of the migrants, showing their makeshift camp before Sunday's arrests. 

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).