Transplanted Twice: Israel and Human Trafficking in Sinai

Perhaps only migrating birds know —

suspended as they are between earth and sky —

this heartache of two homelands.

With you I was transplanted twice,

with you, pine trees, I grew —

my roots in two different lands.

– Leah Goldberg, “Pine” (Tel Aviv, 1935)

By Hannah Carrese

The disposable people are washing dishes.  In the kitchen of the Ma’agan Shelter for Victims of Trafficking, they scrape remnants of teff, an Ethiopian grain, out of the bottom of pots and collect plates from the dining table.  Muted sounds of a bustling Israeli street waft through the window. One woman, still clutching a handful of forks, pauses beneath the framed image of a man’s face partially obscured by the passport he presses against his left cheek.  She seems to pause in homage: like him, she is an immigrant to Israel; like him, she is aware of the importance of nationality and name.

She is one of over 2.5 million people who are trafficked throughout the world each year, sold into modern slavery through an industry worth tens of billions of dollars.  She comes from Eritrea or Ethiopia or Sudan, but she has not walked on East African soil for years.  Captured in the border region between these three countries, she was brought to a torture camp built on the shifting sands of the Egyptian Sinai Desert.  In Sinai, she was chained, starved, perhaps raped.  Bedouin smugglers melted wax on her back, shocked her with electrical wires, beat her with sticks and with pipes.

When her family paid ransom, a sum of $30,000 to $40,000, her captors dumped her in Israel.  She was found by Israeli border patrol officers and shuttled to an Israeli detention camp where she was officially deemed a victim of trafficking.  This label gave her a place, a temporary home in the Ma’agan Shelter.  Somewhere in the 1,500-mile journey between Africa and Israel, this woman became a thing, useful but disposable, part of a burgeoning group of victims of trafficking and torture discarded in Israel, rootless.

Suspended Between Earth and Sky

Rootless people cling to names because words are easy to carry: this is true for both the first Jewish settlers in Israel and for East Africans rescued from their traffickers.  Ma’agan means mooring in Hebrew; the shelter anchors thirty-five female victims of trafficking, each of whom can stay for up to a year.  Across the street, thirty-five male victims shoulder the burdens of their new world in the Atlas Shelter.  The location of the buildings remains undisclosed simply so that traffickers don’t come to the shelter to take revenge against their former victims. The rootless people are hidden, too.

Most victims of trafficking hail from Eritrea, a state torn by war since it declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993.  Some, like A.W., an Eritrean woman, fled the country after deserting the army without completing their compulsory service. Other Eritrean women, like K.T., were kidnapped from Ethiopian refugee camps.  Some, like A.B., another Eritrean woman, meant to come to Israel to “work and live with my husband…we have a child together.”  Others didn’t mean to come to Israel at all: D.H., an Eritrean man, “arrived in Israel because the smugglers kidnapped me in the border between Eritrea and Sudan.”

Victims, suspended between two worlds and wanted in neither, are prime targets for exploitation.  Smugglers in Sinai have little regard for the wishes of their victims: in their eyes, these people are subhuman.  K.T. spent five months in Sinai, blindfolded and chained.  During the final two months of her captivity, she was “raped on a daily basis by the smugglers.  The rape was performed in the following manner: a man would come to us, unchain one of the women, take her to the bathroom, rape her there, and then bring her back.”  Some women were disallowed even the dignity of privacy.  A “Bedouin guard named Haitam” raped A.B. “while I was chained to another woman.”

Crime exploits difference, but spares no sufferer shame.  H.G.A., an Eritrean man, was forced to watch the rapes of female victims.  Men, too, were subject to assault: D.H.’s captors “would smoke marijuana and rape me afterwards.”  Severe privation accompanied these acts: H.G.A. received food “only once every three days…to dispose of bodily waste, we were given bottles.”  For these victims, Israel’s historical title as the “promised land” takes on new meaning.  It offers the primitive comforts of daylight and toilets, shelter without shackles hammered into the walls.  Above all, it offers respite and refuge, a chance to rebuild by planting roots in Israeli earth instead of drifting through Sinai.

Heartache of Two Homelands

H.G.A. recalls his entry into Israel with a group of six people, explaining that there were “two men, three women, and one child, a two-year-old whose mother died in Sinai, so we took him to Israel.  We came to a mountain near the border where there was no new fence [Israel began construction on a new frontier fence in 2005]; Israeli soldiers helped us climb the mountain and then transported us to a military base.”  This account is typical.  Victims are dropped near the border by smugglers, are identified by Israeli border patrols, and are then transported to the Saharonim Detention Center, a holding facility in southern Israel.

Names acquire new significance in Saharonim.  Even the Israeli office that coordinates the country’s anti-trafficking efforts has a rather complicated name: the Ministry of Justice’s Office of the Coordinator of the Fight Against Human Trafficking.  The complex title hints at the importance of terminology in a world in which some uprooted people are labeled “refugees” and “victims,” while others are classified as “detainees” and “intruders.”  Once people have been disposed of in Sinai, their fates come to depend on the categories into which they fit under international laws.  Superficial distinctions point to deeper dilemmas inherent in rootlessness.

The categorization of Sinai victims determines the quality of their treatment in Israel.  In fact, some barriers between the rootless rise simply from the crime inflicted upon them in Sinai.  All victims in Sinai are tortured, but some are also labeled as victims of trafficking, slavery, and forced labor.  Torture is defined by the infliction of severe pain or suffering for some specific purpose.  Under international law, trafficking requires the performance of labor that increases the value of an individual as a thing to be bought and sold.  Israeli law narrows this definition to exclude slavery and forced labor: here, trafficking is simply “the sale or purchase of a person.”  A woman forced to clean toilets for her captors is a victim of trafficking.  A woman who was only kept from using the toilet through multiple beatings is a victim of torture.

Sunset on the coast of Tel Aviv, the city where many African migrants in Israel end up (Brown/TYG).
Sunset on the coast of Tel Aviv, the city where many African migrants in Israel end up (Brown/TYG).

This is a difficult qualification to make: there seems no “only” in a crime that leaves victims with cigarette burns and scar tissue twisted into the skin of their backs.  But Israel has little obligation to aid Sinai victims of torture.  These people are East African, their abusers are Egyptian Bedouins, and the acts occur in the Egyptian Sinai.  In fact, until Israeli law was amended a few weeks ago after lobbying from anti-trafficking groups, victims of torture could be held in detention camps for up to three years.  In contrast, victims of trafficking, a crime that recognizes no boundaries, are entitled to a year-long stay in one of a variety of Israeli shelters like Ma’agan and Atlas.  They meet with counselors and doctors, and are granted temporary work permits.

Israeli officials recognize the real human suffering that lies beneath the cold legal strictures governing these cases.  Nevertheless, in a demonstration of cruel irony, rootless victims are also afforded different benefits based on the nationality that was, for all intents and purposes, taken away from them in Sinai. Unlike Ethiopians, who must return home, Eritrean citizens are allowed to take up residence in Israel because of the volatility of their point of origin. Thus, Ethiopians detained in Israel often identify themselves as Eritrean.  The Sinai seems to give its victims a permanent heartache of two homelands: they subsume their national and, often, ethnic identities to necessity, eschewing African roots for the promise of a new planting in Israel.

Transplanted Twice

Identity, then, is central to the politics of rootlessness.  This is a particularly pressing issue in Israel.  Its desert acreage at a crossroads of the Middle East, Europe, and Africa is populated by a reverse diaspora, a collection of people who have, over centuries, been transplanted twice.  Israel is defined by this coming and going.  Within its borders, it offers a home for the scattered Jewish people, promising a blossoming desert in which they can plant new roots.  Outside these borders, it serves as a memory of rootedness, the same memory which leads Palestinians to hang wooden keys over the gates to their refugee camps, a constant reminder of the homes from which they fled or were banished upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

From the Biblical patriarch Abraham to the Zionist Theodor Herzl, this land is one of the world’s oldest staging grounds for human migration.  In many ways, a history of transplantation renders Israel particularly sensitive to issues of displacement.  Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, dedicated part of its 2006 session to the passage of landmark anti-trafficking legislation designed to address a decades-long problem of trafficking in women from the Soviet Union who became prostitutes in Israel.  Even members of the ultra-nationalist “Jewish Home” party, generally opposed to non-Jews entering Israel, are involved in the fight against trafficking.  Knesset member Schuli Malem-Refaeli takes Elie Wiesel’s statement that “the opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference” as a constant call to action.

Israel’s anti-trafficking actions reverberate on a global stage.  Israeli officials have been asked to take up positions in the anti-trafficking unit of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.  The Trafficking in Persons report published annually by the U.S. State Department has awarded Israel its highest compliance ranking for the past two years.  The U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, visited the Ma’agan and Atlas shelters in July, speaking to Eritrean and Ethiopian residents in Hebrew, a language they are beginning to learn through shelter programs.  Israeli officials have made overtures to Egyptian officials – and, more importantly, given Egypt’s lack of governmental stability, to Egyptian religious leaders, offering support and soliciting advice.

Israel has worked to meld domestic and international law to make a place for victims of trafficking, for the most vulnerable and rootless members of society.  This is certainly the opposite of indifference.  Still, Israel seems more an aliyah nation than an immigrant nation.  Aliyah, a word that means “coming up” in Hebrew, specifically refers to Jewish immigrants settling in Israel.  These groups are welcomed with language programs and substantial state support.  Meanwhile, non-Jewish migrants, including victims of trafficking who attempt to settle in Israel after their ordeal, are labeled with a Hebrew word that translates roughly to “intruder.” This term was originally used to describe Jordanian terrorists.

In fact, even Jews from Eastern Africa have struggled with integration.  Many of these first- and second-generation immigrants still live in “ethnic market” communities.  Tel Aviv’s Levinski neighborhood is populated almost entirely by African migrants, and its central green space, Levinski Park, has become a hub for social justice protests.  The double transplant of the Jewish people, from Israel to the Diaspora and back to Israel 1,300 years later, has sparked conflict between those who prioritize the existence of a majority Jewish state – one with little room for a rapidly expanding populations of Africans and, of course, Arabs – and those whose first concern is empathy for other uprooted people.

Israel and America, nations defined by their immigrant (aliyah and otherwise) populations, have an extra responsibility not to be indifferent to rootlessness.  We must not re-dispose of the disposable people, relegating them to the margins of our social conscience.  Israel’s migratory history, both new and old, reminds us that the labor of our life is a planting and replanting, a constant search for place.  Teff, the grain that is a staple in the Ma’agan Shelter and in East Africa, means “lost” in the Semitic languages of Eritrea and Ethiopia.  It is easy to lose and to be lost in the place between homelands that is the Sinai Desert.  This is a loss we cannot allow because it is a loss of something fundamental to our humanity: our yearning for place, our need to sink deep roots into fertile soil.

Hannah Carrese ’16 is in Pierson College. She spent this summer in Israel working with issues surrounding victims of trafficking.