African students who were part of an Israeli government programme to study Agriculture have been kicked out of the Israeli town of Avshalom, after locals branded them “animals, rapists and human trash”, and claimed they would bring “rape, murder and break-ins" to the area.

The 15 South Sudanese students arrived in Israel a few days ago, as part of a larger group, and were housed in Avshalom. They are part of a flagship project of a number of government ministries, led by the Foreign and Agriculture Ministries. They are learning about the use of greenhouses, drip irrigation and other agricultural developments, and are supposed to take this knowledge back with them to their own countries.

After local residents discovered that the students were living in their community, some threatened to hold protests until they were removed. Last week, four residents closed the gate to Avshalom and prevented the students from entering for an hour and a half. 

Only when the commander of the police station in the nearby city of Ofakim ordered the gate opened and the students be allowed to enter the community – and if necessary accompanied by the police – did the residents open the gate.

“We tried to convince the residents that [the students] are okay, but nothing helped,” the head of the program at Ashkelon Academic College told Haaretz. “Except for having them leave, nothing satisfied them.”

After the protests, the regional college decided to move the students to a different community within the regional council, to Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. 

“The bottom line is that we are already moving them because it is a shame that they experience such an unpleasant feeling,” said Dikla Abutbul, Director of External Study Programs at the college.

“There was a great deal of criticism from the residents. My representative went there to explain but the only thing that calmed them down was when we said they will move. There's no point trying to make this sound better than it is, the bottom line is that the way this was handled was wrong and disrespectful.”

The students from South Sudan were previously housed in the community of Avshalom, near Israel’s borders with Egypt and the Gaza Strip, but they will now be housed elsewhere after local residents objected.

Some residents of the small community in Eshkol Regional Council harassed some of the students and demanded their relocation; Gad Yarkoni, Head of the Regional Council, made the same demand.   

WhatsApp messages from a group of local residents obtained by Israeli media include statements such as:  “There is a very serious problem and we need to deal with it urgently. Otherwise, remember very well what I’m saying, the day is not far away that there will be rape, murder and break-ins in the community.” 

Another resident wrote: “As far as I’m concerned, they are animals, rapists, human trash. Their place is not here.”

However, Nir Damari, the owner of the house in Avshalom that had been rented out to the students, was less than impressed, telling Israeli media: “This is racism; it’s nothing else. “What really bothers the residents is the renters’ skin colour.”

The incident comes at a time when anti-African racism in Israel has reached an all-time high.

In July, Israeli parliamentarian, Oren Hazan, said Africans have no culture and that African refugees in Israel should be stopped from having children. In the video interview, Hazan further claimed that African immigrants are a “threat to Israel” that would destroy the country.

“If we don’t kick them out they will kick us out. We need to destroy the problem when it is still small,” said Hazan.

A new Israeli law now allows the government to withhold the salaries of African migrants until they leave the country. According to activists fighting the law, this is yet another attempt by the Israeli government to force them out.

In January, Israel offered to pay African migrants $3,500 per person to leave Israel. According to the government-sponsored deal, each migrant would also receive a free air ticket to return home or go to “third countries”, which rights groups identified as Rwanda and Uganda.

In April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled a deal with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to relocate African migrants, and respond to the protection needs of African asylum seekers in Israel.

Netanyahu has called African migrants a threat to Israel, and Israeli government minister, Miri Regev, has referred to African migrants as “a cancer”. At the time, 52% of Israeli Jews agreed with Regev’s statement and a third approved of anti-African migrant violence.

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