The Deportation Deal
Paul Kagame and Benjamin Netanyahu are enablers of each other’s worst behavior, whether providing cover for each other's domestic policies or how Israel treats African migrants and refugees.
On Sunday, Israel’s immigration authorities announced it had started issuing migrants letters advising them they had 60 days in which to “voluntarily” leave the country. Since many of them — Sudanese and Eritreans especially — can’t return to their countries of origin for fear of being tortured or death, it is unclear where they’ll go. One place that keeps coming up as a destination is the central African country of Rwanda.
The bilateral relationship between Rwanda and Israel has long been framed in terms of their shared experiences of genocide. At a ceremony in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to mark the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust at the beginning of this month, a representative for the Rwandan government expressed that Rwanda and Israel are “united by a common vision to fight anti-Semitism, genocide ideologies and all forms of genocide denial, as we know the terrible consequences of these issues if they are not addressed.”
In the light of this profound common perspective, recent initiatives undertaken jointly by the governments of Rwanda and Israel seem particularly awkward — including reports that Rwanda would take African immigrants and refugees the Israelis refer to as “infiltrators” — if not disturbing.
Late last month, Israel supported a contentious Rwanda-led initiative “rewriting the historical narrative” of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda to declare it a genocide of the Tutsi only, sparking accusations of genocide revisionism. Thousands of Hutus and others were also murdered by Hutu fanatics. Making things worse, Israel’s support for the resolution was reportedly motivated by its desire to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers to Rwanda — a cruel and racist program that is opposed by a growing number of mainstream Jewish organizations around the world.
On January 26, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution to revise the international day of memorial to replace references to the “Genocide in Rwanda” with the “Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda.” By narrowing the language to specify the Tutsi as the targets of the genocide, the move has been interpreted as “downplaying” the deaths of Hutus and others who had been killed for refusing to join in the massacres.
This is a move long desired by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and groups like Ibuka, which represents Tutsi survivors. Rwandan Ambassador to the United Nations, Valentine Rugwabiza, told the General Assembly that the purpose of the resolution was to “correct inaccuracies” by clarifying the target of the genocide, and to fight against “Genocide denial and revisionism” — in particular against those who promote “double genocide” theories claiming that Tutsi and Hutu are equally responsible for the atrocities.
Israel enthusiastically supported the resolution, describing it as nothing more than a “proper representation of facts.” It was the only “Western” country to be a co-sponsor, but was joined by more than thirty African countries, among them South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. This support surprised the European Union, the US and Canada, who expressed deep reservations; the US argued that the new wording “does not fully capture the magnitude of the genocide and of the violence committed against other groups.” US officials had reached out to Israel months earlier for its help in persuading Rwanda to withdraw the resolution, and were shocked when Israel refused.
Netanyahu’s decision to take the side of Kagame over US President Donald Trump has raised eyebrows in Israel — especially as the vote happened in the midst of the furor over Poland’s own controversial Holocaust bill, a proposed law criminalizing accusations of Polish complicity in the mass killing of Jews in Europe during World War II. As an Israeli official told journalist Barak Ravid, “[one] line connects the Kagame revisionism about the Genocide and the Polish revisionism about the Holocaust. It is sad we are cooperating with Kagame on this.” Israeli Labour Party Chairman Avi Gabbay also criticized the resolution, accusing Netanyahu of “imitating” the Polish government’s own rewriting of history.
Deportation deal or no deal
Israel’s willingness to collude in an initiative widely seen as genocide revisionism is even more disturbing in light of admissions from officials. One of the reasons that Israel co-sponsored the resolution was as a favor in return for its “deportation deal” with Rwanda, which has agreed to accept the African asylum seekers that Israel is trying to expel.
This year Israel has dramatically intensified its long-running program which aims to deport over 34,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, who have been given three months to leave the country or face a choice of either “indefinite detention” or deportation to an undisclosed “third-party” country. In the current stage of the deportation program, Israel has begun to hand out deportation slips to men without children, who consist of between 15,000 and 20,000 of the total who are “liable for deportation.”
Netanyahu’s government has not specified the third-party countries where the deportees will be sent, but it is widely known that they include Rwanda. In November, Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said they were prepared to accept 10,000 asylum seekers “if they are willing to come,” and media reports confirmed that Israel will pay the Rwandan government $5,000 for every asylum seeker it accepts. However, Rwandan Deputy Foreign Minister Olivier Nduhungirehe has denied the existence of an explicit deal, calling reports to the contrary “fake news,” and has insisted that Rwanda will only accept people who come voluntarily, “without any form of constraint,” and only if consistent with international law.
Rwanda’s assurances have done little to assuage the fear and anger that has been building over the impending deportations. In January, Eritrean asylum seekers held a mock “slave auction” outside of the Knesset, arguing that deportees will likely end up in Libyan slave markets. At least 4,000 asylum seekers have already been “voluntarily” deported to Rwanda from Israel between December 2013 and June 2017, and recently released testimonies present a grim warning, with stories of theft, being denied the status to work in Rwanda, and being trafficked to Uganda. “You want to die?”, one testimonial warns current asylum seekers, “then go back [to Africa]. If you don’t want to die, stay in Israel [in prison].”
Letters given to asylum seekers in Holot detention centre have tried to counter these claims by praising Rwanda, saying “the country to which you go is a country that has developed tremendously in the last decade and absorbs thousands of returning residents and immigrants from various African countries.” Netanyahu and also summarily dismissed any warnings, suggesting that Rwanda would be a good destination for refugees because “there are 180,000 refugees sitting there under the protection of the UN, so the claims that it is dangerous are a joke.” Echoing far-right conspiracy theories, Netanyahu has also claimed that the growing protests against the deportations are funded by Jewish billionaire George Soros.
The deportation plan comes after years of outright racist anti-refugee campaigning from senior Israeli politicians and religious leaders, who refer to the asylum seeker as “infiltrators.” In one notable incident in 2012, member of parliament Miri Regev (now culture minister) told an anti-refugee demonstration in Tel Aviv that African migrants were “a cancer in the body” of Israel, a sentiment which polls suggest is shared by 52% of Jewish Israelis.
Israel’s Friend in Africa
Israel’s support for Rwanda’s UNGA resolution should also be understood in the context of Israel’s “scramble for Africa,” as Netanyahu works to strengthen its poor diplomatic relations on continent. Kagame is one of Israel’s closest African allies; he has visited Israel twice in the last two years, has a consistently pro-Israel voting record at the UN, and has asserted that “Rwanda is, without question, a friend of Israel.” For his part, Netanyahu was the first Israeli Prime Minister to ever visit Rwanda, and in November 2017 he announced that Israel will be opening an embassy in the country.
Kagame has also been expanding his ties with the wider pro-Israel community. During his visit to the United States in 2017, Kagame was the first African leader to address AIPAC, and he received an award for his pro-Israel record, presented by far-right Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Kagame has a personal relationship with Boteach, who has defended Kagame against allegations of human rights abuses.
As Kagame takes up his post as the new Chairperson for the African Union (AU), Netanyahu will be looking to secure observer status for Israel, as efforts to date have been stymied due to opposition from other African states. A Kagame-led AU may indeed open up stronger relations with both Israel and Trump; when the AU expressed “deep concern” over Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Rwanda was one of 35 countries to abstain from a vote that would have nullified the declaration. In the aftermath of Trump’s “shithole countries” remark, a spokesperson said the AU was “frankly alarmed;” meanwhile, Kagame tweeted about his “very good bilateral meeting” with Trump at Davos.
In the end, Kagame and Netanyahu are enablers of each other’s worst behavior. Netanyahu’s support for Kagame’s motion is certainly questionable, as it at least gives the appearance of crass genocide revisionism, but ultimately it is Kagame’s collusion with Israel in its mass deportation scheme — a scheme which plainly deploys a rhetoric of ethnic cleansing — which will forever mark their legacy of rogue internationalism.