Israel Bans Soldiers from Helping Refugee Children
In a gesture to ban a program that helped refugee children has divided Israeli public opinion, the defense minister, the ultra-right Avigdor Lieberman, has banned soldiers from getting involved in voluntary social actions with children from refugee families.
The decision was made following protests from neighborhood associations and xenophobic groups due to the presence of the military playing in a park with African students in an impoverished southern area of Tel Aviv.
About 50,000 undocumented immigrants have settled in recent years in Israel, despite having one of the most guarded borders in the world.
The Defense Minister demanded last Friday that the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Gadi Eizenkot, suspend voluntary activities with immigrants.
“If the troops have free time they can help Holocaust survivors, the elderly and people in need,” said Lieberman, according to reports in Israeli press, as Lieberman supposedly appealed to the principle that charity must begin at home.
Lieberman’s deputy, Eliyahu Ben Dahan, a member of the religious ultranationalist party Jewish Home, insisted that “the soldiers have a limited time to do volunteer work and it is right that we dedicate to helping Israeli citizens.”
Israelis in the southern districts of Tel Aviv who call immigrants “infiltrators”, carried out long campaigns for the expulsion of the undocumented immigrants.
Public activities of soldiers with school children at Bialik-Rogozin, where they study while their petitions are reviewed, raised the tone of the complaints to the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads one of the most right-wing coalitions in the history of Israel.
The rejection of Lieberman’s decision has come sooner rather than later. The President of Israel, the moderate conservative Speaker Reuven Rivlin was the first to warn that “it is no a sin for a soldier to help the children of refugees”.
The mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, recalled that “we cannot abandon refugee children living in the State of Israel”.
The Ministry of Defence insisted Monday that soldiers should not take part in activities where there is a “public debate” and especially “with people who entered the country illegally”.
The Armed Forces also highlighted Monday, through one of its spokesmen, the “fundamental value of volunteering” whose activities “are incorporated into the education program of the Israeli Army.”
The same source said that to clarify the rules on the issue, the Chief Education Officer of the Army, will soon publish a list of institutions approved to carry out voluntary activities by his staff and that those people will be subject to his orders.
For the director of the Bialik-Rogozin center, Eli Nehama, it is an “unfortunate decision”. “Some college students have Israeli citizenship and will be called up in the future. Soldiers can be a model for them,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth.
One of the soldiers who participated in the volunteering program at the school in Tel Aviv also showed dissatisfaction with the prohibition of the Ministry of Defence: “The order not to further help these children in particular is pure racism”.
The Israeli army had published a report in one of its internal magazines, which highlighted the social value of military activities with the undocumented immigrant children in southern Tel Aviv.
The documentary Strangers No More, winner of the Oscar in 2011, recounts in detail the daily lives of several students from 48 countries attending class at Bialik-Rogozin, the center from where soldiers have been banned from seeking integration of immigrant students without papers.