CANNABIS CULTURE – For decades, Egypt’s hands-off approach to the Bedouin drug trade has allowed Israeli visitors to get as high as they like while vacationing on the golden beaches of the Sinai peninsula. Luckily for Elyasaf, who had been caught crossing the border with marijuana on his person, that lax enforcement also allowed his brothers back in Israel to secure his speedy release from the dingy Egyptian jail cell he shared with Ablel the Eritrean refugee.
Sympathetic political power-brokers guided Elyasaf’s family through a web of Egyptian bureaucracy, helping them assuage the local legal authorities, without triggering a diplomatic incident that would destroy his chances for freedom. “I’m not especially proud that I made this mistake,” Elyasaf admits. “I may also be an idiot for taking that chance. Alright. I also had to pay the price for it. But I’m not ashamed of what I do.”
Upon realizing that he would soon be permitted to return to Israel, Elyasaf’s attention turned to Ablel, and to figuring our how to help the young man who had helped him survive an Egyptian jail. “He really gave me a lot of strength. I owe this man so much,” Elyasaf said. “If I was able to relay a message from this man, then it will have been worth everything.”
Without anyone else to communicate with for days on end, Elyasaf’s time in the Egyptian jail gave him the opportunity to get to know his cellmate – something that may never have happened naturally in Tel Aviv, where it is rare for native Israelis interact with African asylum-seekers as equals. “He is a skilled artist,” Elyasaf recalled. “He carved massive designs into the wall there, and all kinds of slogans about freedom, he said. “There was a massive dove carved onto the entire wall, very beautiful.”
Ablel’s fondness for music was apparent to Elyasaf. “I taught him the words to ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon,” Elyasaf added. “He loved those lyrics so much, he wanted to know them in Hebrew. He said that one day, he would sing it in his own language.”
The miles Ablel had put between himself and his Bedouin captors relieved some of his stress, and he eventually managed to recall the phone number of his sister Adi, also living in Israel. During his final hours behind bars, Elyasaf committed her phone number to memory.
“I guess I will never forget that phone number for the rest of my life. I barely remember my own mobile phone number, but I definitely won’t forget hers.” As soon as he crossed Israel’s borders, Elyasaf phoned Adi to let her know that Ablel was still alive, that he had endured horrible tortures, and that he was now in poor but stable health, just a few minutes’ drive from Israeli sovereign territory.
Having discharged his duty, Elyasaf soon settled back into his regular routine. But he remained troubled by Ablel’s experiences, and what they might mean for others living in Israel, especially African refugees. “Now, you hear this story, and you don’t believe it,” Elyasaf said. “It sounds unbelievable. And really, if I wasn’t there, if I didn’t meet the young man and hear it from him myself, with him there in the Egyptian jail, lying next to me, and I see that it’s true, I wouldn’t believe that something like this is possible. What kind of country do we live in? A man is kidnapped in the middle of the day from downtown Tel Aviv!”
Elyasaf is cognizant of his privileges, aware that being an Israeli Jew of European ancestry shielded him from any serious suffering, after he got caught with weed in a third-world country. But he also believes that those privileges should be extended to Ablel, as well. “Not that it matters, but the man is Israeli. He is totally Israeli, Israeli in every single way. And I think that the State of Israel must take responsibility.”
Held for ransom, then forced to Pay
In the case of Ablel, the Israeli state’s obligations were clear-cut: to protect his person, prevent his removal from its territory, investigate his disappearance and secure his safe return. These obligations were not fulfilled.
But some observers contend that Israeli culpability for the situation in the Sinai extends well beyond the strange singular case of Ablel. If the actual torture of the Eritreans occurred in Egyptian territory, the ransom collection most often occurred on Israeli soil. Eritreans living all over the world contributed funds in order to redeem their countrymen-and-women from captivity and torture in the Egyptian Sinai. But more often than not, the traffickers were paid by Eritreans living in Tel Aviv, who had already run the ghastly gauntlet themselves and knew from firsthand experience of the captors’ cruelty.
“Most of the payments were being paid in Tel Aviv. The kidnappers had always agents working in Tel Aviv. A lot of people, they were paid in person. There are at least twenty-one court cases of people that were arrested for receiving money for the traffickers. Most of the time, it would have been easy to arrest many more people, but there was no interest from the police,” Eritrean-Swedish journalist Meron Estefanos told Cannabis Culture. “The twenty-one cases, it was very rare, compared to how many people were being held hostage and how much money was being paid.”
On one of her many visits to Israel to interview Eritrean asylum-seekers, Estefanos approached the Israeli police herself, hoping that if she informed them of an impending ransom payment, it would spur them to action. “We knew a payment was going to happen tomorrow morning. And then you contact the police, but there was no interest” in arresting the ransom collectors, Estefanos said.
The sums of money that were extorted from Eritrean asylum-seekers living in Israel were vast, she explains. “When I visited Israel in 2012, there was this sign in Tigrinya in Tel Aviv, all over the streets, where it said that a hundred twenty-seven Eritreans from one region were being held hostage in Sinai. And when I visited Lewinsky Park, Eritreans from that area were collecting money,” says Estefanos. “Hundreds of Eritreans.”
In that one instance alone, she notes, Eritreans in Israel collected a seven-figure sum to secure the freedom of their kidnapped compatriots. “That they were trying to raise $8.7 million. It’s in the letter of the sign that was put in the streets of Tel Aviv. It’s a lot of money! And this money was paid in person, in Tel Aviv. So this was happening on a weekly, daily basis.”
Israel’s tacit acceptance of the Egyptian torture camps
Even worse than Israel’s anemic efforts to terminate the trafficking on its own end were its tolerance of the torture camps themselves, though these were mostly located within visual range of the Israeli border. “You could see the fence from some of the houses that we visited, outside the torture camps that we visited,” notes Estefanos. “Even the hostages, when they were being held hostage, they used to say that they can see the Israeli radar.”
Naturally, the primary responsibility for putting an end to torture camps in Egypt lies with the Egyptian government. But the country’s 1979 peace agreement with Israel forbids it from moving military forces into the peninsula without Israel’s expressed permission. If Egyptian authorities in Cairo ever asked Israel for approval to send in a force capable of shutting down the human trafficking operation, it was never given.
“Egypt can be in the area only if the country is threatened. Because of the Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt, Sinai was decided to be kept as a demilitarized zone. So if the country is not threatened, Egypt has to ask for permission to have military in the area,” says Estefanos. “And these Bedouins knew this, and they were actually bragging that it would never happen, even in a hundred years. And they were saying, ‘You cannot stop us.’”
While the Egyptian army refrained from interfering in the Sinai torture-extortion racket, the Israeli Defense Forces conducted military operations in the Sinai, for its own reasons. While the torture went on, right under everyone’s noses, the Israeli army regularly entered sovereign Egyptian territory, with Cairo’s permission – sometimes to attack Muslim militants operating in the Sinai, and sometimes to prevent groups of African refugees from reaching the Israeli border. At no point did it take any action to shut down the tortures camps just outside its territorial borders.
“The Bedouins believed that Israel would never bomb them,” recalls Estefanos. “They would never do that.”
The existence of the Sinai torture camps had long been a matter of public record – multiple mainstream media outlets have reported on the agonies inflicted there. Even by its own admission, the Israeli government had received reports of the torture camps at least as early as 2009. But even though Israel is internationally famous for conducting complex military operations to free kidnapped hostages being held thousands of kilometers away in the African interior, it allowed thousands of refugees to be mercilessly tortured for years, right in its own backyard.
Eritrean refugees forced to return to the dictatorship he fled from
Still jailed in the Sinai, Ablel beseeched the prison authorities to release him into Egypt, or to send him to Israel, or at least to Ethiopia, where hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have received refuge. But they refused, and would only agree to put him on a plane back to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.
Ablel had valid reasons to fear his forced repatriation. The reasons that he had left Eritrea to begin with were still valid; President Isaias Afwerki continued to rule the country with an iron fist, as he had since it first achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Moreover, during his time in Israel, Ablel had participated in protests against the repressive regime that he had fled, and he worried that word of this would get back to Asmara.
“At the freedom demonstration in Israel, I was in the middle of it,” says Ablel. “So, I had a big fear about going back to Eritrea. A really big fear. But I couldn’t do anything.” He grudgingly accepted Egypt’s terms and boarded a flight back to his home country. “I didn’t want that at all. I just wanted to get out,” Ablel insists. Upon his arrival in Asmara, he was separated from the other passengers and cross-examined by Eritrean officials. “When you were in Israel, what were you doing?” they asked him. “I was working in the field and I’m young, I don’t know about anything,” Ablel responded, playing dumb. But the officials were not convinced. “You were there with the ones badmouthing their country and government, you’re from that group,” they said.
It seemed certain that he would soon face another round of abuse, this time in his home country. But because Ablel’s health had so obviously deteriorated, the government officials grilling him gave him permission to see a medical doctor right away. And once he was left alone in the doctor’s office, he immediately escaped and went underground.
For the next five months, Ablel laid low in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, surviving under the radar with the help of old friends. They arranged for him to receive the necessary medical attention, and secured for him forged documents. After five months, once he had fully healed, Ablel once again took his leave of Eritrea. This time, he brought one of his younger sisters along with him.
Today, Ablel lives in Switzerland with his new wife Luelawit, together with their young son. In 2017, the country tightened its rules regarding refugees from Eritrea, but Ablel was still able to receive full residency rights, with the help of documentation provided by Cannabis Culture. Today, he can finally live a normal life, free of the fears that plagued him for the past decade.
But for Ablel’s sister Adi and the remaining 30,000 Eritrean refugees still living in Israel, the future remains uncertain. In early 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Eritrean refugees have until April 1 to leave the country, or be rounded up and jailed indefinitely.
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Cannabis Culture contacted both the Israeli police and the Israeli army, requesting comment; neither the police nor the army had responded to the story by press time, twelve days later.
David Sheen is an independent journalist and filmmaker born and raised in Canada, now reporting from the ground in Israel*Palestine. His written and video work focuses primarily on the country’s racial and religious tensions. In 2017, Sheen was named a Human Rights Defender by the Ireland-based Front Line Defenders. Sheen’s website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.