RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Israel, asylum seekers from Africa used to be welcomed, until they began pouring in. And this past week brought bad news for one of that group. An Israeli Court upheld a government plan to deport all citizens of South Sudan currently living in Israel. The move comes amid a wider government crackdown on the 60,000 African nationals who've entered Israel illegally over the past few years. Sheera Frenkel reports from Tel Aviv.
SHEERA FRANKEL, BYLINE: Five years ago, when the number of Africans in Israel was in the hundreds, rather then the thousands, the Jewish state's policies towards the group was touted as a example to other nations.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Hebrew language spoken)
FRANKEL: In this video clip from Israel's Channel Two news, Israeli soldiers and civilians talk about the need to help African refugees. Aliza Olmert, the wife of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, talks of getting personally involved to bring four-year-old Venus Bashir to Israel. She was stranded in Egypt's Sinai border after her family crossed into Israel.
ALIZA OLMERT: I'm calling the head of the Israeli intelligence and asking him to make a special effort to try and trace her.
FRANKEL: The TV program ends on a happy note, showing the family reunited thanks to the efforts of dozens of Israelis. Five years later, and the Bashir family is getting a noticeably different treatment from the Israeli government. They are among the more than 1,000 South Sudanese the Israeli government has announced it will soon deport.
KATNISS BASHIR: The government of Israel now they're dealing with us like we are a prisoner of war. We are not immigrants or we are not refugees.
FRANKEL: That's Katniss Bashir. He's sitting in the living room of the apartment he shares with his daughter, Venus. He's just heard the news that the Israeli court has upheld the deportation order against South Sudanese, and now he's worried. He says everyone knows South Sudan is still practically at war with its northern neighbor. He can't understand how the Israeli government would declare it safe for them to return.
K. BASHIR: The government of Israel knows everything, and they want to send back - they want to send us back. Like somebody wants to kill you, you know. Like I see fire and I want to throw you in that fire.
FRANKEL: In the court ruling, the Israeli judge said that the vast majority of South Sudan was not dangerous. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, from the religious Shas party, praised the courts ruling and said he would continue to fight until every African national in Israel was expelled. Orit Rubin says that politicians like Yishai incite the public against African nationals. She's one of the directors of Assaf, a Tel Aviv based organization that assists asylum seekers.
ORIT RUBIN: Right now they know they're not protected anymore. And they know that they can be arrested. They don't know if, when, how it will happen. Most of them are so desperate by now and they feel so, you know, unwelcome in Israel that I think people gave up.
FRANKEL: She says Africans come to Assaf's offices begging for tents, so that when they are deported they have somewhere to sleep. Others say they would rather be arrested by Israel and held in detention centers here. Bashir is hoping it won't come to that. He'll return to South Sudan when he is ordered to.
K. BASHIR: Anyhow, what are we going to do? We don't have choice.
FRANKEL: His daughter, Venus, is scared. At nine years old, she speaks fluent Hebrew and has spent most of her life in Israel. She says she only knows South Sudan from what she's seen on TV.
VENUS BASHIR: (Through translator) I saw that there is a war. I don't want to go there. There is no clean food, or water or bathrooms.
FRANKEL: Venus says she hopes that once again, someone will help her.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.
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