Organizers of last night's march in Tel Aviv against the High Court's decision to reject the "Infiltrator Law" have warned the area is on the brink of "an explosion" due to rising tensions over unchecked illegal immigration, and rejected left-wing criticism of their campaign as cynical and politically-motivated.
The march was organized by local activists calling to overthrow the "dictatorship" of the High Court - known by its Hebrew acronym, "Bagatz" - after the decision to overrule the law, which means police can no longer detain illegal immigrants and must release those currently being held at a security facility in Holon. Residents of south Tel Aviv - a largely working-class area which is currently home to at least 18,000 illegal African immigrants - say their lives have been made a misery by the high-crime and general lawlessness brought in the wake of the flood of illegals, and accuse the High Court of abandoning them for political reasons.
The march gained a lot of negative publicity due to the use of black flags emblazoned with the word "Bagatz", which resembled the emblem of the brutal Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group. The PR prop - along with the decision by some organizers, such as right-wing activists Baruch Marzel and ex-MK Michael Ben-Ari, to explicitly draw the comparison between the two - drew a hail of negative reactions and criticism from observers, particularly on the Left.
But May Golan, a resident of south Tel Aviv and a rising star among campaigners for the rights of local residents, dismissed the criticism as a cynical attempt divert attention away from the legitimate grievances of working-class Tel Avivians. She said that she had not in fact meant for the flags to represent ISIS but rather to signify the "destruction" of Tel Aviv by the High Court, which was rapidly turning some southern neighborhoods into "no-go areas".
"It's about raising a black flag, just like the one the judges have put on us by canceling the law," she said.
"What is a black flag? When I was a little girl - before there was any ISIS - when I went to the beach and I saw a black flag I knew that meant 'don't enter'. When the Bagatz ruled the way they did they put a black flag on the entrance to south Tel Aviv - no coming out, no going in. It's a no-go area."
'We've been abandoned'
Golan said that despite being "totally our of touch with reality", the High Court judges were perfectly aware that what they were doing would cause the residents of south Tel Aviv to suffer. She accused the High Court of acting like a "dictatorship", and embarking on a campaign of social engineering which members of the left-wing elite could watch play out from a convenient distance, since their wealthy neighborhoods remained unaffected - a world away from the tension and poverty they were perpetuating just a few miles south.
Crime, particularly violent and sexual crimes, has skyrocketed in neighborhoods with large concentrations of illegals in recent years, and countless illegal businesses have sprung up which operate openly, apparently with complete impunity.
"They abandoned us to the terror and the horror, the hell that is going on here," she said of the High Court. "This country is being left without any tools to protect itself... You can't use the word 'democracy' to make life hell for others."
"Even Edna Arbel, one of the judges who voted down the law, said she realized that the south Tel Aviv residents will suffer - she knows that! She is basically approving the fact that the residents of south Tel Aviv should suffer so she can fulfill her political vision. She doesn't care.
"If the Bagatz wants to put a black flag on us then we will go all the way and put it on the actual territory here, until the government decides to replace the Israeli flag," Golan declared.
She lamented the fact that just as the government was finally waking up to the problem - which began under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's watch, she noted - the High Court stepped in to make sure there would be no change to the status-quo. The decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to build a fence (which was recently completed) along Israel's southern border was a very positive step, but would be rendered totally ineffective if the legal tools to enforce the law against illegal immigrants are taken away from law enforcement agencies, Golan warned.
"No fence is high enough or strong enough to deter any infiltrator if there is no 'legal fence' behind it," she says. "The only reason there aren't thousands of infiltrators at the fence now is because they know there is a law."
She said the ISIS comparison was an emotional act of protest provoked by a sense of despair and frustration by residents, and defended it as a legitimate act of free speech.
"These people are crying out in pain. They have been abandoned - you honestly don't know what we are going through."
As for those who used the flags as a pretext to attack campaigners: "People who have an agenda against the people of south Tel Aviv... people who want to keep the infiltrators in Israel, will always find things to use against us. They already say we're racist, inhumane, whatever. I really don't care if people think it's bad PR."
"Even if people did say they used the black flag because they feel like the High Court is acting 'like ISIS' - they are talking out of pain," she emphasized. "I'm not going to apologize. We are living in a dark reality, we are living in terror, we are living in a way that no one should live."
'Fake' human rights groups
Golan warned the situation on the ground was "on the verge of an explosion", now that the Infiltrator Law had been shot down by the courts without offering any alternative to alleviating the social pressure cooker in neighborhoods such as her's.
"It's worse than ever now," she lamented. "The infiltrators were already basically acting above the law, openly operating illegal businesses, defecating and urinating in public, drinking and holding loud parties on the street, having fights, attacking and robbing people.
"Now they're under the impression that even crimes against us are above the law. They know they can do whatever they want against us and that the police are basically powerless against them, because the Bagatz is on their side."
"You can recognize the Jewish homes by the extra gates they have. This is the reality in south Tel Aviv," she added grimly.
But what of those immigrants who were genuine refugees?
Golan accepts that some Sundanese immigrants - who make up a small minority of the illegal immigrant population - may well be legitimate refugees and deserved to have their status looked into. But she insists that is not representative of the vast majority of infiltrators - some 85% of whom are from Eritrea - who are simply economic migrants.
She also claimed that technically, since those who crossed Israel's southern border had first arrived in Egypt - which is a signatory to the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and houses the largest UNHCR office in the Middle East - their legal status as refugees upon choosing to move on to Israel was highly questionable in the first place.
Deriding the current refugee verification process as "a joke", Golan noted that by allowing the problem to fester for so long the government had gifted an opportunity to radical left-wing groups to "manipulate" the situation for their own political purposes, including funding and organizing expensive political campaigns and even coaching the illegals on the "right things" to say in order to both play to the media and claim asylum despite not really having a legitimate claim. Earlier this year saw mass rallies by illegal immigrants which were organized and funded by a variety of left-wing NGOs, and which made global headlines.
The ironic result, she said, was that those "fake human rights groups" had made it all but impossible to tell who was a genuine refugee and who was not.
"After being here for seven years, being guided by leftist organizations on what to say and what to do, how to play the system... It's a joke. The court system won't be able to sustain the requests - it will cost millions."
She blamed the far-left Meretz party, as well as radical NGOs funded by the New Israel Fund - including the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers in Israel, Kav LaOved Workers' Hotline, Assaf – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel - for leading such efforts, and accused them of ignoring the human rights of local residents.
Some leftist activists were even helping infiltrators to set up businesses illegally under false Israeli names, Golan alleged.
"Now they're even telling them 'don't leave Israel' - even those signing up to leave voluntarily - because the Bagatz is going to cancel the law!
"They tell them to stay in south Tel Aviv because they know that they won't suffer from it - only the poor people here will suffer while they can go home and sleep soundly at night."
Far from being motivated by human rights, she charged leftist NGOs were using the infiltrators as "pawns" to dilute the Jewish character of the State of Israel.
"Before all this, they said they cared about the Filipinos," she said, referring to the sizable number of foreign workers from the Philippines in Israel. "But now the Filipinos are getting raped by the infiltrators and are not serving their interests - and suddenly they don't care about them any more!
"These fake human rights people want a 'country of all its citizens'... of all its infiltrators... not a "Jewish state", and they will do whatever they can to achieve that. The last thing on their mind is human rights."
That charge is regularly leveled at the NIF by nationalist groups, particularly after a confidential cable leaked three years ago by Wikileaks revealed a conversation between a senior NIF figure and a US government official, in which the former predicted Israel would eventually lose its Jewish majority, and said it would "not be a tragedy" if that happened.
Yet despite the extensive campaigning and mobilization by leftist NGOs, Golan notes only 2,000 asylum requests were even made out of tens of thousands of infiltrators.
"And how many were actually accepted? 18! That tells you what proportion of these people are legitimate."
Asked to respond to the allegations, a New Israel Fund spokesperson dismissed Golan and other campaigners as "right-wing extremists", and accused protesters themselves of playing politics and engaging in "incitement" against the group.
"It is unfortunate that the organizers of the right-wing extremist demonstration are trying to gain political capital at the expense of the New Israel Fund and the residents of southern Tel Aviv," spokeswoman Adi Adamit countered.
It was equally "unfortunate", she said, that "the State of Israel has decided to concentrate most of the refugees in the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv, creating overcrowding and placing great strain on the services they receive."
But she insisted that the High Court ruling was just, since detaining illegals until they were deported was "contrary to all human values and inhumane."
Adamit added that the NIF had in fact tried to help Israeli residents "through several different programs", including - bizarrely - joint patrols of both residents and illegal immigrants "to strengthen residents' sense of security."
But despite the feelings of frustration, Sunday night's protest marks a watershed moment, according to Golan, due to the sheer breadth of support protesters received from across the country.
Despite the short notice, "hundreds" of demonstrators of all ages were present - and not just from southern Tel Aviv. Supporters came from as far and wide as Eilat, Ashdod, Netanya, Arad, Rishon Letzion and even Hevron.
"We really felt the empathy of the Israeli public for our plight," she said. "This is not about the success of one demonstration but an attempt to get the message across."
"Unless the government establishes a new law or minimizes the authority of the High Court to intervene in the democratic process it will take us to a very, very dangerous place.
"They're basically neglecting one of the most deprived areas in the country as it is. By putting more pressure on the people of south Tel Aviv, who are already living a very difficult existence, they are taking things to a very bad place and the Israeli government should know that.
"The Israeli government is very good at waking up too late - we're letting them know that it's already too late and if they don't act now it will explode in their faces."