Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 September 2005
Issue No. 758
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

An unlikely homeland

Rasha Saad in Cairo, Erica Silverman in Nazareth and the paradox of Egyptian-Israelis

Click to view caption
Shukri Al-Shazli and Gamil Ibrahim of the Neighbours Association in the book and computer shop named Al-Ahram in Schneller, a bourgeoning Arab-Israeli suburb

LITTLE EGYPT: Two-thirds Muslims, with only a small Jewish population isolated in a newer, residential area, Nazareth is a city where Arabic is the more predominant language and the pace of life does not slow down for the Saturday Sabbath. It is here that Israel's largest Egyptian community has set up home, adopting an Arab-Israeli lifestyle.

"If the state can maintain an embassy in Tel Aviv, we should be allowed to immigrate," argues S A, an Egyptian landscape designer with an Israeli residency card, living in Nazareth. (Aware of the stigma attached to his choice of country of residence, he requested that he should be identified by his initials). S A came to Israel in the early 1990s with his Arab- Israeli wife, Hanan, seeking better work opportunities and democratic freedoms; their five children carry Israeli citizenship.

Shukri Al-Shazli, head of the Neighbours Association, newly established to represent Egyptian interests in Israel, says that 6,000-7,000 Egyptians are legal residents of Israel while an additional 5,000-6,000 reside there illegally. Of the total, close to 1,000 live in Nazareth, with the rest in Jaffa and the old city of Tel Aviv, where a small Arab population remains; pockets can be found in East Jerusalem and other cities. The Israeli Ministry of Interior's Population Administration spokespeople confirmed that 5,463 Egyptians living in Israel hold an expired visa while 643 hold a valid one, but were unable to provide figures for Egyptians holding citizenship and permanent or temporary residency cards.

Immigration rose in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords, anticipating a political thaw that would never happen. Few immigrants have arrived since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, though, closing off Palestinian territories and so keeping Palestinians out of Israel, the Intifada is said to have created a labour void that increased job opportunities. Immigrants hail mostly from Daqahliya (the number-one exporter of labour since the 1980s, north of Cairo), Sharqiya, northeast of Cairo, and, since the 1990s, Sinai; a small number have been granted citizenship while most hold residency cards.

And it is recruitment companies active in labour export in the 1980s, a time when demand for labour in the Gulf dropped by 15 per cent and countries like Lebanon, Libya and Qatar replaced Egyptian with cheaper Asian labour, that have been credited with the exodus. Following the 1990 Gulf War especially, according to Said Okasha, an Israeli affairs specialist and member of the NGO Arabs Against Discrimination (AAD), Israel provided Egyptians with a viable alternative to Europe: a cheaper journey and more easily obtained visa, no language barrier and more jobs with better financial returns.

The Egyptian government has not released any figures regarding the number of Egyptians in Israel or Egyptians married to Palestinian women with an Israeli passport. Conflicting reports estimate the total number in 1996 variously at 30,000 and 17,000, the latter being the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs' figure for 2000. According to former Egyptian ambassador to Israel Mohamed Bassiouni, however, both figures are exaggerated, since the number of Egyptians travelling to Israel, even as tourists, has never reached 17,000 in one year. With "the number changing from one week to the next, as most Egyptians entering the country on travel visas, then staying on to work," however, Bassiouni was unable to provide an exact figure.

Al-Shazli makes a model success story. Since moving with his Arab-Israeli wife to a home near her family's in Nazareth, he has established his own construction business and opened a small store near the local secondary school, named "Al-Ahram", thus bringing a small slice of Cairo to Schneller, the bourgeoning Arab suburb where he has just purchased a new family condo: "Life is different here, everyone owns their own business," he explains. And many of the immigrants are prospering, their precarious status notwithstanding, as they work hard to purchase homes and learn enough Hebrew to operate in the business world.

Yet even so Al-Shazli has not been granted citizenship, for which a valid passport is required; and the latter service is not provided by the Egyptian Embassy. Nor will he leave the country for fear of being denied re-entry. With four daughters holding dual citizenship in Israel and Egypt, his passport has been expired for five years. His case reflects the trepidation of both the Egyptian and Israeli authorities about Egyptian immigration to Israel.

OBSTACLES; LEGAL AND OTHERWISE: While Cairo does not officially ban travel to Israel, the Egyptian authorities are not making it an easy journey. One measure to limit marriages is making them difficult to register in Egypt. Sources within the registry indicate that records rarely include more than five-six cases a year, since the Ministry of Interior rarely grants the required six-month stay permit. A more radical measure has Egyptians who travel to Israel blacklisted, making it difficult for them to come back to live in Egypt.

A fatwa by former grand mufti Nasr Farid Wasel forbade Muslims from marrying an Israeli national, "whether an Arab Muslim or Christian". Shortly before, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi had declared that, while such a marriage in itself is not haram (religiously forbidden), "in case of [the woman belonging to] an enemy state, the state [of Egypt] has the right to ban marriage [or] revoke nationality".

And while in some cases the Egyptian authorities allowed husbands to travel to and from Israel, their Arab Israeli wives and children have been banned from entering the country. Husbands have been banned from re-entering Egypt, but banning the husband from travelling back to Israel during a visit to his family in Egypt is by far the most popular procedure.

Hisham Talbu is one such husband who, with four others, filed a suit against the Egyptian Ministry of Interior two years ago. Though the administrative judicial court ruled in their favour, Talbu says, he is still banned from travelling, since Interior Ministry officials have failed to carry out the verdict.

This month the issue was at the centre of a debate on the legality of travel bans in general as the Ministry of Justice reportedly studied a new law to regulate such procedures. It was in this context that Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, vice- president of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights, described any travel ban on Egyptians as "limiting a freedom granted for citizens by the constitution and international conventions".

Specifying the case of travel ban to Israel, Abul-Naga says that there is no article in the Egyptian constitution that bans travel to Israel or any other country but the norm supports the travel ban to Israel with the exception of "some cases".

For their part, the Israeli authorities do not seem to welcome the marriages any more than their Egyptian counterparts, with the embassy in Cairo reportedly blocking registration just as frequently. Egypt has not signed The Hague Convention for Foreign Public Documents; Israel has. And the result for those moving between the two countries is a bureaucratic mess. On occasion either country will prohibit dual citizenship, forcing individuals to make a difficult choice.

According to field researcher Aleef Sabbagh of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), an NGO advocating equal rights for Arab citizens, Egyptian immigrants in search of visa extensions or citizenship face difficulties obtaining the required certification from Egypt; the Egyptian Embassy often refuses to renew their passports, forcing them to go home and risk a travel ban. They are frequently held for several months in Egypt, putting their jobs back in Israel at risk. On this and related issues, the Egyptian consul in Tel Aviv refused to comment.

According to ACRI attorney Oded Feller, on the other hand, the case of an Egyptian married to an Israeli who has filed a suit petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court regarding the requisites for non-Jews to obtain Israeli citizenship (specifically the legality of the "certificate of good conduct", a report from the local police clearing an individual of a criminal record) might set a precedent for all immigrants to Israel.

"For a community established on Arab territory whose slogan is that Israel is only for Jews and is structurally opposed to multilateralism," Qadri Hefni, an Egyptian sociologist who has done much work on Israeli personality, explains, "it is not surprising that they should regard non-Jews as strangers." Egyptians are in the same boat as other non-Jewish immigrants: Israel withholds nationality to limit the number of non-Jewish voters: "When you want to kick Palestinians out of Israel, it doesn't make sense to bring in Arabs and grant them nationality."

LITTLE EGYPT IN CONTEXT: Hence the establishment of Neighbours two years ago in Nazareth. With some 50 members and no official headquarters, the association, initially a social support network for new immigrants, now "hopes to be recognised as a political party with Knesset representation", as Al-Shazli puts it. Already association representatives have met Labour member of the Knesset (MK) Matan Vilna'i, who was keen to demand that the association should support the Labour Party, to discuss the interests of the community and how its living conditions might be improved. Honorary Chairman of the Society of Egyptian Immigrants in 2002 Vilna'i's mother was born in Cairo.

Proactive measures have prompted a reaction on all sides regarding the politicisation of Egyptian immigration to Israel. In April, a debate between Arab- Israeli MK Essam Makhoul and Egyptian journalist Kamal Ismail, from Rose El-Youssef magazine, was aired on the Nazareth-based Radio A-Shams. Produced by the Arab Israeli Ghaleb Kiwan, the programme explored connections between Neighbours and the Labour Party. Kamal reportedly suggested that the Labour Party was exploiting the Egyptian community to discredit Arab MKs before attacking the community itself, claiming they had sold their nationality in return for economic benefit in Israel.

Though A-Shams programme manager, Bernard Tannus stated that a copy of the interview is no longer available, in a phone conversation Hadash Ta'al MK Makhoul from Haifa confirmed that he took part in the discussion and expressed concern over "Egyptians making connections with Labour and other right-wing parties".

He agrees that the Labour Party will never service Egyptian interests. "It is ridiculous," United Arab List MK Abdul- Malik Dahamsha from the Galilee added that, "Egyptians here in Israel should want to join a Zionist party rather than support Arab parties. The Labour Party has the worst policy on Arab Israelis..." Though Egyptians in Israel are as yet too few to form a voting bloc, Arab MKs are already concerned about their ideological orientation.

The association featured in a May issue of Rose El-Youssef, which published interviews with Al-Shazli and Labour activist Ehab Hanna and claimed that Neighbours had formed an alliance with the Labour Party. Kamal wrote that the association promised to support MK Vilna'i in exchange for such incentives as assistance with residency status and citizenship applications. Al-Shazli denied any such alliance, claiming that Kamal blew the story out of proportion.

Neighbours' efforts to form a political party have not been taken seriously by Egyptian officials or political observers. In the words of Bassiouni, now head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the People's Assembly, "to establish a political party they must be holding Israeli nationality, and to be represented in the Knesset they need [an all but impossible] 30,000 of the eligible vote."

Okasha agrees: "Talk [of a political party] would have made sense had it been expressed by the large community of [nearly 30,000] Israelis of Egyptian origin. It doesn't count for much coming from an immigrant group with next to no influence and no Israeli nationality." He also blames the Egyptian media for exaggerating issues related to Israel: "There is an obsession with exaggerating the Jewish capacity for conspiracy."

Two phases of such misinformation have taken place, he explains. From the July 1952 Revolution to the 1967 defeat, the media underestimated Israel's capabilities, depicting Egypt as the major military power in the region. After 1967, the media has exaggerated the capabilities of Israel and its intelligence body, the Mossad, though most of the latter's operations failed.

THE DEBATE AT HOME: The issue of Egyptian immigration to Israel first came up in 2000 following a People's Assembly report by Minister of Social Affairs Amina El-Guindi, who warned that the number of Egyptians working in Israel had reached 17,000. Since then there have been calls by Egyptian MPs to broach the issue of Egyptian employment in Israel and take measures to curb this phenomenon.

MPs highlighted the possibility of these Egyptians posing a security threat as potential spies. Sources point out that Cairo fears that with thousands of Egyptians it will be difficult to monitor the recruitment of spies. Of equal concern is the issue of Egyptians marrying Israeli women, including Palestinian women with Israeli nationality. With an unofficial estimate of 7,000 marriages, there have been calls by MPs to strip the Egyptians in question of their nationality; their children, it is said, pose an even greater threat to Egypt's security.

That aside, the phenomenon still begs the question of why go to Israel despite criticism from civil society, including political parties, syndicates and the press, so severe it jeopardises relations with family and friends. Some analysts suggest that the reason is lack of political awareness. Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed, professor of political science at Cairo University, points out that "the prevailing atmosphere since the late 1970s has highlighted the importance of material values and financial gain regardless of even national considerations."

But Hefni argues that "people will always search for better conditions in three specific areas: a job, security (if prosecuted), and pleasure (tourism)". Hence, he says, "with rising unemployment and deteriorating economic conditions, Egyptians will travel regardless of political calculations." He goes on to point out that, "since the ban on travel to Israel was lifted in 1982, we thus cannot accuse those who travel to Israel of violating the law, nor can we accuse them of treason or discredit them on grounds of patriotism." He went on to ask, "why do we suspect those who go to Israel and do not have the same view of those who travel to the US?"

The Egyptian authorities are also worried that a clash might occur between Egyptians and the 120,000-strong Palestinian labour force over the Israeli job market; competition is seen as unnecessary and undesirable. Along these lines, Okasha warned that Egyptians might turn into victims of a game played by the Israelis: "While benefiting from Egyptian labour to fill the Palestinian labour void, Israelis are at the same time taunting Palestinians, claiming that Egyptians are so unconcerned with their plight they are willing to take their jobs. And they hope this might push the Palestinians to make concessions for peace."

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