Jews find refuge with Arabs Arafat makes guests of Sephardim evicted by Israeli troops

September 18, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERICHO, West Bank -- Forcibly removed from an Israeli immigrants center, banned from the Jerusalem suburb they consider home, Rafi Avivi, Eli Dahan and Shlomo Bouzit went wandering in the Judean desert.

Then, God seemed to guide them.

And the three Israeli Jews, in a borrowed car, took a turn and headed for Jericho and the protection of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

It's been three weeks since that fateful day. The Israelis are still in Jericho, an unusual kind of refugee living on the largess of the Palestinian authority. Several others have joined them at the Jerusalem Hotel, where they sleep in rooms with a private bath, dine on kosher food brought from Israel and wait for word of their fate.

When the harried men stopped a Palestinian police officer in Jericho on Sept. 4 and asked for asylum, the patrolman laughed. The men persisted. They made their pitch to Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian chief of security in the West Bank, who interceded on their behalf. Eventually, they pleaded their case to Arafat.

"You are welcome here as guests," Avivi said the Palestinian leader told them.

"We were surprised by the good treatment here by Arafat. Everybody said he was a monster," said Avivi, a 33-year-old electrician. "What we didn't get in our country we got here."

A confrontation with Israeli officials over affordable housing led them to Jericho.

Avivi was among a group of Sephardim -- Jews of North African and Asian descent -- who illegally occupied vacant apartments at a center for new immigrants in Mevasseret Zion in June. He and the others grew up in Mevasseret, a Jerusalem suburb settled in the 1950s by Jews from Morocco, Kurdistan and other Arab countries.

But now they can't afford houses there. The young couples, including Avivi and his wife, Miriam, lived with their parents before moving into the immigrants center. They have had run-ins with police twice this summer.

The Sephardic protesters accuse the Israeli government of favoring well-to-do Jews of European descent who live in expensive houses on the terraced hillsides.

Sephardic Jews occupied more than 100 apartments at the immigrant center to protest the lack of affordable housing. The squatters were evicted in July as some tossed firebombs at police.

But the squatters returned.

On Aug. 25, hundreds of Israeli police wearing commando gear stormed the center. They evacuated 114 families -- among them Avivi, Dahan and Bouzit, and their wives and children. The three were among a dozen people arrested. A Jerusalem judge banned them from the Mevasseret area until their trial.

"Go to Bet Shemesh, go to Dimona, go to the Negev," Avivi's wife said her husband and the others were told, speaking of some of Israel's less popular places to live.

Into the desert

Avivi borrowed his brother's late-model Audi and the men set off.

"They didn't know where to go," recalled his wife, Miriam. "They got on the road from Jerusalem and -- like from God in the last minute -- they turned toward here. They got to Jericho."

Avivi, a Moroccan Jew, described himself as a "right-winger" who voted for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the day of their arrival in Jericho, three suicide bombs tore through a shopping ,, area of Jerusalem. Avivi and the others mourned. But they said they felt no fear among their Palestinian hosts.

Abed Allon, a spokesman for Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief, said the Palestinian authority is helping the Israelis "for humanitarian reasons, nothing more."

"These people feel they have no justice in their community," he said.

Rajoub's office called the Jerusalem Hotel and told the manager to expect guests.

"I didn't know they were Israelis," said Majd Humus.

The Palestinian authority is footing the bill for their stay -- about $300 a day, including meals.

'Now they come and see'

The irony of Jews seeking refuge with the Palestinian authority is not lost on Humus. He said right-wing Jews are the ones seen on television shouting: "Kill the Arabs." But they don't know who Arabs are, he said. "Now they come and see."

The Israeli Jews don't know how long they will be in Jericho. They also have appealed to King Hassan of Morocco for help. While they sit in Jericho awaiting word from the king, they watch television reports of the controversy over Jews moving into an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem.

"See how much fuss they are making at Ras Al-Amoud," Avivi said of the right-wing Jewish religious settlers putting down stakes in the Palestinian neighborhood.

"There will be war over this settlement, but no one is talking about us."

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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