• ISRAEL \ Aug 07, 2001
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    Targeting the Leaders
Targeting the Leaders Patricio Diaz Fernando Bravo is under arrest. Were he not a foreign worker, the authorities would most probably consider him a very positive figure: He has striven to solve the problems of these workers, particularly those from Latin America, in the areas of health, education, improvement of living conditions and defense of their rights. In this context, he developed close ties with civil rights organizations in Israel, including Physicians for Human Rights, the Hotline for Aid to Foreign Workers, Kav Le'Oved and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). The Aid Center for the Foreign Community (Mesila), established by the Tel Aviv Municipality, selected him to participate in a course for community leaders.

Various institutions, among them the Tel Aviv Municipality, see Patricio's community activities as a blessing. But the Interior Ministry and the Israel Police take a negative view, and seem to be doing all they can to seek out and arrest leaders of the foreign workers community - including clergy.

Patricio, 36, was born in the port city of Valparaiso in central Chile and is a computer engineer. In his home country, he was a volunteer on a committee for the prevention of disasters. "A person can't just see something and say, `I haven't seen it,'" he says. "A person can't see someone who is suffering and say, `It doesn't interest me. It's his problem.' If it is necessary to help someone and it is possible to help someone, there is no need to hesitate. You have to do it. You must not be indifferent."

From 1990 to 1994, Patricio worked in Israel at the Argaman textile plant, and met Sandra, from Colombia. The two fell in love and got married, and have two daughters, Daniela, 8 years old, and Nicole, 3. In 1994, they left Israel for Colombia and lived in the city of Armenia Quindio, where Patricio ran a computer store. On January 25, 1999, the city was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake. More than 3,000 inhabitants were killed and tens of thousands were hurt. Sandra and Patricio lost everything they owned.

In December, 1999, the two came to Israel as tourists and stayed to work. Patricio got jobs in "high-tech and cleaning houses," as he puts it. After a while, Sandra went back to Chile and joined their daughters, who were living with Patricio's parents. Patricio stayed on here. His family does not know about his imprisonment in Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle. "I'm not interested in adding to the worries they already have," he says. "It won't help them and it won't help me."

Patricio began his community work shortly after he arrived in Israel. From October to December, 2000, he participated in a course for community leaders, and in February, 2001, in another training course offered by Mesila, whose aim is to provide the foreign community in Tel Aviv with information about its members' rights and social aid when necessary. Patricio is one of a group of foreign workers who presented their problems to the Knesset and helped formulate "The Guide for the Foreign Worker in Israel," published by Mesila.

An Internet appeal

In the middle of March of this year, because of the increase in arrests of foreign workers without residence permits, Patricio published an appeal to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the Internet. "We have not come here in order to stay," he wrote, "or to take a place that is not ours in this country. Our only desire is to improve our families' future, to give new opportunities to our children and some day to be treated with respect, as human beings, as equals. If we are equal before God, why not before the law?"

At the beginning of the year, Patricio was brought into a joint project of young Israeli academics and foreign workers run by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, with the aim of promoting open and equal dialogue between Israelis and foreign workers. "Patricio was chosen to participate in the discussion group because he is one of the outstanding leaders of the community of South American workers in Israel, and one of the most eloquent spokesman for the foreign workers' community as a whole," wrote Yossi Loss, the project director. "Participating in the group are six workers who were carefully chosen on the basis of their ability to represent the workers' community and its problems. Patricio is an impressive and intelligent individual, one of the pillars of the group."

However, Patricio's activities were stopped short after he was arrested for the first time. The circumstances of his arrest were described in a petition to the High Court of Justice filed last week by attorneys Uri Gilboa and Naomi Lebenkorn on his behalf. On the night of March 25, the police, accompanied by a Labor Ministry inspector, raided a salsa dance club in Tel Aviv, and arrested foreign workers who did not have residence permits. They were taken to the police station in the Hatikva quarter.

The petition to the High Court stated that the police offered to drive with the foreign workers to their homes so they could collect their personal things before they were taken to prison, and promised they would not check the legal status of the people who were living with them. However, when the police arrived at the home of Oswaldo Cugio, Patricio's housemate, they threatened to break down the door if they did not open it. That night, Patricio and other foreign workers were also taken into custody.

Immediately after his arrest, various bodies, including the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and Mesila, contacted the department of permits for foreigners at the Interior Ministry and asked that Patricio be released from jail and not deported.

"His arrest and the danger of his deportation are very disruptive to the conduct of the project," wrote Yossi Loss. The director of Mesila, Edna Alter Dambo, described Patricio in an interview to the Tel Aviv weekly newspaper Ha'Ir as someone who was "considered one of the most important leaders of the Latin community in Israel. We are very sorry about his arrest and about the feeling that every time such a leadership develops, they get arrested. There is great importance to the nurturing of leadership within the communities. In this way there is someone to talk to; you can keep an eye on the community and offer services that the state does not provide. We worked for a whole year to build up the leadership in the Latin community, and this arrest could set us back for many long months," she said.

Reprieved, then rejected

The applications bore fruit. On March 27, a representative of the administrative oversight body for the detention of illegal residents, attorney Sharon Bavli-Lari, decided to release Patricio from detention on condition that he leave the country within three months. About two weeks after he was released, Patricio submitted an application to the Interior Ministry to revoke the deportation order and give him a work permit, and detailed the importance of his activities on behalf of the community of foreign workers. His application, in which he was joined by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and Mesila, was rejected.

Last Monday, at about 7 P.M., Patricio was again caught by police, who were equipped with his photograph, in an ambush of foreign workers on Salameh Street in Tel Aviv. That evening, states the petition to the High Court, the head of the foreigners division of the Tel Aviv police, Allen Avshalom, phoned the director of the aid hotline for foreign workers, Sigal Rosen. "I am pleased to inform you that we have arrested Patricio," he said. Patricio, who witnessed several such conversations conducted by the police, said this week: "They were so happy that all that was missing was throwing a party."

Other have also been targeted by the police. Juan Carlos Polanco Gil, 35, from Colombia, is worried these days about a similar fate. On April 29 of this year he was arrested in the police raid on the salsa club. He was released a few days later after the intervention of various institutions, on condition that he leave the country within three months. Last week he joined the petition to the High Court of Justice.

Juan is a native of Cali, Colombia, a large industrial and commercial city of about 3 million inhabitants. He is a graduate of a school of business administration, and alongside his work as a financial advisor and the owner of small business, he joined the Christian Workers' Center for Social Change, which helped families in financial distress, homeless and marginalized people. Among other things, he took part in social projects for Indian communities in the mountains. "My aim is to aid and help people who have a hard time solving their social and financial problems," he says.

Juan was interested in Israel, "a young country that within 50 years attained great achievement that we in Colombia, a much more established country, have not succeeded in attaining." In June and July of 1999 he was invited to attend a course on running small businesses held in Israel by Mashav, the Center for International Cooperation - Golda Meir International Training Center. Upon his return to Colombia, Juan organized workshops at which he taught what he had learned in Israel. Together with some other people, he founded the Shalom Club, the opening of which was attended by a representative of the Israeli embassy in the capital, Bogota.

In February, 2000, Juan entered Israel on a tourist visa, and remained here to work even after it had expired. Among other things, he worked in construction, painting, and laying wall-to-wall carpeting. "In the exploitative conditions that exist in Israel, especially for foreign workers, my wages are reasonable," he says. "But because of my dark skin, I have already been taken off buses several times, and the police have arrested me more than 20 times; they think I'm a Palestinian Arab."

From September to December, 2000, Juan too participated in the course for community leaders organized by Mesila. Together with Patricio and others, he set up the Association of Latin American Workers in Israel, which runs committees on matters of health, social welfare, education, culture and leisure. Among other things, the organization has established a project called La Escuelita (the Little School), where children and their fathers study and have fun together. The organization organizes chess and volleyball tournaments, community theater, trips around the country, summer camps for children, and also puts out periodic bulletins.

"The aim of our organization," says Juan, "is to organize the Latin American workers, to defend their rights, to maintain ties with the communities of workers from Africa and Asia and to get to know Israeli society. We are not a subversive organization, and we work within the framework of Israeli law."

Raiding churches

According to Patricio and Juan, the police want to arrest those perceived as leaders of the foreign workers. In this context it also raids churches and arrests clergy. As far back as May, 1998, in a letter sent to the police commander of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa district, lawyer Dana Alexander of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel complained that police in the district were seeking particular foreign workers who were known to be leaders of the workers organizations in Israel. "The aim of the organizations," Alexander stressed, is to seek and propose humane and legal solutions to the problem of staying in Israel and to see to the welfare of the members of their communities. ... The right to organize is a basic right and is recognized as such in Israeli law and in international law, and it must not be violated without explicit authorization."

At the time, the chief of the Yarkon police command stated in response: "There is no policy or initiated action against the leaders of foreign workers' organizations."

In the petition to the High Court of Justice submitted in the name of Patricio, Juan, and the Hotline for Foreign Workers, attorneys Gilboa and Lebenkorn asked the court to order the Israel Police and the Interior Ministry to release Patricio from arrest, to rescind the deportation orders that have been issued against him and Juan, to grant them visitors' permits and/or permits to reside temporarily in Israel, and to refrain from limiting the freedom of association of the foreign workers in Israel. At the Hotline it is expected that before the petition comes up for deliberation before the High Court of Justice next week, the State Prosecutor will decide on Patricio's release from jail.

Detained and deported

Since the beginning of this year, about 1,500 foreign workers without residence permits have been arrested. According to the Hotline for Foreign Workers, the proportion of Latin American workers who have been arrested recently has increased. Nelson Marcel, vice president of the Chilean Club in Israel, was arrested on May 15 and deported about a month later; Francisco Espinoza, the president of the Chilean Club, was arrested on May 23 and deported shortly thereafter. (The Chilean Club operates in the area of the old Tel Aviv central bus station, organizes cultural activities for its members and promotes mutual aid.) Also arrested at the same time were Cesar Alvarez and John Cruz of Ecuador, both key activists at Saint Peter's Church.

Father John of Ghana, a clergyman at the New Life Church, was arrested on May 30 after the police broke down the door of his church; he has been issued a deportation order. He was released on bail after he promised to leave the country within 30 days. Father John has left. Oscar Rebelion from Colombia, a member of the organization of Latin American workers and the coach of the organizations' basketball team, was arrested on June 2 and subsequently deported.