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ISRAEL: Journalist arrested in Egypt while trying to cross into Israel with African migrants tells his story

March 29, 2010 | 10:57 am

"You're a journalist? You've come to the right place," said a Nigerian asylum seeker to an Israeli on the same side of the bars of a Sinai jail cell.

Well, yes and no.

Earlier this month, Yotam Feldman set out to see for himself and to document for others a story often told but rarely witnessed: the journey of African migrants and asylum seekers through Egypt to Israel. He researched the story for months, interviewing many who had survived the journey and made it to Tel-Aviv, among other places in the Promised Land. Don't do it, they all warned.

He did it anyway. Taking a leave of absence from the Haaretz newspaper he writes for, Feldman embarked on a bold, if unwise, journalistic mission for Israeli TV Channel 10. He crossed over into Egypt, contacted a smuggler in Cairo, and followed him back through the desert, where he met up with a group of hopeful African migrants, refugees and asylum seekers -- and more armed smugglers.

They drove on roads. Off roads. They walked. They ran, sometimes barefoot. The orange lights of Israel were deceptively close and Feldman was on his way to infiltrate Israel the way thousands of people have done in recent years.

Then, a gunshot. A jeep arrives. Egyptian soldiers shout and bullets fly.

"Within seconds you're in a battlefield," Feldman later told Channel 10. He flung himself to the ground, put his hands up. A rifle poked into his back. "Now I'm going to kill you," an Egyptian soldier told him in English. Feldman didn't doubt it for a second. He lucked out. Blanks. 

Next, he found himself with another 17 people in a jail-cell. Here's where the Nigerian guy mentioned above comes in. A pen and a few pieces of paper were allowed in by a guard, and Feldman started writing the stories of his cellmates, refugees and other hopefuls from Africa. Most were hurt. Two suffered gunshot wounds, others had been beaten, including a 60-year-old man. Feldman, who himself was slightly injured, tucked the Hebrew notes into his underwear.  

Meanwhile, Feldman's arrest was reported in Israel. And then suddenly it wasn't. A week later the Israeli reporter was back home. The story of his attempt to document the harsh reality of asylum seekers in the back paths of Sinai is also a story about the back channels of diplomacy.

His father, Avigdor Feldman, a prominent Israeli attorney who is respected internationally for his human rights work, made a few calls. Minister of Interior Eli Yishai made many. Trade Minister Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer also lent his good rapport with Egypt. Yishai's countless calls to Omar Suleiman, head of Egypt's General Intelligence Service, bore fruit. Once in Cairo, Yotam Feldman's keepers took him on a tour. He told them they were his captors, that he was uncomfortable with the situation. Be polite, they scolded him. We're releasing you.

Feldman was later taken to meet with Suleiman, who told the Israeli that he was being released mostly because of his family's concern. Feldman told him he didn't think this was the case and that Egyptian authorities just didn't want an Israeli journalist in their jail. Suleiman replied that they didn't care about journalists, only people -- just make sure the Israeli coverage doesn't defame Egypt. To Feldman senior, Suleiman reportedly said that his son was a bit of a trouble-maker. 

Israel has an increasing problem with foreigners. Many enter legally but outstay their permits and settle there. But also growing in numbers are asylum seekers from Africa, mostly refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. And nearly all come in through Sinai. Israel doesn't want them. It's planning a fence between Israel and Egypt, but hasn't gotten it together with a clear policy on this. Egypt has -- and it's often a lethal one. Human rights organizations say Egyptian border guards have killed at least 17 migrants in recent months.

Feldman intended to shed light on a dark corner of life. Accompanying desperate people making heroic efforts against the odds to live a decent life and documenting what happens at the Egyptian border "right under our eyes" is a journalist's mission, he said. His photographs were gone, confiscated in Egypt. He became part of the story -- which could have ended very differently -- and this is how he told it. That of the others remains half-told.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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