Batsheva Sobelman
The Los Angeles Times
July 12, 2011 - 12:00am

Hundreds of Sudanese and other African asylum seekers and migrants celebrated the independence of South Sudan in Israel on Sunday, flocking from all ends of the country to a southern neighborhood of Tel Aviv, the home away from home for many migrants.

Israel has long been keen to curb the influx of African and other foreign migrants through legislation, occasional repatriation and the sealing of its border with Egypt. The issue generates frequent public debate that touches raw nerves in a society constantly counting heads and beads on a big demographic abacus. And although its treatment of asylum seekers is often criticized by organizations inside and outside the country, Israel is still considered the best deal in the neighborhood.

African expatriates living in Israel are concerned, wary of being shipped back home now that they have a safer one. In the meantime, South Sudan's informal consul in Israel -- hotel cleaner by day, self-made diplomat by night -- envisions the beginning of a wonderful new friendship between the two countries.

As Africans celebrated the new state in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered greetings. "Yesterday, a new state was born, South Sudan. I hereby announce that Israel recognizes the Republic of South Sudan. This is a peace-seeking country and we would be pleased to cooperate with it in order to ensure its development and its prosperity. Greetings to South Sudan," Netanyahu said.

The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, in partnership with other bodies, is sending a humanitarian aid shipment to assist the new country, which voted overwhelmingly in January to secede from Sudan, and is starting to assess needs on the ground for a long-term aid mission. South Sudan faces major challenges, including widespread illiteracy, chronic hunger, meager infrastructure, numerous internal rebellions and continuing tensions with the regime in Khartoum.

In 2009, Israel bombed a weapons convoy moving through Sudan, not far from the border with Egypt. Israel has other concerns in the area, but some believe its main interest in the new state should be different.

Israel should learn the lessons of Sudan, advised a Sunday editorial in the Haaretz daily, noting that the United Nations, in a rare instance, has proved its ability to resolve bloody conflicts and was the critical factor in the Sudanese matter. "While Israel is fighting a harsh and needless battle against U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state, it should look to Sudan and draw the conclusion that a diplomatic plan that wins the support of the United Nations and most of the world could be the best plan for Israel, too," the column advised.

The lesson hasn't been lost on the Palestinian leadership, which appears to be continuing its bid to appeal to the U.N. for recognition in September, despite Israel's diplomatic counter-campaign (and its belief that the Palestinians are looking for a way to back down from the initiative) and attempts by the so-called quartet -- the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia -- to come up with a proposal for renewing direct negotiations with Israel.

A high-ranking delegation headed by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attended Saturday's festive ceremonies in the new state, and caretaker Foreign Minister Reyad Maliki told media outlets he hoped their presence there would "remind the world of the Palestinians and their just cause."


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