More than 3000 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees and their Israeli supporters took to the streets of Tel Aviv on 21 December, chanting “No more prison! We are Refugees! We want Freedom!”

The protest comes in the wake of two unprecedented acts of civil disobedience in which hundreds of African refugees staged “Freedom Marches” in opposition to Israel's indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers, denial of work permits and failure to process asylum claims.

On 15 December more than 150 African refugees from the Sudan and Eritrea marched hundreds of miles in the bitter cold and snow from Holot prison, an “open prison” facility in southern Israel, to Jerusalem.

Due to the bitter cold and long trek, a number of refugees collapsed from exhaustion when they reached Jerusalem. One man was hospitalised after suffering a seizure. The asylum seekers, joined by Israeli supporters, marched to the Knesset (parliament building) chanting “Freedom, yes! Prison, no!”

Israeli police and immigration authorities surrounded the protesters, violently forcing them onto buses and returning them to prison in the Negev desert. Refugees then staged a second Freedom March from Holot on 19 December.

Currently there are more than 50,000 African refugees in Israel, the vast majority from Sudan and Eritrea. Israel, however, has refused to examine their circumstances or grant any of them refugee status. According to Refugees International, since 1953 Israel has offered refugee status to “less than 0.01 percent of all applicants” – approximately 200 people. Since June 2012, Israel has jailed all asylum seekers without trial, for a minimum of three years.

The Freedom March protests come in the wake of a new amendment to Israel's anti-Infiltration Law, passed by the Israeli Knesset earlier this month, which established “open” prisons to indefinitely incarcerate refugees. The passage of the amended law comes just three months after the High Court denied the Israeli state the right to incarcerate asylum seekers indefinitely.

Under the law struck down in September nearly 1700 asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea, were detained in Sharonim or Ktziot internment camps in the Negev desert. The High Court ruling ordered the state to release the asylum seekers within 90 days. In response, the Knesset passed a new amendment to the law on 10 December to try to circumvent the High Court ruling.

Refugees will still be jailed for one year in prisons such as Sharonim under the new amendment but will then be moved to Holot prison, a specially constructed “open” prison operated by the Israeli Prison Service. Holot prison began operating within days of the December amendment being passed. It is located near the Egyptian border, in the middle of an Israeli military firing zone, more than 65 kilometres from the nearest urban centre.

While refugees can “leave” the detention centre, they are not allowed to seek employment and they are required to appear for roll call three times a day and are forbidden to leave the facility between 10pm and 6am. The primary role of the facility is not to aid African refugees seeking asylum but to be a “revolving door” which will facilitate the deportation of refugees or their “voluntary” return to their country of origin.

The Prevention of Infiltration Law is not new. It was first enacted in 1954 to prevent 750,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled Zionist terror gangs in 1947 and 1948 from returning to their homes in the territory claimed by the newly established state of Israel.

The 1954 law deemed anyone who “entered Israel knowing and unlawfully” after 29 November 1947 to be an “infiltrator”, despite the fact that Israel was not established until six months later. Under the law, an “infiltrator” could be jailed for up to 15 years. The 1954 law worked hand in glove with Israel’s “absentee” property laws which allowed the state to legally take control of property and land belonging to Palestinian refugees and prevent their return to their homes.

The introduction of the law resulted in more than 30,000 Palestinian refugees being either deported to neighbouring Arab countries or jailed and then expelled when their prison sentence ended. In addition, many internally displaced Palestinian refugees who remained in the borders of what was to become Israel, but had been unable to gain Israeli citizenship, were rounded up and deported.

As part of the attempt to prevent Palestinian refugees from re-entering Israel, Palestinian villages along the newly established Israeli border were razed. In their place, Israel established new Jewish only settlements, which adopted a “free fire” policy allowing for any Palestinians attempting to return to their homes to be shot.

Today, as in 1954 when it was first enacted, the primary role of the law is to maintain Israel as an exclusivist Jewish state. While Israel has absorbed millions of Jewish immigrants and refugees over the past six decades, it has actively sought to repel both Palestinian and other non-Jewish refugees and migrants. According to independent Israeli journalist and activist, David Sheen, the African asylum seekers are “the first large group of immigrants to Israel who are not Jews” and  this “is the real reason that the government is trying to drive them out”.

Writing for Al Jazeera on 17 December about the Freedom Marches, Sheen argued, “Israeli society rejects asylum seekers because they’re new, they’re poor and they’re darker-skinned ... The reason for the disparity in the treatment of Jewish immigrants and non-Jewish would-be immigrants runs to the very heart of Zionism”.

The drive for “Jewish exclusivity” in Palestine has been a central tenet of Zionism since its inception. Such exclusivity was first advocated by the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who in 1895 wrote, “We shall try to spirit the penniless [indigenous] population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our own”.

Israeli Zionist historian Benny Morris, in his 2004 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, noted that while Herzl and other Zionist leaders did not discuss or write publicly about “transfer” (i.e. the ethnic cleansing) of Palestinians, there were extensive internal discussions within Zionists circles about the necessity of such action in order to establish and maintain an exclusivist Jewish state.

Israel's refusal to process African asylum seeker claims and its indefinite incarceration of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees is a continuation of its racist ethnic cleansing and apartheid policies, which have been implemented against Palestinians since the establishment of the Zionist state in 1948.