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Anger over deportation plan

A protest in Tel Aviv against the deportation of African asylum seekers,  Jan. 24, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A protest in Tel Aviv against the deportation of African asylum seekers, Jan. 24, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

JERUSALEM — Holocaust survivors and rabbis, as well as doctors and some airline pilots, are among the Israelis who say they will try to thwart Israel’s plan to deport thousands of African migrants, even if it means taking them into their own homes.

The latest group to come forward are hospital doctors and medical staff, who in a letter last week to the director general of the Population and Immigration Authority asked the government to halt the planned expulsions.

As those who are “charged with the command to ‘save him from all evil and injustice,’ we are horrified by the thought that instead of absorbing those victims who came to us fleeing genocide, torture, violence and rape, we are discussing condemning them to further harm,” the letter reads.

Some 300 of the 400 medical personnel who signed the letter are doctors.

At the beginning of January, Israel’s Cabinet approved a plan and the budget to deport thousands of migrants from Sudan and Eritrea.

Prior to that, the Population and Immigration Authority notified migrants from Sudan and Eritrea that as of Jan. 1, they must return to their own countries or to a third nation — reportedly either Rwanda or Uganda — or be sent to Holot Prison until they are deported.

Activists against the deportation have appealed to airline pilots that fly out of Israel to refuse to transport the deported migrants.

In response, it was widely reported on Jan. 22 that three pilots for El Al, Israel’s national airline, announced on Facebook that they would refuse a request to fly the migrants out of Israel.

El Al does not fly directly to Rwanda or Uganda, however.

Last month, a group of Israeli rabbis led in part by Rabbi Susan Silverman called on all Israelis to hide African asylum seekers in their homes to prevent their deportation. She calls the effort Miklat Israel — miklat means sanctuary in Hebrew — and informally the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement.

Some 130 rabbis met in Jerusalem under the auspices of Rabbis for Human Rights to discuss the initiative being overseen by the organization.

“Anne Frank is the most well-known hidden person, and she was hidden so she would not be sent to her death — and we have documentation that these people are facing possible death,” Silverman, the sister of comedian Susan Silverman, told Haaretz.

A sign-up sheet on Google Docs collecting names, hometowns and phone numbers of Miklat Israel supporters asks how many asylum seekers the person can shelter.

Earlier last week, several Holocaust survivors told Yediot Acharonot that they would be willing to hide African migrants in their own homes to prevent their deportation.

Meanwhile, more than 750 rabbis and other Jewish clergy in the US signed a letter calling on Israel to reverse its plan to deport African migrants.

The letter, initiated by Jewish groups New Israel Fund, HIAS, T’ruah and Right Now, says that:

“As a country founded by refugees, and whose early leaders helped to craft the 1951 International Convention on the Status of Refugees, Israel must not deport those seeking asylum within its borders. We Jews know far too well what happens when the world closes its doors to those forced to flee their homes.”

The signatories to the letter include rabbis and cantors from all Jewish movements.

The letter asserts that the Africans in Israel are “escaping torture, enslavement, and war,” and that those who have previously been deported Africa “have already suffered rape, robbery, torture, and human trafficking.”

It also calls on Israel to review requests for asylum “in an effective, fair, transparent, and impartial manner.”

“Our own experience of slavery and liberation, and our own experience as refugees, compel us to act with mercy and justice toward those seeking refuge among us. Please affirm these Jewish values, as well as Israel’s international commitments, by stopping the deportations,” the letter concludes.

Some, however, rejected the Anne Frank comparison, saying the Israelis who shelter the migrants do not face being put to death.

According to the government plan, migrants who choose to leave by March 31 will receive a payment of $3,500 as well as free airfare and other incentives, according to reports.

Security in their home country or a third country has already been guaranteed through diplomatic channels, Israeli officials have said.

The third country has not officially been identified, though most reports have identified it as either Rwanda or Uganda.

Advocates for the African migrants have said that those who have been deported have faced robbery, kidnapping and worse after their arrival.

The Population and Immigration Authority reported that no infiltrators entered Israel in 2017 and a small number in 2016 following the construction of a barrier wall on Israel’s southern border.

Israel has already deported 20,000 of the some 60,000 African migrants who entered Israel prior to the construction of the barrier.

In a tweet on Jan. 22, the government of Rwanda said that “in reference to the rumors that have been recently spread in the media, the Government of Rwanda wishes to inform that it has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants.”

A second tweet added that “Rwanda’s policy vis-à-vis Africans in need of a home, temporary or permanent, within our country’s means, remains ‘open doors.’”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the expulsions last week. “We are not acting against refugees,” he said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

“We are acting against illegal migrants who come here not as refugees but for work needs. Israel will continue to offer asylum for genuine refugees and will remove illegal migrants from its midst.”

Israel has granted asylum to fewer than one percent of the migrants.

On Jan. 22, more than 1,000 African asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea, and about 100 Israeli supporters protested outside the Rwanda Embassy in Herzliya against the planned deportations.

On Monday, Jan. 29, Israel’s interior minister, Aryeh Deri, told the Internal Affairs and Environmental Protection Committee that there was “unequivocal assent with a third country over forced expulsion,” though he did not name the country, Ynet reported.

It is widely believed to be Rwanda or Uganda, despite denials by those governments.

“I take responsibility for saying this, despite the news from the last few days, that everything is being done with full agreement of the third-party country, which knows everything to the last detail,” Deri said.

The committee meeting was called to discuss the public outcry against the deportation plan.

Deri said his office will draw a distinction between Africans who came to Israel seeking work and refugees who came from war zones seeking sanctuary. He said anyone who submitted requests for asylum by Dec. 31, 2017, and whose request has not yet been processed, will not be deported, including mothers, children and families.

Most young African migrants who did not arrive with children did not submit requests for asylum, Deri said. Israel has begun to deport them to a third country.

A total of 14,700 asylum requests were submitted in 2017, Deri told the committee — 7,700 from Ukrainians, 906 from Sudanese and the rest from other countries.

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