A Crisis of Conscience Over Refugees in Israel
Decision to Refuse Sudanese Asylum-Seekers Raises Difficult Questions of National Identity

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 25, 2007

CAIRO, Aug. 24 -- Israel's decision to close its doors to asylum-seekers from Darfur and all other non-Jewish refugees has Israelis and Jews around the world struggling with their distinct identities of Israel: a Jewish state with a Jewish people, or a state born from the Holocaust with a determination to challenge future genocides and succor their victims.

Israeli refugee groups said this week that they would challenge in court Israel's new policy of blocking Africans who enter the country from Egypt. International and Israeli rights groups maintain that returning the would-be refugees without assessing their claims for asylum violates international accords, including the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, as well as Israeli law and government commitments.

In its decision announced last weekend, Israel also said it would expel to Egypt all but 500 people from Darfur already in the Jewish state. Since 2003, an Arab militia linked to the Sudanese government has led a campaign of violence in the western region of Sudan that has left as many as 450,000 African villagers dead and displaced 2.5 million, rights groups say.

Turning back the Darfur refugees "is unconscionable by any standard," columnist Evelyn Gordon wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

The issue has posed a quandary for many of the groups heading efforts to stop the killing in Darfur. Jewish groups in the United States have taken a leading role in raising awareness about the killing and in urging the United States and other entities to take action against Sudan. The American Jewish World Service and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum founded the Save Darfur Coalition, the biggest raiser of private funds for Darfur in the United States.

But international Jewish organizations that have spoken out against Sudan and against China, the United States and other governments for not doing more to help Darfur's people have remained silent on Israel's decision to shut its borders to the Darfur asylum-seekers or have defended the action.

"We don't have to solve every problem of the world," Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said by telephone. "This is creating all sorts of pressure on Israel which is really not justified.

"I'm 1,000 percent in favor of doing everything possible to stop the genocide," Zuroff said. But "Israel can't open the gates and turn this into a free-entry zone."

The Wiesenthal Center is promoting an Internet petition urging the U.N. Human Rights Council "to focus its attention away from resolutions bashing Israel and rather on what the U.N. itself has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis: Darfur."

"It's typical that too much of the response has been, 'Here's how I think Israel should have handled it, here's how Israel shouldn't handle it, here's why Israel should be criticized,' " said Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, a member of the executive committee of the Save Darfur Coalition. "Darfur . . . is a world problem."

Messinger said she and others would begin an advocacy campaign encouraging the United States to take in more Darfur refugees. Immigration records indicate that the United States accepted fewer than 2,000 refugees from all of Sudan last year.

For Israel's part, she said, the country had an obligation to follow the law regarding refugees but needed more assistance from the U.N. refugee agency to do so.

Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, said Israel had taken the "moral approach" by allowing 500 of the refugees to stay. European countries with more room should take in more refugees, Shalev said.

At least 1,700 African refugees, an estimated one-third of them from Darfur, have streamed into Israel this year.

Most Darfur refugees outside Sudan live in camps in Chad, where they have been attacked. Some of the refugees have gone to Libya, which has deported them, leaving them to face persecution, according to Human Rights Watch.

At least 2 million Sudanese, including many from Darfur, have come to Egypt, where they have found little support and occasional discrimination. Twenty-seven Sudanese died in 2005 when Egyptian riot police charged a protest by the Sudanese, beating some refugees to death and causing a stampede that killed others, rights groups and medical officials said.

This summer's influx presented Israel with its largest arrival of non-Jewish migrants in its history. Israeli officials said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert jointly had agreed that none returned to Egypt would be sent back to Sudan, where the migrants say they risk death.

Israel sent the first 48 Sudanese to Egypt on Saturday. Egyptian officials said the expelled refugees included some from Darfur.

Sudanese community leaders in Cairo and an Egyptian official said they believed the 48 remained in Egyptian custody. The Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied that Egypt had agreed not to return any refugees to Sudan.

"We interpret what we said in a different way," the official said.

Egypt accepted the 48 Sudanese on humanitarian grounds, without committing to take more, the official said.

Sudanese in Egypt protested Israel's decision.

"How can Israel send them back?" asked Mohammed Adam, a Darfur community leader in Cairo. "They have escaped from an Egyptian reality of suffering very similar to that of Sudan -- racism in the Egyptian street, killing by the authorities and . . . receiving a deaf ear from UNHCR," he said, referring to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Rights groups in Israel accused the U.N. refugee agency there of failing in its responsibilities as the number of refugees surges.

Michael Bavly, the current head of the U.N. refugee agency in Jerusalem, confirmed that Israel had returned the group of 48 to Egypt without giving them interviews or hearings regarding asylum. A former Israeli diplomat, Bavly has approved roughly 1 percent of asylum requests in Israel, according to Israeli media, and rights groups and refugee activists question his impartiality.

Bavly defended Israel's action.

"It's something we understand, to stop the flow that brings about 50 newcomers a night," he said. "Sinai is the only land passage from Africa to Europe. There's a strong desire to use it by people not necessarily seeking asylum in Israel. . . . Israel is not capable of receiving all those who want to come in."

Israel and the U.N. agency share responsibility for the lawful handling of the refugees, Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said by telephone this week. But "the responsibility is on UNHCR to try to find a permanent solution on that person's behalf so that Israel is not left with having to provide a permanent home for that person," he said.

Frelick cited shootings by Egyptian border guards this month and in July that have killed at least one African, a 28-year-old Darfur woman, and expressed uncertainty about the refugees' fate in Egypt.

"It just seems like a very haphazard way to make policy where people's lives are at stake," Frelick said.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement Friday urging Israel to cease summary expulsions of the Sudanese, saying the returns without hearings appeared to violate the law.

Anat Ben-Dor, an attorney for some of the refugees at Tel Aviv University Legal Clinic, said Israel had agreed in 2005 not to deport migrants to Egypt, where they faced indefinite detention. She also faulted the U.N. refugee agency in Israel.

"If the UNHCR agrees to allow the return of people without a prior hearing and interview and assessment if they are not in danger because of this return, I think UNHCR is violating its own guidelines," Ben-Dor said.

The U.N. refugee agency in Geneva did not return calls for comment.

Danny Ben-Moshe, who teaches Jewish studies at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, said Jewish groups globally should be proud of their activism on Darfur, and Israelis of support they have given to refugees.

"But this has forced the issue, and the responses all around by Jewish organizations and Israel are found in my opinion to be lacking," Ben-Moshe said.

"No more lacking than anywhere else in the world," he added. "But that's not the measure. The benchmark is not American action. The benchmark is as the heirs of the first industrial genocide."

Special correspondent Nora Younis contributed to this report.

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