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Why the Mediterranean migrant disaster is a problem for Israel, too

Survivors of the smuggler's boat that overturned off the coasts of Libya lie on the deck of the Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti, in Valletta's Grand Harbour, Monday, April 20 2015. (Lino Azzopardi/AP)
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The death of up to 850 refugees trying to get from Africa to Europe has sparked a major debate about what should be done to deal with the problem. But that debate isn't limited to Europe. Farther east along the Mediterranean, Israel, too, is facing renewed interest in the plight of migrants.

On Monday, Yisrael Katz, a Likud government minister, chose to comment on the most recent refugee shipwreck in the caption to a photograph posted to Facebook. In the message, Katz noted that "Europe is struggling to cope with the dilemma of immigrants, and find solutions to the difficult issue."

Katz then went on to praise a controversial fence built by Israel along the border with Egypt, designed in part to keep migrants out of Israel. The implication seemed to be that the tragedy validated Israel's policy of keeping migrants away. "You can give us some credit now," Katz wrote.

Katz's message was quickly picked up by Lisa Goldman at +972 Magazine, a liberal publication that focus on Israeli and Palestinian issues. Goldman argued that Katz's message had demonstrated "vulgarity and an almost pathological lack of compassion" and that by referring to those seeking asylum as migrants only seeking work he was dehumanizing them.

Such a dispute isn't entirely new in Israel. As Israel's economy grew, it gradually became a desirable location for refugees from Africa. Tens of thousands of Africans entered the country illegally, largely from Eritrea and Sudan. They made arduous, dangerous journeys to reach Israel, usually passing through Egypt's Sinai region to the border.

While these migrants were initially tolerated, Israel cracked down in recent years. The fence Katz described was one result, and policies were implemented that left many illegal immigrants in legal limbo. Critics of these policies complained that Israel, a Jewish state that welcomes Jewish immigrants with open arms, should be able to accommodate non-Jewish immigrants as well.

While Israel didn't forcibly expel the illegal immigrants, many of whom had fled dangerous situations, it did try to compel them to leave voluntarily. And there have been more recent signs of a shift: Late last month, there were reports of a change in policy that would allow Israel to deport Eritrean and Sudanese refugees to third nations, even if they refused.

In the face of the deadly shipwreck in the Mediterranean, these issues are being brought up in the Israel again. And while Katz may celebrate Israel's policy, another recent story painted it in another light.

On Tuesday, a group that focuses on the plight of refugees to Israel reported that three asylum seekers who had been deported to a third country last year had resurfaced in an Islamic State execution video. The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said that footage released by an Islamic State affiliate in Libya this weekend showed three Eritrean men who had left Israel being executed along with a group of Ethiopian Christians.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz spoke to one of the victim's relatives, who said that, like so many others, after he had been expelled from Israel he had journeyed to Libya in an attempt to make it across the Mediterranean to Europe. The Associated Press also spoke to members of Israel's Eritrean migrant community who recognized at least one of the men in the video.

"We are very sad,” an Eritrean who said he knew the victim told the Associated Press. “He was a very kind person."

Israel's status as a Jewish state makes its debate about immigration different from Europe's, but the tragedies in the Mediterranean and Libya seem to point to similar conclusions – there's no easy solution to immigration concerns, be it in Israel or in Europe.

See also

This image sums up Europe’s conflicted horror about migrant deaths

Italy ran an operation that saved thousands of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. Why did it stop?