On the third day of Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a startling announcement. He had reached an agreement with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for a sensible, humane solution to the challenge posed by Israel’s 38,000 remaining African asylum seekers, many of whom had been threatened with involuntary deportation.
The deal seemed to satisfy both the Israeli government’s requirements and the demands of the international community that Israel treat its refugees fairly by the standards of international law. Some refugees were slated for resettlement in various Western countries, and others would be allowed to remain in Israel to apply for asylum. The Prime Minister also promised that remaining refugees would be dispersed throughout Israel from their locus in south Tel Aviv, and that there would be a special government commission to recommend improvements in conditions for that poor and marginalized neighborhood.
The New Israel Fund, HIAS, T’ruah, Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel and other leading organizations in the international and Jewish communities immediately applauded the deal. For NIF, the agreement represented huge progress on an issue that we have engaged on for more than ten years, through our support for the front-line organizations working for refugee rights.
But the applause was short-lived.
Just hours later, faced with a backlash from his right-wing base and ultra-nationalist government ministers, the prime minister announced on Facebook that he was “suspending” the agreement pending a meeting the next morning with residents of south Tel Aviv. That meeting was a formality: within minutes of its conclusion the agreement was cancelled. The Prime Minister promised that the “infiltrators” – the previous day he described them more generously as “migrants” – would be deported after all.
And, seeking a scapegoat for the failed plan and the embarrassing turnaround, the Prime Minister also blamed the New Israel Fund, claiming — without evidence — that we somehow persuaded the African nation of Rwanda to refuse to accept involuntarily-deported refugees.
Public reaction was swift and merciless. Netanyahu’s finger-pointing at NIF was mocked as Israelis flocked to support the organization. Even Israel’s right-wing pundits pointed to the negative statements by Netanyahu’s most extreme coalition partners about the UN deal as the motive for the reversal. Leaders of prominent Jewish organizations condemned the Prime Minister’s actions, and the coverage in the international press was blistering. Despite the refusal by most Israelis to acknowledge refugees’ rights to hearings and possible asylum, more than half of Israelis surveyed by Channel Ten described Netanyahu’s “zigzag” as bad or very bad. Only ten percent of the public approved of his actions.
As for the refugees themselves, they are back to uncertainty. Without a deal in place for another country to receive deportees, Israel’s High Court set a deadline of April 15th for the government to release the imprisoned refugees who have refused deportations. However, the state is arguing that Uganda will continue to accept refugees and that the government’s plan for large-scale deportations should continue – although Uganda’s foreign minister has denied the existence of a deal and the State itself admits that only 7,000 Africans are eligible for deportation. Meanwhile, NIF-supported organizations continue to help refugees apply for asylum, litigate for their rights in court, and assemble allies in the continuing battle to convince Israel to live up to its best values.