Netanyahu Rejects Calls for Israel to Accept Syrian Refugees
By ISABEL KERSHNER
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected calls from opposition politicians for Israel to accept refugees from Syria, saying that Israel was “a very small country that lacks demographic and geographic depth.” He also said that plans to construct a fence along the eastern border with Jordan would go ahead.
The Israeli news media has been dominated in recent days by the dramatic reports and images of the migrant crisis enveloping Europe, and particularly the plight of those fleeing the civil war in Syria.
Israel has found itself in a somewhat paradoxical situation: Syria is an immediate neighbor, as are Lebanon and Jordan, countries that have taken in huge numbers of Syrians and share borders with Israel.
Yet Israel has remained largely isolated and off the migrants’ path, since Syria and Israel are themselves technically in a state of war.Isaac Herzog, the leader of the center-left Labor Party and head of the opposition, stirred a heated national debate over the issue after he said on Saturday that “Jews cannot remain indifferent when hundreds of thousands of refugees are seeking safe harbor.” He added, “Our people experienced firsthand the silence of the world,” alluding to the Holocaust, “and cannot be indifferent in the face of the rampant murders and massacres taking place in Syria.”
Israel, a state of about eight million people that was largely founded by refugees, has long been torn between the humanitarian demands of taking in non-Jews in need and its fears about maintaining its Jewish character and security in a hostile and increasingly chaotic region. It is still grappling with the presence of tens of thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers who surreptitiously crossed the border from Egypt in recent years.
The issue of Arab asylum seekers is further complicated by the unresolved and politically loaded question of the fate of the Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled during the war over Israel’s creation in 1948 and their millions of descendants who demand the right of return to their former homes. The Palestinian refugee issue has become one of the most intractable of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority on Saturday instructed the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations to act to bring Palestinian refugees now fleeing the war in Syria to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The presidency has asked the United Nations, the European Union and other players to press Israel to allow Palestinian refugees in, according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency. The Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in some areas of the West Bank, but Israel controls the borders and entry points to the territory.
In broadcast remarks at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu said, “Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa. We have already devotedly cared for approximately 1,000 wounded people from the fighting in Syria, and we have helped them to rehabilitate their lives.”
But he added, “We must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”
Other members of the opposition had joined Mr. Herzog’s call to take in refugees, including Zehava Galon, the leader of the left-wing Meretz party, and Elazar Stern, a legislator from the centrist Yesh Atid party. Mr. Stern invoked a gesture made by Menachem Begin, the former Likud Party leader, who, as prime minister in the late 1970s, welcomed several hundred Vietnamese boat people to Israel and granted them Israeli citizenship.
Ministers from Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party and some coalition partners backed Mr. Netanyahu’s arguments against opening Israel’s gates to even a limited number of refugees, as did the leader of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid.
Yisrael Katz, a Likud minister, suggested that Mr. Herzog should “at least” offer to host the refugees in his own home, following the example of the prime minister of Finland. “But in principle I think this is a strange, mistaken proposal,” he said of Mr. Herzog’s call. “Israel must not get involved in what is happening is Syria. We are not a European country. We are too close.”
Mr. Herzog replied to his critics with a post on Facebook on Sunday, writing, “You have forgotten what it is to be Jews. Refugees. Persecuted.” Calling again for Israel to take in a limited number of refugees who would be vetted, he added that Mr. Begin “must be turning in his grave.”
The African migrants and asylum seekers already in Israel are in a kind of legal limbo. Most are from Sudan and Eritrea, and are afforded blanket protection from deportation in line with international conventions. But Israel has granted only a very few of those who have applied official status as refugees, and their future remains uncertain.
Israel has mostly halted the influx of Africans across the border from Egypt over the last couple of years, in large part by completing construction of a 150-mile, 16-foot-tall steel border fence stretching from the southern resort town of Eilat to Gaza.
Having also built security fences on its frontiers with Lebanon and Syria, through parts of the occupied West Bank and along the border with Gaza, Israel now says it is moving ahead with a previously announced plan to build a fence along the border with Jordan. Although Jordan and Israel have signed a peace treaty and that border has long been calm, Israel fears that it could become a vulnerable entry point for illegal migration and hostile infiltrations.
Mr. Netanyahu said Israel would start by building the fence along a roughly 18-mile stretch from Eilat to Timna, where an airport is under construction.
“We are not waiting,” he said. “To the extent that it is possible we will encompass Israel’s borders with a security fence and barriers.”