Sudan's 'genocide' lands at Israel's door
Israelis ask if they have a moral obligation to take in Sudan's refugees.
TEL AVIV — Shlomo Reisman remembers vividly from his childhood the visage of Jewish refugee kids after World War II. They sneaked into pre-state Israel illegally, defying a ban by the British authorities.
"They came here without anything," says Mr. Reisman. "Without underwear, in shorts, with torn shoes."
Now, a new group of refugees is slipping into the country illegally - a mix of Muslims and Christians from a country that's officially at war with Israel. But the 230 Sudanese refugees that have arrived are landing in an Israeli jail. As Israel decides what to do with those who have fled what the US has described as a "genocide," Reisman says the government should be mindful of Jewish history.
"In principle, the state of Israel and the Jewish people who have known discrimination ... should give asylum to people who are being persecuted," he says. "Given our history, the Jewish people must show mercy toward persecuted people."
That sentiment is part of an emerging debate in Israel over whether the Jewish state has a moral obligation to release from jail the refugees fleeing Sudan's civil war and genocide.
On Monday, Israeli human rights groups plan a demonstration outside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Jerusalem residence. They have already petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of the refugees. And by the end of the week, the government must submit to the court a plan to grant judicial hearings for the refugees.
The flow of refugees to Israel has picked up over the past six months since 27 Sudanese asylum seekers were killed late December in clashes with Egyptian police at a sit-in demonstration at a UN refugee agency office in Cairo.
"I wasn't protected by the UN in Egypt. I was afraid that my visa had expired and they would take me back to Sudan," says Deng, a Sudanese refugee who paid $600 to a Bedouin guide to sneak him into Israel from the Egyptian Sinai desert. He received the money from friends living in Australia. "I was expecting to be protected. I am a refugee."
He will mark soon his first anniversary in an Israeli jail, a year in which he's had no contact with four daughters he left behind in Sudan. "Prison is a prison, but it's better here than the jail in Sudan or life in Egypt," he says.
During a recent hearing in parliament, Israeli Interior Minister Roni Bar-On told legislators that security forces often try to return the refugees to the Egyptian side of the border.
The treatment has raised concerns among some Israeli Holocaust scholars. Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum and memorial, recently appealed to Mr. Olmert on behalf of the refugees.
"As members of the Jewish people, for whom the memory of the Holocaust burns, we cannot stand by as refugees from the genocide in Darfur hammer on our doors," he wrote referring to the Nazi Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed.
That comparison is a sensitive one in Israel, which absorbed hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors during the first decades of its existence.
"We are not sending anyone back to Darfur," says Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mark Regev, a son of Holocaust survivors who took umbrage at the World War II association.
Like the Sudanese, Albert Khaleb furtively crossed into Israel by night. Only he did it more than 60 years ago, walking two nights straight from Damascus to Tiberias via the Golan Heights. But he has little sympathy for the Sudanese.
"I don't know who they are," says Mr. Khaleb. "We need to be wary of them. They know they're coming to an enemy country and they're liable to be expelled."