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(photo credit: Courtesy)
A dramatic recent increase in public awareness in Israel about the crisis in Darfur has been highlighted by surprising unity among Israelis of all backgrounds regarding the importance of helping Sudanese refugees. There are currently some 400 refugees from the Darfur region in Israel, who have crossed over the border from Egypt. Close to 80 are still imprisoned as "citizens of an enemy state."
A national student petition is demanding that the government grants refugee status to those fleeing Sudan, and that the government recognizes that genocide is taking place in Darfur. What is significant is the broad support for this petition, and its call for a change in government policy: Jewish students were shocked that refugees of a genocide are treated as "citizens of an enemy state" - just as Britain treated Jewish refugees from Germany during the Holocaust - while a few Muslim students felt a connection to fellow Muslims fleeing the genocide.
Whether the reasons are the Holocaust, religious solidarity or personal experiences, the growing number of signatories exemplifies a unity rare in Israel's heterogeneous society.
One student recalled how during a stint of reserve military duty on the border between Egypt and Israel, his base lacked food and clothing to give the Sudanese refugees temporarily held there. The student-soldier notified various aide groups, and upon returning from leave he brought the refugees supplies. One Christian-Arab regularly chats with the Christian-Sudanese refugees who pray at his church, listening to their stories and difficulties. He was eager to help the refugees and press for a change in government policy.
A few students refused to sign the petition, citing concerns about the demographic effect of letting in non-Jews, or the security threat of potential spies, while some students with initial hesitations nonetheless signed because of the modesty of the proposal: to give refugee status and assistance to those already in the country.
A recent panel discussion on the issue at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem featured Professor Yair Auron, Head of the Sociology, Political Science and Communications Department at the Open University; MK Ran Cohen (Meretz); Dr. Robbie Sabel from the Hebrew University's Law Faculty and a former foreign ministry advisor; Yiftach Milo who founded the Asaf (Aide for Refugees ans Asylum Seekers) non-profit organization who spent months in Sudanese refugee camps in Chad; and Daniel Meron, head of the foreign ministry's Department of International Organizations and Human Rights. Despite the ongoing students' strike over tuition fees, the hall was packed with students from all over the country.
Cohen called on the government to grant immediate citizenship to those refugees already in Israel, recounting how in 1977 newly-elected prime minister Menachem Begin decided to accord hundreds of Vietnamese refugees citizenship because he was "first and foremost a Jew." At the very least, Cohen said, they must be removed from prisons and granted temporary resident status. "I spoke to the prison warden at one of the prisons," he told the students. "He told me very frankly, 'I know criminals - our job is to incarcerate criminals. These people are not criminals.'"
Cohen also addressed the prevalent security concern, namely that enemy states or terror organizations could send in agents posing as refugees. "Don't fall into the security excuse trap," he warned. "When I asked the warden if he was debriefed by any Israeli security apparatus regarding spies or enemy agents among the refugees, he said that the issue has never been brought before him."
Meanwhile, Cohen is in the minority among Knesset members in taking an active interest in solving the problem. Responsibility for the refugees' fate is being tossed around between the IDF and police, while the government remains noncommittal and passive. The police maintain that it is not their job to incarcerate innocent refugees, and the students are broadly rejecting a recent police statement that, "The inability of the IDF to properly seal the border with Egypt is what caused this situation."
The IDF is following the existing legislative guideline which states that Israel can hold infiltrators from an enemy state, such as Sudan, in administrative detention and without a trial. Furthermore, the IDF claims that the refugees fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Security Ministry, as the army does not have any responsibility for civilian foreign citizens who have entered Israel without visas.
Over the past few months the Prison Services has begun releasing the refugees on work programs to various kibbutzim and communities in the south of the country, but due to the legal vacuum it has been left to private organizations to pick up the slack.
Informal cooperation between volunteers, security forces and a number of NGOs has allowed food and clothing to be brought to Darfur refugees entering Israel. Last week, representatives of the Asaf organization went to the southern border to deliver food, clothing and psychological aid to refugees and asylum seekers. Also last week, 24 refugees were taken in by the Beersheba municipality after being tossed back and forth by the IDF and police. On Friday another shipment of supplies, organized by Rabbis for Human Rights was delivered to refugees entering Israel.
As more refugees are expected to trickle across the deser border, preperations have been made to place them at the Nitzana IDF base, where they will receive food and shelter before being dispersed to other areas of the country.
The assistance is comprehensive and effective, including everything from food, clothing and used cell phones to ensuring that refugees have psychological and emotional help to plan for the future.
A number of organizations comprising the Committee for Refugees in Darfur (CARD) have been working to provide both practical and emotional help to these refugees since December 2006.
For Keren Klass, a co-organizer of the panel discussion, "hypocrisy" was the key word that came to mind regarding the current attitude in Israel towards the refugees. "We always say 'never again' but in reality these things are happening today all over the world, and we don't lift a finger to do anything about it."
Prof. Auron pointed out two lessons that can be taken from the Holocaust, both very different in essence: "There are those Israelis, or Jews who say 'never again' and there are those who say 'never again to us.'
For further information or if you are interested in volunteering with Asaf to help refugees, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org