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The Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in Israel are creating a rift between Diaspora organizations and Israel's government, senior leaders of several US Jewish groups said on Thursday.
As American Jews lead the call for international intervention in Darfur, where the Sudanese government and its janjaweed militia have been at war with rebel forces for half a decade, they have increasingly come under fire for the treatment of the Sudanese in Israel. While Jewish organizations have declined to openly criticize Israel on the issue, there is a growing undercurrent of discontent, officials from the groups told The Jerusalem Post.
"American Jews have a policy of blanket support for Israel, but they have found themselves in an increasingly difficult position," said one senior member of a Los Angeles Jewish organization. "The two causes, Israel and Darfur, should be in unity. Instead, we have found ourselves having to uncomfortably defend Israel's policy on the refugees."
This week, the American Jewish Committee's Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights completed a paper assessing the challenges of Sudanese refugees in Israel.
"The reception of Sudanese has been a focus of concern for Israeli nongovernmental organizations, refugee lawyers, the government, as well as for Diaspora Jews who, reflecting on Jewish historical experiences of persecution and expulsion, see a need for Jews to defend the rights of bona fide Sudanese refugees who seek asylum within Israel's borders," the paper's authors wrote.
They suggest that Israel should distinguish between refugees seeking asylum from persecution, and economic migrants seeking better employment opportunities. The distinction lies at the heart of efforts being made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government and United Nations' representatives to interview and classify the refugees.
On July 1, Olmert announced that he had agreed with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to deport most of the refugees back to Egypt. But last weekend, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said the country "is not obligated to receive any non-Egyptian citizen who illegally crosses the border into Israel."
While several cabinet members, including Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, have said that only the 300-400 refugees from Darfur will be allowed to remain in Israel, human rights organizations believe that all the Sudanese refugees, currently estimated at 1,300, should be given asylum in Israel.
According to a number of human rights organizations, there is growing concern for the safety of the refugees in Egypt. Last week, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Egyptian Interior Ministry asking it to assess the use of force by its border police against the Sudanese.
While Israel has the right and the need to control its borders, it also has responsibilities regarding the treatment of asylum-seekers," the AJC paper stated.
According to a senior member of the New York Jewish Federation, a growing number of high-profile American Jews are campaigning for Israel to announce it will find long-term solutions for the refugees in countries other than Egypt.
"There is enormous confusion and it flows directly from the fact that they don't know what they are dealing with and they are not used to turning around and asking for help," said one disgruntled member of a Diaspora organization. "There have direct offers of assistance made, and the Israeli government has not utilized the resources it has in the Diaspora."
Rabbi Ed Rettig, associate director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel Middle East Office, said part of the problem was that Israeli officials were attempting to use existing models to deal with the refugees, rather than to create a new policy.
Sudanese crossing the border are considered "enemy infiltrators" because Sudan is in a formal state of war with Israel, and the two countries lack diplomatic relations. Israel has been detaining male asylum-seekers under the Enemy Infiltrators Law of 1954 for the past several years, although it has not deported any asylum-seeker since 2004.