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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel will grant citizenship to some of the estimated 300 refugees from Sudan's blighted Darfur region who have already arrived here, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said Wednesday.
The plan to grant citizenship to Darfurians already in Israel was originally reported in The Jerusalem Post several weeks ago.
Sheetrit said he would work with the United Nations to set a quota of refugees who would be naturalized. While he estimates the number of Darfur refugees at 300, other government officials and refugee advocates have put the number at between 400 and 500.
The arrival of these displaced Darfurians has touched off hot debate over whether the Jewish state, founded after the Nazi genocide, has a duty to take in people fleeing persecution.
Human rights groups and high-profile figures like Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel have urged the Israeli government to give Darfurians a home.
Others say the Darfur refugees who have arrived in Israel are economic migrants because they already found sanctuary from Sudan in Egypt. They fear that accepting some refugees will lead to a flood of new arrivals.
Sheetrit offered a middle ground.
"Israel, with its history, must offer assistance," he said. "It can't stand by and shut its eyes. But a quota must be set." It wasn't clear what would happen to those who do not receive citizenship.
Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers welcomed the government's decision to grant citizenship to some Darfurians, but said that didn't absolve the state of its responsibility to other refugees.
"We hope that granting [citizenship] status to a limited number of refugees won't legitimize expulsion to Egypt," Rozen said.
The Darfur refugees are part of a swelling flow of Africans who have crossed into Israel in recent months over its porous southern border with Egypt's Sinai desert.
The government estimates that 2,800 people, nearly all of them Africans, have entered the country illegally through Sinai in recent years, many after having spent months or years in Egypt first.
The number shot up in recent months, apparently as word spread of job opportunities in Israel.
Israel began clamping down on the soaring numbers over the summer, announcing that all new infiltrators and some already in Israel would be returned to Egypt. Egypt said Israel sent back an unidentified number of Darfurians last month.
Egypt has denied any obligation to take back the border infiltrators.
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