The American Jewish Committee has stepped in with an immediate donation to fund warm clothing for Sudanese refugees languishing - some for nearly two years - in Israeli prisons. "Our organization has contributed an immediate sum for the purchase of basic clothing," explained AJC Israel/Middle East Office Associate Director Rabbi Edward Rettig. By this stop-gap measure, the AJC sought to "express the hope that a humane solution will be found [for the refugees] that will respect their humanity and will convey the morality of Israeli society," he told The Jerusalem Post.
'I can't go back'
According to Michael Bavly, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Israel, some 270 refugees from Sudan are being held after seeking asylum in Israel.
While Bavly said that the government has moved some 60 to kibbutzim, moshavim and women's dormitories out of humanitarian considerations - noting that "a woman with three babies does not sit in prison" - over 200 remain in the Ma'asiyahu and Ketziot prisons, many for over a year, and were only recently granted access to judicial review.
"Even some of those on kibbutz, who are forbidden from leaving the small confines of the community, have been stuck there for [almost] two years," notes Attorney Anat Ben-Dor, an instructor in the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University, which has been at the forefront of legal action on behalf of the refugees.
In the meantime, winter has come to the prisons where most of the refugees are housed.
"There are prison blankets here, but they're not really blankets," Jazy (a pseudonym intended to prevent the Sudanese government from tracking him), one of the refugees, told the Post on Thursday from inside Ma'asiyahu Prison. "And they didn't give us any winter clothes," he added, leaving many of the refugees unprepared for the cold December nights.
Jazy is a black Muslim from Darfur, and has sat in an Israeli prison for almost nine months.
The American Jewish Committee donation will cover the basic winter clothes for him and his fellow prisoners.
But, he said angrily, "we came looking for freedom... If I go back [to the Sudan] I know the government will kill me." He said the refugees will accept "asylum anywhere. I just want to live quietly, in peace, without problems. Here or any place."
"There is complete agreement between the authorities and organizations [involved in the case] that these are refugees," Ben-Dor told the Post, noting that the difficulty for the government lay in their being citizens of an enemy state.
This is uniquely problematic for the government since Israeli law forbids entry to the country of citizens of states with which Israel is at war. Bavly explains: "There is no other state in the world with which other states [including Sudan] see themselves in a permanent state of war."
Despite this difficulty, says Ben-Dor, "the vast majority are refugees, and have acted accordingly. They approached the [Israeli-Egyptian] border, walked up to IDF cameras stationed along the border and sat down in front of them. They carried refugee documents from the UNHCR office in Egypt, and they're not asking for work, but for asylum."
The refugee group is divided into three groups. About a third fled the horrific violence of government-backed Arab militias massacring black Muslims in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Another third are Christians from the country's south fleeing a war in which Muslim militias have murdered hundreds of thousands of Christians and animist tribesmen. The last third are a mix of Muslim tribesmen from various northern Sudanese tribes, and their precise situation and intentions are more difficult to determine with certainty.
"But all are now refugees," said Bavly, "even if only for having sought asylum in Israel. The Sudanese government is not in the habit of encouraging visits to Israel, and their fate will be a bitter one if they are returned to Sudan."
While the government has not seriously considered returning them to Sudan, until December 2005, security forces arrested the refugees at the border with the intention of sending them back to Egypt, where the UN estimates some two million are currently living, having fled the atrocities and violence in Sudan. But, following an Egyptian police crackdown on a peaceful demonstration protesting the Sudanese refugees' living conditions in Cairo in December, during which dozens were killed, Israeli authorities changed their policy and have spent the past year seeking international solutions.
The UNHCR has a good record in finding solutions for enemy citizens seeking asylum in Israel. "I have found another asylum country for 55 of the 57 previous cases," said Bavly. "But the number has become prohibitive. With two million Sudanese in Egypt, this cannot become a Cairo to Ma'asiyahu to Stockholm track, with the UN paying the way.
"So we're searching for an international solution," Bavly said, revealing only that he is "less optimistic now than six months ago," but adding that there are "new directions" in finding willing host countries.
Recently, the chances for the refugees' release have take a turn for the better. A High Court of Justice petition filed by the Refugee Rights Clinic resulted in a ruling that the state must grant them judicial review.
To that end, a judge was appointed to grant the refugees individual hearings and issue recommendations to Defense Minister Amir Peretz regarding their release. For now, every individual recommended for release has been granted it by the defense minister.
And while rights activists complain that the judge has yet to visit Ketziot Prison ("for logistical reasons," the state said) in which some 130 of the refugees are held, the state has told the High Court of Justice in writing that, beginning next week, the judge will be hearing cases and recommending releases from Ketziot for two days each week.
For activists working to help the refugees, however, the government's concession of judicial review is not enough. The refugees are released to the confinement - more pleasant perhaps, but no less confining - of a kibbutz or moshav which they are forbidden to leave.
"If Israel were to grant asylum to even a few," said Ben-Dor, who is frustrated at the equanimity with which the refugees are allowed to languish, "she would be better able to call for the international community to share in the burden. We can't forget that the Jews also found closed doors when they were fleeing murder and persecution."