Israel Egypt border 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Diplomatic tensions between the Israeli and Egyptian governments ran high on Saturday after it emerged that Cairo may not take back thousands of African refugees who have illegally crossed into Israel.
"Egypt has informed Israel - officially - that it is not obligated to receive any non-Egyptian citizen who illegally crosses the border into Israel," the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement over the weekend.
This comes in direct contradiction to the announcement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on July 1 that he had secured a promise by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to take back the refugees.
"We expect the Egyptians to fulfill the promises that were made between Olmert and Mubarak," said a spokeswoman from the Prime Minister's Office. "There was a direct agreement between the two, and there is no reason for us to believe that the Egyptians would renege on that agreement."
Unlike Olmert, who publicly announced the plan to deport the refugees, Mubarak has never publicly acknowledged the agreement.
Israeli officials have prepared to deport the asylum-seekers by cataloguing the locations of the 2,300 Africans currently estimated to be in Israel illegally. The largest group is scattered across the South, where they work in hotels in Eilat and in kibbutzim near Beersheba.
Several hundred female refugees and their children have been placed in temporary caravans at the western Negev's Ketziot Prison until a larger tent camp can be constructed on a plot of land adjacent to the facility.
"It appears most likely that the refugees who will ultimately remain in Israel will be those from Darfur, since it seems clear that they have suffered the most," said Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit.
It remains unclear how many refugees Israel will decide to absorb; United Nations representatives are currently working with the government to interview all the refugees and to make recommendations on a quota.
Human rights organizations that have also been interviewing the Sudanese refugees said it would be a mistake for Israel to absorb only Darfurians.
"We are hearing increasing reports that all the Sudanese refugees, not just from Darfur, are suffering from atrocities in Egypt," said a spokesman for Amnesty International.
There have been increasing reports of Egyptian brutalities against the refugees, including a incident last week where the body of a 30-year-old refugee was found outside a village in northern Sinai, bound hand and foot and bloodied from a beating.
Egyptian police said the man had likely argued with the Beduin smugglers who run human trafficking operations between Israel and Egypt. An official said it was not uncommon for human traffickers to kill illegal migrants who refuse to pay fees due.
And on August 1, IDF soldiers witnessed Egyptian forces killing four refugees who were trying to cross the fence from Sinai.
The soldiers said that Egyptians shot and killed two of the refugees immediately, and dragged the other two away from the fence before beating them to death. The soldiers added that while the IDF had a tape of the incident, they would not release it for "diplomatic reasons."
Egyptian officials have not commented on the specific incident, but its Foreign Ministry released a statement condoning the actions of the country's armed forces.
"If those crossing refuse to heed the orders of authorities to stop, then authorities are forced to deal with them in such a manner to ensure respect for the law," the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said, adding that local and international law allowed use of force to stop illegal border trafficking.