Reporter's Notebook: An uneasy situation for all

If smugglers had brought the Eritreans north 2 km, they might have been able to slip through an incomplete portion of the fence.

PHR volunteers and security officials near Egypt border 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
PHR volunteers and security officials near Egypt border 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The sun was already baking the stretch of pavement next to Moshav Be’er Milha by late morning Thursday, as an Eritrean nun gently pleaded with a border policeman guarding a checkpoint near the Egypt border fence.
A few hundred meters away, a group of Eritrean migrants had been waiting on the western side for eight days, not allowed into Israel and refusing to return whence they came.
Sister Aziza Kidane, a trained nurse, volunteers at the free clinic for migrants run by the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRIsrael) in Jaffa. She was part of a convoy of six vehicles, including doctors, nurses, and American medical students from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba that headed for the border fence on Thursday to make contact with the asylum-seekers.
A Tigrinya-speaker, Kidane asked officers if she could visit the migrants and interview them about their situation and what they had been through on their way to Israel, to no avail.
The roadblock was located a few hundred meters from the fence, with redwhite- and-black Egyptian flags clearly visible in the late-morning sun. The migrants were huddled against the fence a few kilometers away, and nowhere in sight. The roadblock was also not far from a spot along the fence where gunmen from Sinai opened fire in June, killing a construction worker from Haifa.
By midday Thursday, after the medical professionals and the journalists who followed them had spent a few hours in the sun, an IDF battalion commander arrived in a four-door jeep to meet with three members of the aid convoy.
Crestfallen, two doctors from PHR-Israel returned, saying that they were told that no one would be allowed to visit the asylum-seekers due to security concerns, even without journalists in tow. The doctors said the officer told them that the IDF was giving the migrants water but not food, and that army personnel are providing them with medical treatment.
One could make the case that the entire situation at the border did not have to happen. If smugglers had brought the group of migrants north about 2 kilometers, they might have been able to slip through a portion of the fence that is still not complete and make their way into Israel proper, and in all likelihood to the shelter of a detention center.
Two journalists at the checkpoint on Thursday said they had heard reports from soldiers that at night the migrants tried to sneak away from the watchful eyes of the troops guarding them and make their way north to the incomplete part of the fence, before the IDF stopped them.
On Wednesday night, it was reported that soldiers had begun providing the migrants with food, somewhat deflating the earlier reports that the group of Eritreans were in imminent danger of starving after eight days in the desert sun without food or water.
Donated food and water lies near IDF soldiers on Egyptian border (Photo: Ben Hartman)Donated food and water lies near IDF soldiers on Egyptian border (Photo: Ben Hartman)
While the convoy was optimistic on Thursday morning about its chances of making it to the fence, over the previous two days, attempts by activists and journalists to reach the migrants were denied as the story began to get major mileage in the press.
While on the surface, it may appear to be a story of the personal tragedy of 21 Eritrean migrants, the fateful decisions involved have managed to bring the migrant issue back to the front pages after it had long fallen off the radar as talk of a possible war with Iran reached a fever pitch.
As the convoy made its way back to Tel Aviv, it was reported that the government had decided to allow two women and one boy into Israel, and leave the rest to make their way back into Egyptian territory.
The three migrants are set to be sent to a detention facility, though it was unclear if they would remain there for a full three years, as Israel’s “Infiltrators Law” allows.
For Ran Cohen, the executive director of PHR-Israel, the decision was “a disgrace, for eight days they didn’t let people in to Israel and now they’re returning them to the Egyptians, where we fear they could fall back into the hands of traffickers.”
Cohen said there was also the danger that the Egyptian government would return them to Eritrea, where they could face persecution.
He added that while the case did not represent an eight-day application of the “hot return” policy by the IDF, it was still “a violation of international law because at the moment they arrive and ask for asylum, you have to let them in.”
No matter what the fallout of the government decision on Thursday, or where one stands on the migrant issue, it is clear that the next time a group of asylum-seekers makes its way to the fence and refuses to budge, Israel will find itself again facing a highly uncomfortable situation for which no concrete policy or easy answer exists.