In a press conference on Tuesday night, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced a new temporary immigration policy for people fleeing Ukraine who are not eligible for Israeli citizenship via the Law of Return. In short: The 20,000 people who were in Israel before the invasion will be allowed to stay for three months and if the situation does not improve, they will be allowed to work; Israel will accept an additional 5,000 Ukrainian citizens on tourist visas who arrived after the invasion began, under the same terms; their hosts will no longer need to pay a NIS 10,000 bond, but as before they must sign a document pledging that they leave Israel when the state of emergency ends.
Shaked’s clumping together of the 20,000 Ukrainians who were in the country prior to the invasion and the 5,000 refugees who can come afterwards is a cynical attempt to show that Israel is being generous, while, in fact, it is not.
The 20,000 are Ukrainians who remained after their visas expired. It is unclear why they have not been deported until now, but essentially Shaked is taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to solve this problem as well – a problem that existed in any case.
Shaked portrayed the 20,000 being allowed to stay as a humanitarian gesture, but in fact due to the Immigration Authority’s inaction they would not have been deported immediately in any case.
When the fighting ends, does Shaked intend to deport them, as implied by the new policy? If so, this would be a cynical use of the fighting to actually get rid of Ukrainians, who probably would have remained in Israel for the time being had the invasion not occurred, and in any case whose situations should have been addressed long ago.
According to data provided by the Population and Immigration Authority, as of Tuesday evening, 2,519 Ukrainians not eligible for citizenship had already arrived since the fighting broke out. This effectively means that Israel will be allowing no more than another 2,481 people escaping the fighting to find refuge here.
Part of the reason Israel’s policy toward Ukraine’s refugees is so harsh is its inability to solve the problem of those who remain illegally and the fear that those who come will refuse to leave. This is a problem that is also true of job-seekers from southeast Asia, Africa and elsewhere, and it should be resolved irrespective of the war. Ukrainians who were in Israel before the invasion should be counted as part of this group – and not clumped together for political gain with the number of refugees fleeing for their lives.
As a country that prides itself in its ingathering of a nation that was persecuted for centuries, Israel can do better. It should give immediate temporary visas to anyone fleeing Ukraine who wants to come here. If it does decide to put a cap on the number of refugees, at the very least it should be honest about its concerns and not exploit the situation for political gain.
The writer is a breaking news editor at The Jerusalem Post.