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LIVE BLOG: Refugees trapped on Israel's border

A group of  21 Eritreans has been trapped for seven days between the Israeli and Egyptian fences in Sinai. Until Wednesday, soldiers were ordered to give them some water but no food. Activists who went there over the last several days were prevented from reaching the asylum seekers by soldiers. +972 bloggers track the developments as they come in.

Update: Around 18.30 local it has been made known that the two women and the boy will be allowed into Israel to receive medical treatment. The rest of the asylum seekers will be left on the Egyptian side of the fence. Prime Minister Netanyahu has confirmed that three of the “infiltrators” will be let in, while the rest will turn back. According to initial reports, the rest of the group has been handed to the Egyptian army.

The Three Eritreans which Israel let in – a couple of women and a boy – were taken to Saharonim prison. Knesset Member Dov Khenin (Hadash) tried to meet them. He later posted the following message on his Facebook page:

 

“At night I was prevented from meeting the two women and the boy locked in Saharonim. The official excuse is unconvincing: “We don’t want them disturbed.” Does anyone has something to hide?

 

I met the prison commander. The order to prevent the meeting came from above. He told me that the three prisoners are doing fine. I woulr really like to believe him.

 

Israel has the right to put a fence on it’s borders. It has the duty to treat the people at this fence in a human way. Indeed, every man has a name, even Eritreans.”

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It seems that this particular battle in the fight for Israel to apply any lesson whatsoever from its much-touted heritage as the country of refugees has come to an end. After admitting the asylum-seekers were already on Israeli territory (the fence to which they clung was built several meters east of the actual border), and after getting a three-day breather from the Supreme Court (loathe as ever to force the state to abide by international law), the state proposed the starved, parched twenty people on the border a compromise. The women (one of whom had reportedly miscarried a few days back and was still not offered medical attention) and a 14-years-old boy will be taken into Israel. The 17 men will be handed over to Egyptian troops; at best, one might hope, they’ll be detained in Egypt. At worse, which is what Israeli reports are hinting at, they’ll be sent back to Eritrea – the one country in the world ranked under North Korea for press freedom, and by all respectable accounts the worst dictatorship on the African continent. As blogger Elisabeth Tsurkov (@elizrael) wrote on Facebook as the news broke out, it’s hard not to be awed by the self-sacrifice of the Eritrean men, who after all they have been to, agreed to be sucked into the vortex of imprisonment and possibly torture and death, simply to allow the two women and the teenager to be rescue. How petty and small the “western”, “enlightened,” “advanced” Israeli state with its vain proclamations of “never again” seems in comparison to the nobleness of these seventeen men.

Let there be no mistake – for Israel there was much more in stake in this affair than human lives (although establishing the exact worth of non-Jewish lives in the eyes of Interior Minister Eli Yishai is perhaps more of a matter for microbiologists than for political analysts). The state was already forced to admit in the court that the border fence, built with more fanfare than a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard inauguration ritual, was set within Israeli territory, removed from the actual borderline, and therefore, legally, completely worthless; the asylum seekers might well have been claiming their asylum in the centre of Tel Aviv. Establishing this fact in the public consciousness had to be avoided at all costs, and letting in and detaining three more Africans, under a preposterous flag of “humanitarian concern” (after starving the same people for six days) was probably deemed a reasonable price to pay to avoid this debacle, so long as the rest could be blackmailed to crawl away and die elsewhere. The army has also told the press (which it allowed nowhere near the group) that after not managing to communicate with the refugees enough to establish their medical situation, the soldiers suddenly found a common language and were relieved to learn the men “had come to Israel to look for work” and “made no mention of being persecuted in their country.” Considering only this morning the IDF was caught lying about having transferred food to the refugees, I’ll chance a libel suit and voice my disbelief that any such conversation took place.

This particular battle was won, overwhelmingly, by the state (although relentless public pressure on stage and behind the scenes did save three human lives, and there is every reason for those who pitched in to take pride in that). The stage is now set for the next group already making its way across the desert. Will they be chased away by tear gas? Intercepted, as reported last month, by IDF jeeps intruding deep into Sinai to hand them over to Egyptian troops? Raped and tortured to death by the mafiosi smugglers of Sinai? My only hope is that next time, it won’t take five days for us to learn of the next such group, and that we won’t bother with appeals and op-eds and court petitions. Priority from now one will be to establish contact with such groups before they are cordoned off by the IDF, to find out whether they claim asylum, and to offer them medical help if required. Legal tussle against the state can be postponed till later.

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In 1977, Prime Minister Begin authorized citizenship for 66 Vietnamese refugees. The captain of an Israeli freighter in the South China Sea found them huddled on a leaky boat, low on food supplies, and took them in, bringing them to Israel after they were denied refuge in Taiwan. Begin granted the refugees citizenship in his first act as newly-elected prime minister. He was leader of the Likud party, which won Israel’s national elections after 29 years of uninterrupted rule by the rival Labor party.

 

At my Jewish day school in Canada, we were told by our teachers, who tended to represent the National Religious point of view, that Begin had done a mitzvah. The message was that the Jews, who had lost 6 million in the Holocaust because none of the countries that convened at the Evian Conference agreed to take them in, would behave differently now that they had their own state.

 

Prime Minister Begin greeting Vietnamese refugees in Israel in 1977 (photo: Government Press Office)

 

This is how Begin reportedly explained to President Carter his decision to take in the boat people:

 

“We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews [the St. Louis], having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War… traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused… Therefore it was natural… to give those people a haven in the land of Israel.”

 

Over the next two years, Israel took in approximately 300 Vietnamese refugees and gave them citizenship. Vaan Nguyen, the daughter of one of those refugees, made a documentary film about her family in Israel and her journey to visit her father’s village in Vietnam.
 
Almost exactly 35 years later, Prime Minister Netanyahu, now leader of the same party once headed by the late Menachem Begin, stood by and did nothing while the world watched as 20 Eritrean asylum seekers sat pressed against Israel’s border fence, for seven days. They were denied food or shelter beyond a couple of tarpaulins. They were denied medical care, even though one of the women in the group reportedly miscarried while sitting out there in the hot sun.

 

Now, according to Physicians for Human Rights, the government has allowed two women and a boy to enter the country. The rest have been forced back toward Egypt, which treats refugees very badly. What a disgrace. What a horror.

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Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks on the decision to have 3 refugees enter and hand the rest to the Egyptian army:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, today (Thursday, 6 September 2012), commented on the solution that was achieved in the framework of which the infiltrators who had been next to the border fence between Israel and Egypt went back the way they came and two women and the child entered Israel. “It is important that everyone understand that Israel is no longer a destination for infiltrators. We are determined to stop the flood of infiltrators that has been here. We built this fence and it has already lowered the number of infiltrators by 90%. We will intensify steps against those who employ illegal infiltrators and we will continue the effort to return infiltrators to their countries of origin,” the Prime Minister said.

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A video taken earlier today, showing activists try to reach the refugees.

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Just been informed by sources that three of the refugees – two women and a boy – were allowed in, the rest turned towards Egypt. This seems to be corroborated by an Haaretz newflash. Don’t know how this deal was reached, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s an attempt by the government to avoid an HCJ decision on Sunday. On this note, it is worth mentioning that once more, as in the case of the Palestinian huger strikers, the court takes it own sweet time when it comes to the lives of non-Jews: it decided not to reach a decision today, but to delay it until Sunday. While the refugees waited in the heat, with no food.

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The thing I can’t wrap my head around, that might be the most disturbing part, is how the soldiers who are there can’t seem to muster up the nerve to refuse orders and give the people food – or at least not to stop others from doing so.

I can’t imagine what they must feel like, and how awful it is for anyone to be in a position to suddenly decide the fate of the lives of people who already went through who knows what.
 But they are nonetheless human beings, with a heart and a conscience. Could the army have brainwashed them so much that they have lost the most basic, moral compass? How are they going to feel about having stopped food from reaching people whose lives are in danger once they are no longer serving?
 
Will they be able to live with the notion that they were just following orders?

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 In the end it all comes down to people who make decisions. Somewhere in the IDF, or in the government, there is a person or persons, who think that Eritrean asylum seekers who are stuck in the middle of the desert between two fences should get water and protection from the sun – but not food or medical care. Imagine a human being sitting in an office, most likely air conditioned as summer is still blazing pretty strong in our parts, thinking: “hm, well, no human can go long without water, but if we give them that they’ll probably make it without food for… donno, maybe two weeks, no problem, right? Ya, let’s do that.”

And the thing is – it wouldn’t even be the first discussion of the kind in IDF offices. Earlier today the Supreme Court ruled that the army must disclose its “red lines” document, which entails military plans to define just how many calories per day a Palestinian in the Gaza Strip might need in order to live, and translate those figures into just how many truckloads of food should be allowed in the strip to prevent people from dying of hunger. This policy was put together during the harsher levels of the siege on Gaza. Later policy papers ruled what kinds of products are to be considered necessary for human survival (rice) and what is to be considered luxury (pasta).

These are actual human beings making these decisions. They go to work in the morning, come back home to their families in the evening, and perhaps even think they’re giving service to society. Isn’t that simply horrid?

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Update on Physicians for Human Rights’ Facbook page, concerning doctors’ attempts to reach the refugees: Commander named Dolev has come to meet the PHR delegation. He only agreed to speak with two doctors – Dr Kobi Arad and Prof Mick Elkan. He told them that the army not willing to allow the delegation to enter. He himself was going to travel to the actual border (400 metres from the delegation) to see for himself the state of refugees.

 

Shocking: He said that the army itself and soldiers HAVE NOT TAKEN the food [emphasis added -tr], and that the food brought earlier by activists has remained at the military/police checkpoint. He said the army gave the refugees water, and that a medic has given them an infusion through the fence. But communications with them was problematic.

 

PHR doctors demanded to be allowed to reach refugees – The PHR delegation included a Tigrinya-speaking nurse – but if that could not be achieved that at least a qualified physician rather than a medic be allowed to examine the refugees so we know what their medical condition is. The commander could not explain why the army has not delivered food. He contended that the medical delegation has been stopped for “security” reasons. The PHR’s delegation at the police checkpoint is being held up by three military jeeps, two police cars and a military police vehicle [Translation: Sol Sable].

 

Maariv has repoted today that a previous group of refugees was kept away from the fence by using tear gas.

 

Sister Aziza from Physicians for Human Rights is turned away by the army and police from the zone where African refugees are being held on Israel’s southern border, September 6, 2012 (photo: SGActivestills.org)

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