As American Jewish leaders were publicly calling on the Bush administration this week to do more to end the killing in Darfur, behind the scenes they were quietly pressing the Israeli government about its treatment of 160 imprisoned Sudanese refugees.
Over the past year, dozens of Sudanese asylum-seekers have crossed into Israel illegally, particularly after a protest by refugees in Egypt turned deadly last December. While Israel has said it will not send the refugees back to Sudan, the government is not letting them apply for asylum because Sudan is considered an enemy country. A law against infiltrators from enemy countries bars the refugees from appealing their cases in court, and most of them are currently being held in prisons or army bases.
Several Jewish communal leaders contacted by the Forward said that they had registered concern with the Israeli Embassy in Washington or with regional consulates in recent days, and received assurances that the matter is being reviewed.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, called the situation “deeply troubling” and said he had recently communicated his “serious concerns” to an official at the Israeli Embassy.
“We were left with the clear impression that there would be a very rapid response by the Israeli government in the clearing of this matter, and I can only hope that that is so,” Saperstein said, adding, “If something is not done to resolve the situation, then it’s far more likely that this will begin to spur public criticism.”
Other Jewish communal officials were more cautious in their comments. “I don’t have all the facts, and I don’t purport to know all the details of the case,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “All I can say is that Israel has shown in the past that it has responded to humanitarian situations in an exemplary fashion, and I hope and expect they’ll do the same in this situation as well.”
Raffel said that he, too, had privately raised his concerns with Israeli officials, both at the embassy and at the consulate in New York.
Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said she raised the matter with the Israeli ambassador and with officials at the consulate general for New England during a previously scheduled meeting Tuesday. Ruth Messinger, president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service and a chief organizer of the rally Sunday, said that she, too, was concerned about the situation and had spoken with Israeli officials.
Some asylum-seekers are from the Darfur region, others from other parts of the African country. “Because of the terrible situation, we have seen an influx to Israel. We are working very closely with the [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] in Geneva and are trying to find a solution whereby these people can be given refugee status. Obviously no one wants to send them back to where they came from, and we are looking for a third party” to accept them, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
There has been a significant increase in the number of Sudanese crossing into Israel since December 2005. At that time, at least 28 Sudanese protesters were killed in Egypt when police opened fire to disperse a large crowd. Sudanese refugees who were demanding better conditions and treatment held the protest outside the UNHCR office in Cairo.
Sudanese who cross into Israel from Egypt often are caught by army patrols.
The Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University recently filed a petition to the Supreme Court against the use of the infiltration law, which is being used to hold the Sudanese asylum-seekers without due process.
The organizations also are asking for the cases of the Sudanese asylum-seekers arrested by the army to be transferred to the Interior Ministry, where they can have access to judicial review within 24 hours. They argue that the Sudanese should be released from prison unless they’re deemed a security threat or are accused of committing a crime.
Finally, the organizations say that the refugees should be allowed to apply for asylum in Israel, just as refugees of other nationalities are permitted to do.
Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, said that she thinks part of the reason Israel has detained the Sudanese under the infiltrator law is out of fear that the Jewish state could be flooded by refugees.
Korzen said she found it ironic that Israel was using the infiltrator law as a reason not to give the Sudanese a haven as refugees when it was Israel itself that promoted a section in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 requiring countries to exempt refugees from measures they normally might take against enemy nationals.
Israel championed the provision, pointing to the fact that England had given refuge to Jews from Austria and Germany during World War II even though they were citizens of an enemy country.