Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected the possibility of Israel taking in refugees from war-torn Syria, saying that while the Jewish state was not unsympathetic to the suffering of citizens across its border, it simply did not have the capacity to absorb masses of people.
“Israel is not indifferent to human tragedy; we conscientiously handled a thousand [people] who were wounded in the fighting in Syria and we have helped them rebuild their lives,” Netanyahu said during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
“However, Israel is a very small country. It has no demographic depth and has no geographic breadth,” the prime minister continued. “We must protect our borders against illegal immigrants and against the perpetrators of terrorism. We cannot allow Israel to be flooded with infiltrators.”
He added that Israel was contemplating sending aid packages to countries in Africa in an attempt to ensure that local residents do not find it necessary to migrate from their homes.
Netanyahu said that Israel would begin constructing a security fence along its eastern border in order to keep out migrants and refugees.
The prime minister’s comments came amid a growing debate among Israeli politicians over how Israel, with its national memory of the struggle by Jewish refugees to escape the Nazi regime, should respond to the regional migrant crisis to which the Syrian civil war is a major contributing factor.
Earlier Sunday, Deputy Minister for Regional Affairs Ayoub Kara called on Israel to take in thousands of refugees escaping the violence in Syria and noted that the Jewish state had a moral duty to do so because of the Holocaust.
On Saturday, opposition leader Isaac Herzog also said Israel was duty bound to take in refugees from Syria, a suggestion that was lambasted Sunday by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.
“What a lack of political wisdom and a lack of national responsibility,” Katz retorted in a post on his Facebook page, mentioning a much publicized offer by Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila to house refugees in his spare home.
“At least he [Herzog] should suggest, as did the prime minister of Finland, to take them into his house,” Katz wrote.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of Likud also against spoke out against the notion of Israeli taking in people from Syria, an enemy country.
“I suggest we stop with this custom of trying to find favor all the time,” he told Army Radio. “We must not take in people from an enemy state who could act against us from within Israel.”
Herzog said Saturday that the Jewish state cannot turn away refugees escaping danger.
“It is incumbent on Israel to take in refugees from the war and push for the establishment of an urgent international conference on the issue,” the Zionist Union chairman declared.
“Jews cannot be apathetic when hundreds of thousands of refugees are searching for safe haven,” he said, referring to the plight of Europe’s Jews in the run-up to the Holocaust.
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, however, came out against Israel providing a safe haven for Syrian refugees, stressing that Israel must not take any steps that may in the future legitimatize the implementation of the right of return for Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a senior member of the modern-Orthodox Tzohar organization, called on Israel to take in a limited number of refugees who are in immediate danger of persecution and death. Speaking with the Srugim website, Cherlow stressed that from a Jewish ethical standpoint, Israel must not ignore the crisis in Syria and in other countries. He said Israel must work to find a way to sort out the practical problems that would arise due to the possible absorption of refugees.
Israel said in June it was bracing for an influx of refugees on the Golan Heights, which is divided between Israel and Syria, after fighting on the plateau intensified. Druze residents of Israel have appealed to the government to help safeguard their brethren living on the other side of the border, where fighting between regime forces and rebels has been fierce.
More than four million people have fled their homes in the war-torn country, with Turkey and Lebanon taking in the lion’s share of refugees. Thousands of Syrian refugees have also flooded into Europe in the four years of bitter fighting.
A global outcry last week over an image of the body of a three-year-old Syrian child washed up on the Turkish shore after he and his brother and mother drowned trying to reach the island of Kos spurred European leaders to increase the numbers of refugees they accept.
Stuart Winer and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.