Dozens of former senior Israeli diplomats signed a letter over the weekend urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider deporting thousands of African migrants, joining a growing protest against the plan.
The former ambassadors and consuls general, including two former heads of the Foreign Ministry, warned that going ahead with the controversial scheme would undermine Israel’s status as a law abiding and ethical country.
Netanyahu’s government is pushing ahead with the deportation of thousands of African migrants despite local and international opposition.
Last month, the Knesset approved an amendment to the so-called “Infiltrator’s Law” paving the way for the forced deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers starting in March, and the indefinite imprisonment of those who refuse to leave “voluntarily.”
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese, and the vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012. Many live in south Tel Aviv, and some residents and activists blame them for rising crime rates and have lobbied the government for their deportation.
“As official representatives of Israel, we could always note proudly, even in times of extreme criticism at home and abroad, that ‘The State of Israel is based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel’ as is written in the proclamation of independence,” the 35 former diplomats wrote, according to the Ynet news website. “By carrying out these deportations we are pulling out the ground from under these claims, and from under the image of Israel as a state of law and ethics.”
Signatories included Nissim Ben Sheetrit and Alon Liel, both of whom used to direct the foreign ministry and Colette Avital, a former MK who was consul in New York, among others.
They also pointed to Israeli Jews’ history as refugees in their appeal.
On Friday, nearly 800 American Jewish clergymen signed an open letter urging the Israeli government to halt the expected deportations.
The letter, initiated by Jewish organizations including the New Israel Fund, refugee support group HIAS and rights group T’ruah, states that “Our own experience of slavery and liberation, and our own experience as refugees, compel us to act with mercy and justice toward those seeking refuge among us.”
Last week, a group of Israeli Holocaust survivors also urged Netanyahu to stop the planned deportations. The 36 survivors called on the prime minister to make a “historic decision” and reverse the controversial deportation plan, according to the Haaretz daily.
“We ask you: Stop this process!” their letter read. “Only you have the authority to take the historic decision, and to show the world that the Jewish state will not allow suffering and torture of people under its protection.”
El-Al pilots have also signed a letter saying they will refuse to fly deportees to Africa.
Netanyahu has announced deals to send migrants to third-party countries in Africa, but has refused to divulge where they are.
In November, Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said the country could accept approximately 10,000 asylum seekers from Israel. Israel will reportedly pay $5,000 to the Rwandan government for each deported migrant, plus a $3,500 “leaving grant” directly to the person being deported.
Previously, Rwanda and Uganda accepted about 4,000 migrants and asylum seekers who signed a document saying they had “willingly left” Israel, but until now the countries have not accepted any asylum seekers who were deported against their will.
Last week, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Netanyahu agreed Rwanda would only accept migrants under a mechanism consistent with international law, signaling that forced deportees would not be accepted.
JTA contributed to this report.