Israeli authorities said that Sunday several thousand refugees from Ukraine have already arrived in the country, apparently already hitting the maximum number of refugees not of Jewish descent that the country was prepared to accept.
The government has seen internal debate over policy on Ukrainians seeking refuge — that is, those who do not automatically qualify for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, which allows anyone who has a Jewish parent or grandparent to receive Israeli citizenship.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said last week Israel would allow some 20,000 Ukrainians who were on tourist visas or in the country illegally before the Russian invasion to remain in the country, and would also grant visas to a further 5,000 non-Jewish refugees seeking to escape the war.
Those 5,000 visas would solely allow the refugees to remain in the country without fear of deportation.
It would not allow them to work legally, send their children to school or get access to Israel’s health care.
All Jewish Ukrainians are allowed into Israel and given citizenship under the Law of Return, and the government expects the fighting to prompt tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian Jews to move to Israel.
The Population, Immigration, and Border Authority said Sunday that 7,179 people have arrived from Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion on February 24, of whom 221 were refused entry.
In total, around 2,000 of the Ukrainians who have arrived have immigration rights, meaning that the cap on non-Jewish refugees has apparently been reached.
There was no immediate response from Israeli officials on the matter.
Immigration lawyer Alex Zarnopolsky, who has been working to help the refugees, told The Times of Israel that the 5,000 limit on non-Jews entering has been reached.
“It was clear that by the time the quota would be applied, it would already be full,” he said. “In practice, we are not taking in refugees from Ukraine.”
Most of those who were able to enter the country have gone to stay with family or friends.
Zarnopolsky explained that many of the non-Jewish refugees have family members who are Israeli citizens or otherwise are in the country, but nonetheless do not qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return.
Two hotels are being used in Tel Aviv to house refugees while their paperwork is processed, the Dan Panorama Hotel and the Grand Beach Hotel. The refugees were moved to hotels after public outcry over the dismal conditions they were being held in at Ben Gurion Airport.
Zarnopolsky said there has been no update from the Interior Ministry and that it is unclear what the current situation is, or whether the country will let more people in.
He charged that “they are trying as much as possible to refuse people.”
Whereas Jewish refugees have been welcomed to Israel in what is seen as a fulfillment of an essential role of the Jewish state, Zarnopolsky said that arrivals who are not eligible for citizenship are not being given any social welfare rights, their children cannot enter the Israeli school system, and elderly refugees do not have health coverage.
But, most of those who have come to Israel have no intention of staying in the country, he asserted, and intend only to wait out the war and then return to their homeland.
Cabinet to review cap
Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan, whose Meretz party opposes the cap, told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday, “We never miss an opportunity to do nonsensical things.”
“All that is needed is a little courage and a little generosity,” he said. “Why do we have to be perceived in the world as miserly, racist, as not offering a hand?”
Golan rejected the suggestion that Israel needs to reserve its resources for the expected waves of tens of thousands of new immigrants prompted by the fighting.
“We can open our gates to a few thousand refugees and in parallel absorb broad immigration,” he said.
Golan said the country is able to take in 30,000 refugees without needing to differentiate between those who are Jewish and those who aren’t.
Dozens of people protested outside Shaked’s home on Saturday night calling for more refugees to be allowed to enter Israel, and hundreds demonstrated in central Tel Aviv.
Israel’s policy toward non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees has sparked debate since Russia’s invasion began late last month, with critics inside and outside of the country slamming the policy as woefully insufficient.
During Monday’s upcoming cabinet meeting, left-wing members of the government are expected to push for raising the cap on the number of non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees allowed to stay in Israel.
The Meretz party said its ministers will demand that Israel “give refuge to all refugees.”
“No quotas, without differentiation of religion, race, or gender,” the party said. “This is our basic duty as Israelis and human beings.”
Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai of the Labor party will demand during the meeting that a ministerial committee be formed to decide on Israel’s refugee policy, Walla news reported.
“Israel doesn’t have a defined and clear immigration policy. The refugee crisis from Ukraine requires a government decision that is agreed upon by all the different elements of the government,” said Shai, who has campaigned on behalf of the refugees.
Shaked said Saturday that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who leads the Yesh Atid party, was a “partner” in the decision to cap the number of non-Jewish Ukrainians allowed to stay in Israel.
In an interview with Channel 13 news, Shaked said determining immigration policy is under her “clear authority.”
Pressed further on Lapid’s role in the refugee cap announced Tuesday, Shaked said, “We built this proposal together.”
Ukraine’s embassy in Israel on Saturday said it backed a petition to the High Court of Justice against Israel’s limitations on Ukrainian refugees.
The appeal argues that the government’s cap on refugee entries violates international agreements between the nations as well as international conventions to which Israel is a party, and was imposed without proper authority.
Over 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled the war, with the majority going to neighboring Poland. Millions more are internally displaced.
Ukraine has consistently pressed Israel for more support during the conflict.
Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including 100 tons of medical and cold-weather equipment flown out of Ben Gurion Airport last week. However, it has sought to walk a tightrope to maintain good relations with both Ukraine and Russia. Russia maintains a military presence in Syria and is negotiating Iran’s return to a nuclear deal.
Bennett has mediated between Ukraine and Russia, and on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proposed a summit in Jerusalem with Russian President Vladimir Putin.