FM: 'Unacceptable mistakes' with refugees landing in Israel

Lapid: Israel has moral duty to let in more non-Jews; ‘unforgivable’ airport scenes

Touring Romania-Ukraine border region, FM says country should be ‘much more generous’; Labor MK Kariv: Entry cap put in place due to ‘nationalist ideology’

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visits the Siret crossing on Romania's border with Ukraine, March 13, 2022. (Government Press Office)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visits the Siret crossing on Romania's border with Ukraine, March 13, 2022. (Government Press Office)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Sunday that Israel has a “moral duty” to allow in more non-Jewish refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and castigated the handling of refugees at Ben Gurion Airport, amid growing criticism in the government of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s decision to cap the number of those allowed to enter Israel.

“We won’t close our gates and our hearts to those who lost everything,” Lapid said during a visit to the Siret border crossing on Romania’s border to Ukraine. “In Israel there are nine millions residents and our Jewish identity won’t be harmed by a few more thousand refugees.”

Lapid called for Israel to be much “much more generous” about letting in those escaping the war, though he acknowledged that “it’s impossible to allow in refugees without limit.”

“The government will find this balance,” he said.

“What is unforgivable and unacceptable are the mistakes that were made in dealing with refugees who already arrived in Israel,” he said. “The scenes of an old woman and her daughter sleeping on the floor at Ben Gurion Airport must not be repeated.”

“It’s our obligation not only to be good Jews but to be good people,” he added, in comments that contrasted with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s repeated stress that Israel’s “sacred” task is to focus on Jewish refugees. Israel has also capped the number of non-Jewish refugees it will accept at 25,000 — 20,000 of whom were in Israel before the Russian invasion.

Lapid is on a diplomatic trip to Romania and Slovakia, both of which border Ukraine, for talks with their leaders about Russia’s invasion, as well as on bilateral relations with Israel.

Screen capture from undated video showing Ukrainian refugees who were denied entry to Israel, in a holding area at Ben Gurion Airport. (Ynet)

Israel’s restrictions on non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees who do not automatically qualify for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return 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. The Law of Return allows anyone who has a Jewish parent or grandparent to receive Israeli citizenship.

Several officials, including cabinet minister and Knesset members, urged Israel on Sunday to ease its immigration policy and allow more non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees to enter the country.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference of the Israeli newspaper “Makor Rishon” at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said Israel must allow Ukrainian refugees arriving at its border to enter, telling the Walla news site that “when the cannons are heard, we must accept all those fleeing whose lives are in danger.

“When the firing stops we need to stop accepting refugees, but at the moment there is mortal danger, people are coming from all sorts of places where battles are being waged… There is no danger they will settle here in order to find a job,” he said.  “We need to allow in those who come.”

But Liberman — who leads the right-wing Yisraeli Beytenu party and who, like many of his voters, is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union — also said “the self-criticism here went a bit overboard,” noting that “when there is a war thousands of kilometers from here and people come suddenly and without warning, there are some errors.”

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Meretz party said that Israel has a “moral, historical and strategic interest” in allowing more Ukrainian refugees into the country.

“In such a crisis, Israel should not be stingy nor start counting heads, but should mobilize for the global effort,” she told the Ynet news site.

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau attends a ceremony of the Israeli police for the Jewish new year at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem on September 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau said Israel should accept refugees from Ukraine “that don’t find another country” to escape to amid the Russian invasion.

“Until they can return to their homes,” he told Kan public radio, “so there won’t be a situation in which a person flees the hostility and has nowhere to go, no safe harbor.”

Lau said granting residency or citizenship to Ukrainians who fled the war “is something else entirely… but first of all, open the door.”

Some of the harshest criticism on Sunday came from MK Gilad Kariv of the center-left Labor party, chair of Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, who accused the right-wing parties in the government of maintaining the cap on Ukrainian entries out of “nationalist ideology,” but also faulted centrist parties Blue and White and Yesh Atid for not opposing it. (His comments preceded those of Foreign Minister Lapid, who leads Yesh Atid.)

Labor MK Gilad Kariv chairs a meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on July 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Authorities said earlier Sunday that several thousand refugees from the war-torn country have already arrived in Israel, implying Israel had already let in the maximum number of refugees who are not of Jewish descent that the government was prepared to accept.

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 said it would also grant visas to a further 5,000 non-Jewish refugees seeking to escape the war.

Those 5,000 visas would 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 health care.

Ukrainians disembark from a special flight to Israel from Romania upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport, March 8, 2022. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Ukrainians of Jewish descent, in contrast, are allowed into Israel and given citizenship under the Law of Return. 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 had 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.

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.

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 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.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai attends the Jewish People’s Lobby, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ukraine’s embassy in Israel on Saturday said it backed a petition to the High Court of Justice against the government’s cap on Ukrainian refugees.

The appeal argues that the government’s policy violates international agreements between the nations as well as international conventions to which Israel is a party, and was imposed without proper authority.

The Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday that officials in the Justice Ministry pointed to possible legal difficulties in maintaining the refugee cap due to a visa waiver agreement with Ukraine.

According to the report, the Justice Ministry’s position is that if Israel wishes to maintain a quota, the policy should be adjusted so that refugees who have relatives in Israel can enter the country — an amendment reportedly proposed during a meeting at the ministry on Sunday.

Speaking with Channel 12 news, the head of the Population and Immigration Authority, Tomer Moskowitz, said that the state had yet to file a defense against the High Court petition, but that he believes the quota policy is not a breach of the visa waiver agreement with Ukraine. He said that the government might nevertheless amend the cap on entries.

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