'Ukrainians massively saved Jewish lives during Holocaust'

Ukraine envoy ‘disappointed’ by Israel detaining refuge-seekers, wants defensive aid

Yevgen Korniychuk says tens of Ukrainians who came to stay with family and friends are being held at airport; minister pushes back against his criticism

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk hosts a briefing at the Embassy's Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk hosts a briefing at the Embassy's Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk said Tuesday he was “disappointed” that some Ukranian refuge-seekers were being detained upon arrival in Israel, and expressed dismay that Israel continues to refuse to provide much-needed helmets and military vests for military and civil protection.

He also brought up Ukrainians who assisted Jews during the Holocaust, saying Israel should now be helping his countrymen too.

“We were disappointed yesterday with a decision of the interior minister [Ayelet Shaked] that explained that [Israel] will not allow Ukrainian refugees to come to Israel,” Korniychuk said at a press conference in Tel Aviv.

Several Ukrainians who fled the fighting but who lack legal status in Israel are being detained at Ben Gurion Airport. According to Korniychuk and a lawyer representing the refugees, they came to Israel to stay with family, but the state is requesting a deposit of several thousand shekels before they are allowed to enter.

The deposit is held in guarantee that the Ukrainians will eventually leave Israel.

“Tens of cases are known to us,” the legal representative said.

According to the attorney, the Ukrainian shelter-seekers are currently held in a section of the airport before passport control, such that Israel considers them to not yet have formally entered the country.

People walk by a damaged vehicle and an armored car at a checkpoint in Brovary, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Hebrew-language media reports have noted that the individuals could have been admitted as tourists. However, because family members formally invited them, the state suspects they may overstay their welcome, and is requesting a monetary commitment to stop them from becoming illegal residents or formal refugees.

A spokeswoman for the Population and Immigration Authority did not respond to requests for clarification, but the move appeared to be a recent change in policy.

Ukrainians have a three-month visa waiver in Israel and Shaked said on Saturday that she had instructed her ministry to approve tourist visa extensions to Ukrainians already in Israel, in light of the ongoing war.

“This is the decision of the State of Israel and we could not intervene with it,” said Korniychuk. “But we are asking for your humanity to understand our people’s needs. They are not choosing where to stay and some of them are coming… because of their having relatives here or friends that are willing to take care of them. We are not talking about illegal workers.”

Shaked later appeared to push back against Korniychuk’s criticism.

“One should stick to the facts,” she wrote in a tweet.

According to Shaked, only two out of 97 Ukrainian passport holders who arrived in Israel on Tuesday were denied entry. She said one was a woman with “a borrowed identity” who arrived from Georgia and the other a man from Poland seeking to immigrate to Israel, without further elaborating.

However, Hebrew media reported later Tuesday that following Korniychuck’s comments, Shaked agreed to allow into Israel any Ukrainians with first degree relatives who do not have the right to immigrate under the Law of Return. They will be allowed into the country if their sponsors pledge they will leave at the end of the war and they depart once their permit expires.

Any Ukrainians who do not have first degree relatives with Israeli citizenship will reportedly have to deposit NIS 10,000 as a condition of entry if they are considered to have a low chance of being allowed to stay, and their sponsors will have to guarantee they leave once their permission to be in the country lapses.

Workers load packages of Israeli humanitarian aid to assist people caught up in the fighting in Ukraine, in Ben Gurion airport, March 1, 2022 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Explaining why he believes Israel has a moral imperative to admit Ukrainian refuge-seekers, Korniychuk recalled Ukrainians who helped save Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

“You will remember the times of the Second World War when the Ukrainians were saving massively the Jewish lives during the Holocaust,” said Korniychuk.

He mentioned the fact that Ukraine has the fourth-most Righteous Among the Nations — non-Jews who saved Jewish lives during the war.

“We saved the Jewish lives at that time, we are [asking] you to help the Ukrainians to overcome this strategy [of monetary deposits] now. This is why the issue of the bail of NIS 10,000 or NIS 20,000 is not acceptable. This is a humanitarian catastrophe and I want you to consider that seriously.”

While it is true that Yad Vashem registers 2,673 Ukrainians as Righteous Among the Nations, many Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis and were complicit in many atrocities against Jews in the country during the Holocaust.

Of the 100 tons of humanitarian aid that Israel sent to Ukraine in the past day, Korniychuk said he was happy to receive certain antibiotics and medical equipment that his country’s health ministry had requested. However, much of the equipment sent, while a nice gesture — such as water treatment systems — was not a priority, he said.

“We provided the Israeli government with a specific list of antibiotics and medical equipment that was needed,” Korniychuk said, of cooperation between the Ukrainian and Israeli health ministries.

“Most of what was provided was water purifiers and things that the Ministry of Health of Ukraine wasn’t asking for, but still we thank you from all our hearts.”

However, Korniychuk said what the country most needs is helmets and tactical vests, and that they first asked European allies but were told their stocks were empty.

“We definitely need more help and we’re getting this help much more from the rest of the world than from Israel,” he said.

A source at the Foreign Ministry said helmets and tactical vests are considered military equipment and therefore will not be provided, in line with Israel’s policy to not supply Ukraine with military aid in order to maintain good ties with Russia.

Due to Russia’s military presence in Israel’s northern neighbor Syria, the Israeli government has walked a tightrope to both support Ukraine and not endanger its own security interests with Russia.

Regarding ongoing talks on the Belarusian border between Ukraine and Russia, Korniychuk said they are not expected to yield fruit.

“We understood that the talks in Belarus are another trick by Putin in order to use the time to restructure his military forces,” said Korniychuk. “But our delegation decided to take part of it in order to not be accused of not taking it seriously.”

Demonstrators carry placards and flags during a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, outside the city hall in Jerusalem, on February 28, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett acceded to a Ukrainian request to call Russian President Vladimir Putin and offer Israel as a mediator. Korniychuk said previously that Putin was not amenable to the offer, but remained hopeful that the Russian president may reconsider should the current Russian-Ukrainian talks on the Belarussian border collapse.

Korniychuk met with Bennett’s adviser Shimrit Meir on Monday, but did not share details.

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