Ukrainian embassy backs High Court petition to block Israel’s refugee cap

Appeal argues current policy violates bilateral agreements and international treaties, and that Interior Minister Shaked made decisions without the proper authority

Refugees board a flight to Israel at Iasi Airport in Romania, on March 3, 2022. (The Times of Israel)
Refugees board a flight to Israel at Iasi Airport in Romania, on March 3, 2022. (The Times of Israel)

Ukraine’s embassy in Israel is backing a petition to the High Court of Justice against Israel’s limitations on the entry of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.

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 not imposed with proper authority.

The embassy hired Israeli attorney Tomer Warsha to file the suit. Warsha’s law firm called on the High Court to immediately issue an injunction blocking the new policies and forcing the government to allow Ukrainians in.

The embassy’s letter to this effect, which was signed by Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk, was widely reported in Israeli media, though the embassy later denied formally “submitting an appeal to the Israeli court. The embassy said, however, that it still “supports the core of the appeal.” It wasn’t clear if the ambassador’s letter had been officially submitted to the court.

The letter said the embassy’s appeals to Israeli authorities had been “ignored and left unanswered,” and that the ambassador had turned to legal means due to “exhausted diplomatic possibilities.”

According to a prior visa waiver agreement between Israel and Ukraine, Ukrainians can visit Israel for up to three months without any need for a permit. However, the Israeli government has essentially thrown out this accord since Russia invaded Ukraine and refugees began streaming out of the country.

This week, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said the country would allow some 20,000 Ukrainians who were residing in the country illegally or were on tourist visas before the invasion to remain, while also granting permits to a further 5,000 non-Jewish refugees escaping the war. All Jewish Ukrainians are allowed in and given citizenship under the Law of Return.

Shaked said Saturday night that the 5,000 cap had almost been reached.

Critics inside and outside of the country have slammed the policy as woefully insufficient.

Around 200 Ukrainian refugees have been turned away after arriving at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, Channel 12 reported Friday. And dozens more were being housed at a hotel, forbidden to leave as their requests were being reviewed.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, gives a statement to the media on the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

Warsha said Shaked’s decision violated bilateral agreements between the countries, and that the minister was not authorized to take such action on her own — rather, it necessitated a cabinet decision or Knesset deliberations.

In a letter to the court, Warsha’s law firm also alleged the move violated international conventions on refugees.

Warsha told Channel 12 that Shaked is not authorized to impose the limit without the issue being discussed by the government and/or the Knesset, and that he was confident the court will “restore good order.”

In an interview with Channel 13 news Saturday, Shaked insisted that determining immigration policy was under her “clear authority” and responsibility.

But she added that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was a “partner” in the decision to cap the number of non-Jewish Ukrainians allowed to stay in Israel.

“We built this proposal together,” she said.

Korniychuk said Friday that Israel is not doing enough to support Ukraine by providing defensive aid, absorbing refugees, and taking a clear stance against Russia, accusing Jerusalem of being “afraid” of Moscow.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “does not” understand Israel’s refusal to provide defensive equipment, such as helmets and flak jackets, to Ukraine, Korniychuk said in a briefing with reporters.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to reporters in Kyiv, on March 12, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office)

“I, as an ambassador, do,” understand Israel’s position, “but our president does not,” Korniychuk said at his Embassy’s Cultural Center in Tel Aviv.

Russia has “a few airplanes and anti-missile systems in Syria… and you are afraid,” Korniychuk charged. “And at the same time, let me point you to Baltic states that have a joint border with the Russian Federation. And they don’t care, they bring everything they could to Ukraine, they’re not afraid,” referencing NATO countries who are supplying Ukraine with weapons to resist the invasion.

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, the latter of which maintains a military presence in Syria and is negotiating Iran’s return to a nuclear deal.

Shaked defended her refugee policy on Friday, as dozens protested outside the airport with signs reading “a Jew does not expel a refugee.”

“Contrary to criticism, the vast majority of those who came to Israel were allowed to enter and stay here until the [war] passes,” Shaked wrote in a Facebook post.

“At the same time, any sane person understands that the tiny nation-state of the Jewish people cannot be a substitute for the various European countries, including Ukraine’s neighbors, who have opened their borders generously [to refugees],” she said.

Over 2 million Ukrainians have fled the war, with the majority going to neighboring Poland. Millions more are internally displaced.

The treatment of those arriving at Israel’s borders and awaiting permission to enter has caused an uproar.

Footage aired by Channel 12 on Thursday showed large numbers of people inside one of the airport’s terminals, with young children sleeping on the floor and on a baggage carousel, as well as an elderly woman being treated after apparently fainting.

Some of the refugees were said to be waiting to enter the country for several days, without being given adequate food or a suitable place to rest. Footage aired by the TV network Thursday showed many people, young and old, sitting in plastic chairs, laying on thin mattresses, or resting on the terminal floor itself.

Authorities have since moved those people whose entry has not yet been authorized to the aforementioned hotel.

“Those images did not go over my head,” Shaked said, adding that she had spoken with “the relevant authorities to take care of the issue.”

Ukrainian arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport, on March 10, 2022. (Facebook screenshot)

The Population and Immigration Authority said that the mass of people and their treatment was due to several flights bringing refugees to the airport at the same time, causing congestion for officials.

Jewish immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine arrive at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said that the situation at the airport was unacceptable and that she had brought it up with Shaked.

“I recommend that the interior minister should demand answers and lead her teams, reinforce them… so that there will be food, water, diapers, everything they need,” she said. “This is something we cannot accept.”

Tamano-Shata expressed further displeasure with the treatment of the refugees during a cabinet meeting on Thursday, saying: “It’s shameful. It’s causing chaos for us in the world,” according to transcripts published by Channel 12.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennet (center) and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (right) at the Ministerial Committee on Aliyah and Integration, Jerusalem, on March 7, 2022. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

“It makes no sense that in the Jewish state, a woman and her daughter arrive from Ukraine and would not be able to take a shower for three days due to immigration policy,” Ben Gurion Airport director Shmuel Zakai was quoted as saying.

An official from the Population and Immigration Authority at the cabinet meeting claimed that Israel does not want to let through some of those who have arrived, since “if they get in, they won’t leave.” Following the 2014 war between Ukraine and Russia, thousands of Ukrainians came to Israel, with many staying illegally after their visas expired.

Following the release of the reports about the airport conditions, Channel 12 reported that Shaked has instructed for a permanent representative to be present at the airport, who will contact people on their way to Israel and ensure that those who arrive are eligible to enter and have all the documents needed.

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