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Migrants In Israel In Limbo After PM Netanyahu Flip-flops On Resettlement Deal With United Nations
African migrants and Israelis demonstrate outside the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on April 3, 2018 against the Israeli government's policy towards African refugees and asylum seekers. (Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Migrants In Israel In Limbo After PM Netanyahu Flip-flops On Resettlement Deal With United Nations

The fate of at least 30,000 people still unknown as government unable to formulate politically- or legally-viable plan

Asylum seekers and activists in Israel rejoiced Monday afternoon when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced a deal with the United Nations for Israel to absorb half of its estimated 30,000-strong migrant population with the rest being relocated to Western countries.

But the excitement was short-lived, as the premier hastily froze the pact only six hours later—amid a fierce backlash from his coalition partners—before annulling it altogether Tuesday morning.

The about-face generated widespread criticism across the Israeli political spectrum—as well as from a multitude of international organizations—including from some of Netanyahu’s staunchest supporters within his own Likud party.

For his part, Israeli Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog called on the prime minister to resign. “There is only one way to deal with the theater of the absurd that we have seen over the past day and that is to demand that the leading actor leave the stage,” he said in reference to the Netanyahu’s handling of the ordeal.

The UN also called on the Israeli leader to “reconsider” the decision, with a spokesperson for the body’s refugee agency stating that, “we continue to believe in the need for a win-win agreement that can benefit Israel, the international community and people needing asylum.”

“The way Israel treats the black community here is really disgraceful,” Sigal Kook Avivi, a prominent Israeli rights activist, told The Media Line. “[The canceled deal is] not shocking because we’ve learned to expect nothing out of [Netanyahu]. He moves according to whoever puts pressure on him.”

Meanwhile, multiple pro-migrant protests broke out in Tel Aviv following the reversal, with demonstrators chanting the now-common refrain: “Netanyahu, you are playing with our lives.” In south Tel Aviv, where many of the Eritrean and Sudanese migrants reside, the initial announcement of the UN-backed pact provided hope after years of uncertainty and in the face of possible imprisonment.

“At first I was feeling very well about the news and all the people here were feeling very optimistic but unfortunately Netanyahu changed it,” Gero Adam, a Sudanese asylum seeker who has lived in Israel for seven years, told The Media Line.

“I’m feeling disappointed now.”

Until recently, thousands of African “infiltrators,” as some refer to them, had been sent to the Holot open-air detention center in southern Israel, but the facility was closed in mid-March amid plans to deport migrants. It is unclear what comes next given that Israel’s High Court last month froze a government proposal to expel all of the migrants to third-party African countries widely speculated to be Uganda and Rwanda.

“I think [deportation to Africa] is a bad idea, no one agrees with that because we come from there and if we needed Rwanda we would not have come [to Israel],” Adam affirmed.

The issue has for years divided Israeli society, which is torn between the imperative of preserving the nation’s heritage as a harbor of refuge for the disenfranchised and persecuted; and rejecting the foreign population out of fear of what such ad hoc immigration brings with it or concerns over the total population being diluted by non-Jewish Africans.

(Dina Berliner is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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