Egyptian border guards patrol near the border with Israel
Egyptian border guards patrol near the border with Israel in Rafah, Egypt, Augusts 2012. Photo by AP
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Israel has been sending soldiers into Egypt's Sinai desert to stop African migrants before they reach the border, handing them over to Egyptian forces, human rights groups charged in a report released Friday.

The report, published by Amnesty International and several Israeli groups, including Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that Israeli soldiers have entered several hundred meters into Egyptian territory to catch migrants and hand them over to Egyptian police.

The report cited an Israeli soldier and several migrants whose relatives were seized by Israeli soldiers inside Egyptian territory.

In an affidavit included in the report, the Israeli reserve soldier said his unit was posted in June several hundred meters inside Egypt to stop African migrants. The soldier described three incidents in which his unit dealt with African migrants on the Egyptian side. On two occasions Israeli soldiers marched the groups several kilometers along the border on the Egyptian side and handed them over to Egyptian police.

In the other, he wrote that soldiers guarded a group of about 40 migrants, including women and a baby, for two days before the migrants "dispersed," and most of them crossed into Israel.

The soldier's name is blacked out. A Tel Aviv attorney countersigned the statement.

The report also cites migrants who succeeded in making it to Israel but say their relatives were in groups that were intercepted and handed over by force to Egyptian authorities.

The three rights group called on Israel to stop the practice, saying it was aimed at preventing migrants from entering Israel, where the government would then have to consider their claims of asylum. The groups said repatriating asylum seekers who might be in danger in their home countries is a violation of international law.

"Israel is responsible for the action or omissions of its soldiers, whether they are located in Israeli or Egyptian territory," the report said. It added that they fear that "victims of physical and sexual abuse by traffickers in the Sinai desert may be among those returned."

Asked about the report, the IDF Spokesman's Office confirmed that it was detaining Africans attempting to enter the country, but did not specify on which side of the border its activities took place.

"The IDF operates in the area of the border in a place where the fence's construction has not been completed, in order to prevent penetration of hostile terrorist activity, as well as criminal smuggling and illegal border infiltration," the IDF Spokesman's Office said.  

"In recent weeks IDF forces have been forced, a number of times, to prevent entrance of infiltrators, during attempts to illegally enter the State of Israel's territory, until the arrival of Egyptian forces which took the infiltrators. IDF forces' activities are conducted according to the law," it added.  

A senior Egyptian military official in Sinai denied that any Israeli soldiers had entered Egypt to chase migrants. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

The use of Israeli soldiers just inside Egyptian territory, with apparent Egyptian consent, would be a startling move, given widespread anti-Israeli sentiment among Egyptians and the strong sensitivities over Sinai, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and returned after the 1979 peace deal between the two countries.

The report came as tension rose over the security situation in the lawless desert, where Islamic militants recently killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, stole armored vehicles and drove into Israel, apparently to carry out a further attack until they were struck by Israeli forces. Egypt has deployed additional troops in the peninsula near the borders with Israel and Gaza in an operation to stamp out militant groups.

Israel believes that most of the migrants are seeking work, not asylum, and has recently begun deporting migrants from South Sudan, giving financial incentives to those who agree to leave voluntarily. South Sudan, which gained independence a year ago, has friendly relations with Israel.

The rights groups' report coincides with a sharp drop in the number of migrants crossing the border. In July, Israel said 248 migrants entered, less than half the average. The report quotes Egyptian newspapers saying that 514 migrants were caught in July, several hundred more than usual.

Most African migrants reaching Israel come from Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. About 60,000 migrants are already in Israel, and some Israelis have expressed concern that the influx could harm the Jewish character of the state.