Eritreans caught between Israel and Egypt's border fences, on Wednesday.
Eritreans caught between Israel and Egypt's border fences, on Wednesday. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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A group of some 20 refugees from Eritrea has been trapped for about a week between the wire fences along the border with Egypt. Like hunted animals that managed, with the last remnants of their strength, to reach the locked gates of a nature reserve, these refugees found themselves facing a country that has decided to seal itself off behind a wall of hard-heartedness.

The Israel Defense Forces soldiers who are guarding them from the other side of the fence have indeed given them a bit of water and a piece of canvas to protect themselves from the oppressive sun, but their situation is getting steadily worse - to the point that some members of the group are in danger of dying.

This human tragedy, as usual, is dressed in a cloak of law and order. After all, were Israel to allow them to enter, this might create a dangerous precedent - a precedent that would bring thousands of other refugees in its wake to stand at the fence and await a humanitarian gesture from Israel. In that way, human mercy could foil the fence's mission of preventing refugees from entering.

On the other hand, the international rules and agreements that Israel has signed obligate it to implement the principle of non-refoulement. This principle states that a person cannot be returned to a place where his life would be in danger. At the very least, this principle obligates states to examine asylum-seekers' claims before deporting them.

The legal dilemmas and the administrative arguments are indeed weighty. But while this discussion is taking place in a cool, scholarly manner, these refugees are facing another day of terrible suffering in the burning heat of Sinai. The discussion can still be held even if the refugees are lodged in a refugee camp, or one of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority's prisons, where they would get medical treatment and decent food. If the final decision is that there's no reason to let them stay in Israel, they can join the other migrants whom Israel is forcibly deporting.

Israel is not entitled, on any pretext, to allow these refugees to continue dying on its doorstep. The state can take comfort from the fact that the fence has already done its work: The number of asylum-seekers plunged from 2,000 a month last year to only 199 this past August. But this success must not be allowed to seal our hearts and our borders to those whose lives are in real danger. The state must open its gates and allow the refugees to enter.