Interior Ministry officials said yesterday they are ready to start deporting refugees, mostly from Africa, who have been crossing into Israel from the Sinai Peninsula. The officials were speaking at inter-ministerial talks on the issue.
The refugees are most likely to be deported to Egypt, which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said was willing to accept the refugees following an understanding he reached with President Hosni Mubarak.
The proposal to deport the refugees has human rights and foreign workers' support groups up in arms. The Hotline for Migrant Workers threatened to petition the High Court of Justice "if the state tries to deport those seeking asylum without evaluating their request."
The Hotline issued a statement warning that "the deportation of asylum seekers to Egypt without receiving assurances that they will not be deported to their countries constitutes a blatant violation of international law."
The organization points to United Nations conventions on refugees, to which Israel is a signatory, forbidding the deportation of people seeking asylum to a country where they could be exposed to conditions that could threaten their lives.
"Egypt has a proven record of returning refugees to their country of origin, where they died," the organization's statement charges.
In the past, the UN High Commission for Refugees had made it clear to Israel that it opposed the deporting of refugees if no guarantees were secured that they would not be sent back to Sudan.
In Sudan, people who have been to Israel may face threats to their lives.
In talks yesterday on the African refugees, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that any refugee caught crossing into Israel from Egypt would be returned to that country through an official crossing. Olmert said the matter had been finalized in discussions with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week.
The prime minister also said Mubarak has promised that Egypt would step up its efforts to stem the flow of African refugees seeking to cross into Israel from Sinai.
However, in a statement from the Prime Minister's Office, there was no reference to whether Olmert had been given guarantees by Mubarak that the refugees would not be sent to Sudan.
The statement only mentioned that the Israel Defense Forces' role would be to track and arrest the refugees and return them to Egypt through the official border crossings "on the basis of Egyptian commitment guaranteeing their well-being."
In the statement, Israel would "examine the possibility of assisting a small number of the refugees from Darfur who are now in Israel."
However, this would only be done "after the influx of the refugees is completely contained."
According to an inter-ministerial committee, which was headed by Interior Minister Roni Bar-On and which presented its conclusions on refugees crossing into Israel from Sinai, about 1,400 such illegal immigrants are currently in Israel.
Most of them are from Sudan and Eritrea, and they are believed to have been motivated by economic reasons in sneaking into Israel.
The committee also noted that the Sinai is used not only by African economic refugees, but by some from Eastern Europe and East Asia.
At least 350 of those who crossed from Sinai are refugees from the crisis in Darfur in western Sudan.
The board chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yosef Lapid, said yesterday that as far as he is aware there is no intention to deport any refugees from Darfur - only those from other parts of Sudan.
He warned that if Darfur refugees are deported, there will be public opposition and he will be part of it.