Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel was not indifferent to the tragedy of refugees from Syria and Africa, but added that the country was too small to absorb those fleeing from their homelands and that immediate steps would be taken to prevent infiltrators from entering its borders.
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"Israel is a small country, and we do not have the geographic and demographic depths [to absorb them]," Netanyahu told ministers at the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "Therefore, we must control our borders and prevent migrant worker infiltrators or generators of terror."
Netanyahu added that Israel has treated a thousand Syrian refugees in hospitals in the north and had aided them in rehabilitating their lives. Netanyahu added that Israel was in contact with leaders in Africa and Europe about establishing aid packages for the refugees' countries of origin in Africa, in order to treat the problem at its roots.
He also said that Israel would begin immediate construction work on a fence on its eastern border between Eilat and Timna, which would eventually reach all the way north to the Golan Heights. "We will surround Israel with a security and barrier fence," Netanyahu said. "Israel must not be flooded with infiltrators, migrant workers and terrorists.
Netanyahu's remarks come just a day after opposition leader Isaac Herzog called on the government to allow Syrian refugees into Israel. During a panel discussion in Tel Aviv, Herzog said that on Friday night he spoke with Kamal Al-Labwani, a senior leader in the exiled Syrian opposition government in Europe.
"The Syrian opposition has grave complaints against the nations of the world," Herzog said.
"I call on the government of Israel to act toward receiving refugees from the war in Syria, in addition to the humanitarian efforts it is already making," Herzog said. "Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven."
Herzog's call generated harsh responses from his colleagues in the Knesset. Transportation and Intelligence Affairs Minister said the remarks were rife "with a lack of understanding and lack of national responsibility. At the very least he should offer, like the prime minister of Finland did, to house them in his own house."
Herzog responded to Netanyahu's criticism in a Facebook post on Sunday. "You've forgotten what it means to be Jews. Refugees. Persecuted. The prime minister of the Jewish people does not close his heart and the gate when people are fleeing for their lives from persecution, with their babies in their hands. Menachem Begin, who immediately absorbed within his first government refugees from Vietnam, is turning over in his grave. I suggest looking responsibly on reality, and to bring in – in coordination with international efforts – a controlled and limited number of refugees, for humanitarian reasons, and through that, also save our Druze brothers who are being slaughtered in Syria and are in terrible distress."