Israel's Top Court Denies Revealing Government Files on Human Rights in Eritrea

'The fears of harm to Israel's foreign relations are real,' justice says, rejecting activists' petition to declassify documents on Israel’s relations with the dictatorship

Asylum seekers wait outside the Population and Immigration Authority in Bnei Brak, Israel, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Supreme Court denied on Wednesday an appeal filed by of a group of human rights activists demanding that the Foreign Ministry release classified documents concerning the human rights situation in Eritrea and Israel’s relations with the African country.

In his ruling, Justice Noam Sohlberg stated that releasing of the documents could damage Israel’s foreign relations.

“The fears of harm to the country’s foreign relations are real, concrete and focused, and are not just unfounded concerns,” Sohlberg wrote. 

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“Due to the content and sensitivity of these materials, we are unable to expand on this matter, but the materials are convincing and clear. In addition, the content of the files doesn't arouse enough public interest to support the appellants’ case," Sohlberg wrote.

Attorney Eitay Mack, who filed the appeal, criticized the court ruling, saying that "the Foreign Ministry prevents the exposure of the documents regarding the human rights situation in Eritrea so that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers can continue their campaign of unrestrained incitement against asylum seekers from Eritrea, and human rights activists who defend the rights of thise asylum seekers.

“As long as the official documents of the Foreign Ministry are hidden, Netanyahu and his govermnet can continue to claim that the citizens of Eritrea, men and women, are fleeing en masse to Israel and other countries for the fun of it or to get a job,” Mack said, adding that the ruling implies that the main consideration in not providing the information is protecting Israel's relations with the dictatorship in Eritrea.

The petitioners, a group of human rights activists working on behalf of asylum seekers in Israel and headed by Mack, asked in July 2016 for the Foreign Ministry to release all the documents concerning Eritrean asylum seekers residing in Israel.

The ministry replied that it did not have in its possession “any agreement with Eritrea concerning its nationals residing in Israel,” but admitted that an opinion on the human rights situation in Eritrea does exist.

Foreign Ministry representatives refused to reveal the opinion – composed of four internal documents – to the Israeli public, claiming it could harm Israel’s foreign relations.

In 2018, Jerusalem District Court Judge Eli Abravanel ruled that the public importance of releasing the documents does not override the fears of damaging Israel’s foreign relations.

Abravanel noted that troubling data exist concerning the human rights situation in Eritrea and therefore “there is no doubt that relations between Israel and Eritrea, as well as the human rights situation in this country and the status of Eritrean nationals who live in Israel arouse a broad public interest.”

Nonetheless, the judge found that the ministry had no obligation to release the files "since other interests such as preventing damage to Israel’s foreign relations and preserving the freedom of internal debate within government bodies exists as well, and too deserve protection."