The Israeli Military Sends African Asylum Seekers Back Across Lebanon Border

The High Court ruled the practice illegal when used against asylum seekers crossing over from Egypt. Advocates say it violates international law and puts their lives at risk

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
The Israel-Lebanon border, this week.
The Israel-Lebanon border, this week.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The Israel Defense Forces is turning back African asylum seekers who cross into Israel from Lebanon. The High Court of Justice ruled against such a practice when it was used against asylum seekers who crossed into Israel from Egypt.

Haaretz has learned that the army began to detect a trend of Africans entering Israel from Lebanon two years ago, and during the past year it has begun quickly sending them back across the border, a process referred to as “hot return.” To date there have been a few dozen asylum seekers sent back to Lebanon by the IDF.

At first the military thought the asylum seekers entering from Lebanon were working for Hezbollah, or being exploited by the terror group to report on Israel’s deployment along the border and uncover weak spots, through which Hezbollah operatives could infiltrate into Israel. As a result, the army sent the asylum seekers they caught for police questioning, and at times even extended their detention.

But as the phenomenon became more common, the IDF began to realize that the Africans entering Israel did not pose a security risk, but rather were seeking asylum or work after fleeing other countries, some of which are at war, and were seeking a safer future in Israel.

The police concluded that it wasn’t necessary to detain these people, and said it was creating an unnecesary burden, since the courts generally would rule to free them shortly afterward. That’s when the IDF started to send the Africans back across the border as soon as possible. Unlike the border with Egypt, where tens of thousands of asylum seekers crossed into Israel until a border wall was built during the last decade, the border with Lebanon is more sensitive and is constantly monitored. The asylum seekers are often spotted well before they reach the border, and if they succeed in crossing it, they are immediately caught by soldiers.

Such a case occurred last month. At about 4 A.M., observers identified two figures climbing over the border fence and crossing into Israeli territory. Soldiers from a reserve battalion, who were operating along the northern border, were rushed to the scene, and began scanning the fence for them. Residents of nearby communities were instructed to stay in their homes. Flares were fired and stun grenades were thrown at areas that looked suspicious, but only at 8:30 A.M. did the soldiers spot two men from Sudan, exhausted and on the verge of dehydration. A search revealed that all they had in their pockets were dates and three dollars each.

Sources who spoke to Haaretz said that immediately after they were arrested, the two men were taken to the district’s brigade base, where they were questioned by the trackers who helped search for them. An hour later, the asylum seekers were brought blindfolded and handcuffed to the base where the reserve force that detained them was serving. Several sources said the men were offered food and drink, but they refused and appeared to be afraid. They later accepted a bag of food from the kitchen.

The preparation to return the Sudanese men to Lebanon began about two hours after they were detained. The commander of an artillery battalion that worked in the same sector instructed his reservists that the men would be handed over in keeping with the usual procedure for such cases: the soldiers would cut the fence in a predetermined area and return them to Lebanese territory. Immediately afterwards, the soldiers would repair the fence and leave. Due to the risk inherent in being so close to the border, the team would need to have its equipment and weapons ready in order to respond quickly should Hezbollah attack.

The battalion commander stressed several points, which he said had been learned from previous incidents, including when two Turkish citizens crossed the border. The commander said that sometimes the asylum seekers are shot at by the Lebanese army when they are sent back across the border, and in such cases, the reserve solders should not return fire and should simply leave the area. Some participants said that the commander said they should open fire only if the Lebanese fired at the IDF force.

Another scenario described by the battalion commander surprised several of the soldiers present. According to them, he told them to stop the return process if any UN or other international force approached the site, because the commander said what the army was doing violated international law. The commander also raised the possibility that Lebanese soldiers may come to the transfer point and take the asylum seekers back to Lebanon to be dealt with. The last scenario is what actually happened.

Near the fence, the soldiers waited, in keeping with protocol, to see if anyone would come from the Lebanese side. A vehicle with no identifying marks approached, and in retrospect the fighters realized it was a Lebanese army vehicle. The IDF however denied that the handoff was coordinated in advance.

Human rights official: It’s illegal

An employee of a major human rights organization active in the area said his organization is not familiar with an Israeli protocol for sending back asylum seekers that addresses the criteria for permitting them to enter Israel and interrogating them, nor does it know who handles them. The source said that based on the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, they could not be interrogated by “armed soldiers in uniform.”

“There needs to be a differentiation between an initial interrogation in the field and the questioning regarding the facts of the refugee’s status. The IDF doesn’t have the authority to conduct interrogations regarding whether refugees are eligible to enter Israel; this has to be conducted at the right place and time, and by the right authorities,” the source said.

The source added that refugees attempting to cross the border from Lebanon into Israel are doing so because of the economic hardship in Lebanon, which brings some of them to the point of starvation. Lebanon is the country that took in the most refugees relative to its own population – one refugee for every six Lebanese citizens – the vast majority of them from Syria, noted the source. This puts the African refugees at an even lower standing relative to the Syrians, he added.

In May of last year, human rights organizations sent a letter to the attorney general and the army judge-advocate general about the “hot return” of Sudanese nationals to Lebanon. They argued that this procedure runs “contrary to the state’s commitments to the High Court of Justice, the State of Israel’s international commitment to the Refugee Convention and the principle of non-refoulement.” The petition to which the writers were referring, from 2011, dealt with the return of Sudanese asylum seekers to the Sinai peninsula. The petition was dropped with the two sides’ agreement after the High Court accepted the state’s declaration regarding how such cases would be handled in the future.

The state agreed to several threshold conditions regarding the return of asylum seekers from Africa, including coordinated returns that rely on agreements between the countries, “while upholding the principles of international law.” Attorney Tomer Warsha, head of a leading law firm dealing with immigration and residency status in Israel and an expert in refugee law, said, “International law customarily prohibits the deportation of a person to a place where his life, his health or liberty may be endangered. ‘Hot return’ is nothing more than a whitewashed reference to the deportation of a person from this country without an individual examination of the fate that awaits him, without the procedures established in Israeli administrative law and in complete violation of the binding provisions of international law.”

Another condition is that “the return is not implemented in cases where asylum seekers raise a claim of refugee status during an interview that is conducted by authorities specifically trained for this purpose.” The state also promised that returning asylum seekers to the country from which they entered, and not their native land, would be done “only on condition that they will be protected from being returned to their native land, and on condition they would get basic humane treatment until a proper solution was found for them.”

Bread lines in Sidon, Lebanon, in August.Credit: Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP

Attorney Inbar Barel of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, who signed the letter sent to the attorney general and the prosecution, said that as far as the hotline knows, the return of asylum seekers to Lebanon was not done in a coordinated fashion. “It does not appear that a proper examination was made of the situation of the Sudanese citizens and whether they were requesting asylum,” she said. “Given the current situation in Lebanon, there is a serious concern that returning the Sudanese citizens there puts their lives and liberty at risk, and as such is a violation of the non-refoulement principle, which also applies if the person in question is not a refugee in keeping with the definition of the Convention on Refugees.”

The military prosecution responded to the letter over a month after it was sent, in July 2020, and argued, “The northern border of the State of Israel, beyond which lie two enemy countries, Syria and Lebanon, and along which there is regular hostile activity by the terror organization Hezbollah and other terror groups, is an especially sensitive border. Accordingly, infiltration into the State of Israel from this border constitutes a security threat to the citizens of the State of Israel and to IDF forces.”

The IDF argued that even when there’s no security incident involved, “The concern about infiltration necessarily leads to significant security ramifications. Incidents of infiltration along the border could be exploited by the enemy to learn about weak spots along the security obstacle and about the preparedness of the IDF forces.” As such, the IDF said that even in cases when asylum seekers enter Israel through the Lebanon border, the state must act firmly.

With regard to the claim that the return of asylum seekers back to Lebanon endangers their lives, the military prosecution said last year: “In all cases, before returning them to Lebanon, the infiltrators are questioned by IDF forces. During questioning the infiltrators did not make any claims about their lives being endangered in Lebanon or any claim to being asylum seekers. We will add that we do not know that there is a risk to the safety or liberty of the returned infiltrators.”

The prosecution noted that the decision to return them in this fashion “is acceptable to senior officials,” and that “returning the infiltrators to Lebanese territory is done while informing UNIFIL forces, but naturally their return is not coordinated with officials in Lebanon.”

On Sunday, the IDF said with regard to the incident with the two Sudanese that “during July two work seekers were caught … after they crossed the Lebanese border into Israeli territory, The infiltrators were questioned by the forces in their own language before being sent back to Lebanon. During the interview they said they had been in Lebanon before the infiltration, and one of them even said he had worked in Lebanon, and they had sought to enter Israel for economic reasons. After their questioning was completed, since there were no claims made to raise any concern they’d be harmed if returned to Lebanon, and based on a situational assessment, they were returned to Lebanese territory.”

According to the IDF, “The return of the infiltrators was done in accordance with the law and the obligations of the State of Israel, and the decision on the matter was made at the senior level.” The IDF said the return was not coordinated with the Lebanese Army. “The forces were not told that elements in Lebanon might pick up the infiltrators and it was not stated that in the past the Lebanese army had shot at the infiltrators during their transfer to Lebanese territory,” the statement said. “In addition, it should be noted that the IDF is not familiar with any claims that infiltrators were fired on in the past.”

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