Everybody Needs Good Neighbours: Israel, refugees and their right to return

At the start of the civil war close to half a million people were registered in Syria as Palestinian refugees. With the brutal conflict showing no signs of resolution and neighbouring countries struggling to support growing numbers of refugees how much longer can Israel continue looking the other way?

Refugees risking the perilous journey to Europe have dominated headlines in recent months with those remaining in camps in neighbouring countries often overlooked, or used for photo opportunities to support weak political gestures. There have been some disproving looks, not nearly strong enough, directed towards Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States for not playing a larger role in providing humanitarian support but little has been said about one of Syria’s closest neighbours: Israel.

As countries in Europe struggle, both demographically and economically, to resettle Middle Eastern refugees, it ought to raise the question of why refugees from a conflict more than half a century old continue to live in camps dependent on welfare distributed by UN organisations. The conflict in Syria is complex and deadly. All 12 Palestine refugee camps and all 560,000 registered Palestine refugees in the country have been affected.  With the civil war showing no signs of stopping, the question for many is for how much longer can Israel skirt around the problem. The humanitarian crisis in Syria provides Israel with a unique opportunity to frame the Palestinian refugee crisis as a humanitarian rather than political issue and address one of the biggest stumbling blocks on the road to peace.

Israel has always been faced with a paradox; existing as a state which promotes Jewish values whilst ensuring its survival and stability in a volatile part of the world. While Israel is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has never worked to establish a functional refugee system. As of March 2015, Israel has recognized only four Eritreans and not a single Sudanese person as refugees. Israel acceded to the Refugee Convention in 1954, and simultaneously adopted the Prevention of Infiltration Law. Under this law, all irregular border crossers are seen as ‘infiltrators’, and the Ministry of Defence is authorized to deport ‘infiltrators’, even before conviction.

While the provisions of the law were directed primarily against the infiltration of armed fighters, it has great consequences for Palestinian refugees in Syria wishing to return. Article 1(3) of the law defines an infiltrator as “a Palestinian citizen or a Palestinian resident without nationality or citizenship or whose nationality or citizenship was doubtful.” This of course applies to Palestinian refugees fleeing war torn Syria, preventing them from re-entering Israel and permitting Israeli authorities to detain all irregular border-crossers, including asylum seekers and their children, for three years or more before their deportation.

This clearly breaks The Refugee Convention which prohibits the imposition of penalties on refugees because of their illegal entry or presence, if they present themselves to the authorities without delay after entering the country and have good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

The Prevention of Infiltration law is reflected in the rhetoric of the ruling party which fears an increase in Syrian and Palestinian refugees will disrupt the balance of power. Earlier this month opposition leader Isaac Herzog called on the government to allow Syrian refugees into Israel, saying, “Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for a safe haven”. Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas also pleaded with Israel to allow Palestinian refugees in Syria to be resettled in areas under Palestinian control. Both were met with a steadfast response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who rejected calls from opposition politicians for Israel to accept refugees from Syria, saying that Israel was “a very small country that lacks demographic and geographic depth.” He also said that plans to construct a fence along the eastern border with Jordan would go ahead (4).

Despite the official party line speeches like Herzog’s show that as the situation in Syria worsens the way in which some individuals view refugees is shifting. Despite Israel’s complex historical and ideological background there is no reason why solidarity and compassion in the face of human suffering can’t evoke the same kind of bottom-up action that we’ve witnessed across Europe.  Every day there are new stories about Israeli citizens helping Syrian refugees in Jordan and throughout Europe.

There is no denying that Israel exists in a geo-politically precarious position but as a country founded by refugees in times of crisis Israel should reaffirm its statehood by playing a larger supporting role in helping the millions who are perishing on its doorstep.

About the Author

Sophie Coker has recently completed a research Masters in European Migration policy at Nottingham Trent University with a focus on migration, mobility and human rights. She is passionate about social justice, human rights and forced migration both globally and within a European context. Sophie has also completed various refugee-related internships in NGO’s in the UK, Hungary and Spain.

Cover image ‘Isreal 029‘ by Jestrrulz

One response to “Everybody Needs Good Neighbours: Israel, refugees and their right to return

  1. What do these conventions say about confining people for 70 years in refugee camps in Syria? And how many generations can inherit a refugee status?

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