Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected calls for his country to take in some of the refugees streaming through the Middle East, citing the potential risks.
“Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa,” he said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “But Israel is a small country, a very small country, that lacks demographic and geographic depth; therefore, we must control our borders against illegal migrants and terrorism.”
Netanyahu said Israel is discussing multilateral aid packages with other European governments aimed at helping African states “in order to deal with the problem at the source.” He also announced that work has begun on a new security fence along Israel’s eastern border with Jordan.
Europe is facing its biggest refugee crisis since World War II, with thousands moving across its borders and more than 2,400 perishing at sea this year after fleeing violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Most have sought sanctuary from the conflict ravaging Israel’s enemy, neighboring Syria.
Netanyahu traveled by helicopter after the cabinet meeting to tour the construction area for the new eastern fence. He said the government has allocated 280 million shekels ($71 million) for the first 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) section, starting from Israel’s southern resort city of Eilat, according to a text message from his office.
“We’ve seen what has happened to countries that have lost control over their borders,” Netanyahu said. Israel will make sure that the new fence does not “intrude on the sovereignty of Jordan, which is our partner in guarding our peaceful border,” he added.
Israel’s policy toward migrants has been the subject of a contentious debate since the government began acting against the estimated 60,000 Africans who have entered the country of 8.3 million in the past decade. Netanyahu has denounced their arrival as a threat to Israel’s Jewish majority, and oversaw construction of a fence along its border with Egypt to contain the flow. Thousands have been detained and deported.
With pressure growing on governments to open their doors to the flood of migrants to Europe, Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog called on Netanyahu to let some refugees from Syria into the country.
“Have you forgotten what it’s like to be Jews, refugees, hunted?” Herzog, head of the Zionist Union bloc, said in a Facebook post. “Prime minister of the Jewish people, don’t close your heart when men are fleeing for their lives with babies in their arms.”
Herzog’s call was echoed by Deputy Minister of Regional Cooperation Ayoob Kara, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party who belongs to Israel’s Druze minority. Kara said by text message that he was going to discuss with the prime minister the possibility of Israel taking in Druze refugees and other members of Syria’s persecuted minorities.
More than 4 million Syrians have fled their country’s civil war since 2011, most to other nations in the Middle East.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to let Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria enter the West Bank. Abbas instructed the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations to raise the issue with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the official Wafa Palestinian news agency reported.
Israeli Immigration Minister Zeev Elkin rejected any such possibility, describing it to Israel Radio as “a back door effort to carry out the Palestinian right of return.”