An Israeli soldier hands water to one of the African refugees stranded at… (Yehuda Lahiani / European…)
JERUSALEM — Under pressure from the United Nations and human rights groups, Israel agreed Thursday to allow into the country three Eritrean refugees from a group of more than 20 that had been stranded for a week along a new newly built border fence with Egypt in the Sinai desert.
Israeli officials said they would take in only two women and a teenager for humanitarian reasons and that the rest of the group would be removed from the fence area and taken to Cairo by Egyptian authorities.
"It is important that everyone understands that Israel is no longer a destination for infiltrators," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
Government officials said the refugees agreed to the arrangement, but representatives for the group could not be reached to verify the statement. The Israeli military has prevented aid groups and activists from reaching the Eritreans to provide food, medical care and legal assistance.
Activists criticized the arrangement, saying that refugees previously returned to Egypt had been mistreated by authorities there.
Earlier in the day, the Israeli human rights group We Are Refugees petitioned the Supreme Court to order the Israeli government to assist all of the refugees, contending that leaving them at the fence was a violation of international law and Israel's obligation as a signatory to the U.N. refugee convention.
Aid groups say the Eritreans had run out of food and water, were suffering under the desert sun and were afraid to turn back to Egypt because of Bedouin gangs of human traffickers in the Sinai who routinely rob, kidnap and kill African refugees trying to make their way to Israel to start new lives.
"These people are suffering behind a fence," said Orit Marom, a coordinator for the Tel Aviv-based Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. "But Israel does not let them in. It's crazy. It reminds [the Jewish people] of a very bad period in our own history."
Government officials refused to allow in the entire group, saying they were worried about setting a precedent that would encourage other African refugees to attempt to enter Israel. Since 2006, more than 60,000 African refugees, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have flooded into Israel via the Sinai peninsula, according to the government.
Initially the military said it gave the Eritreans only water, but government attorneys told the court Thursday — before the reported agreement was reached — that authorities would start providing food.
William Tall, senior protection officer in Israel with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, called Israel's actions "exaggerated and irrational."
Tall noted that even though the refugees were blocked by the fence, Israel had acknowledged that the group was on Israeli territory because the fence was built on Israel's side of the border.
"They are on Israeli territory and asking for asylum," Tall said. "It's absolutely clear that Israel has an obligation to review their asylum claims."
The government disagreed, saying it has no legal obligation because under international practice and precedent, the fence should be considered the de facto border in this situation.
"Technically the land may be sovereign Israeli territory, but legally the fence constitutes the border," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.
He said Israel does not want to set a precedent under which it assists all refugees who make it to the fence.
"Where does it stop?" he asked. "You have to draw the line somewhere. Otherwise the fence is meaningless."
The standoff is the latest controversy in Israel's effort to cope with a surge in African refugees, who view Israel as the closest wealthy and democratic nation they can reach on foot.
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai this summer began deporting hundreds of South Sudanese who fled violence in their homeland. He also ordered the detention of hundreds of others.
Israeli officials say the refugees, along with migrant workers and other foreigners, pose a threat to the nation's economy and Jewish majority. Many foreigners in recent months have been subjected to a violent backlash, including beatings and firebombs thrown at their homes.
Israel also sped up construction of the 150-mile fence along the Egyptian border. The crackdown appears to have slowed the influx. The number of refugees crossing the border fell from 2,000 a month at its peak last year to 200 in August, the government says.