JERUSALEM – Israel said Sunday it would shut its doors to refugees from Sudan's war torn Darfur region, touching off hot debate over whether the Jewish state, founded after the Nazi genocide, has a duty to take in people fleeing persecution.
Israel has been grappling for months with how to deal with a swelling flow of Africans, including some from Darfur, who have infiltrated through its porous southern border with Egypt's Sinai desert. Overnight, Israel returned 48 African infiltrators to Egypt.
Israeli government spokesman David Baker said he didn't know if any were from Darfur, but noted Darfurians wouldn't be immune from Israel's ban on unauthorized migrants.
"The policy of returning back anyone who enters Israel illegally will pertain to everyone, including those from Darfur," he said.
Egyptian police said Darfurians were among the 48 -- and would be expelled from Egypt to Sudan.
The decision to turn back asylum-seekers from Darfur contradicts Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pledge earlier this summer to absorb them. Baker said those already in Israel would be allowed to stay, and that the turnback policy applied to new arrivals.
Fighting between pro-government militias and rebels in Darfur has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million since February 2003. Most of the displaced people remain in Darfur, but the U.N. estimates 236,000 have fled across the border to neighboring Chad, where they live in camps.
Tens of thousands of other asylum-seekers have sought sanctuary in Egypt, which is ill-equipped to provide jobs and social services. About 400 of the Darfurians who reached Egypt have driven and trekked through desert sands to forge the unfenced frontier with Israel, according to advocates for the refugees in Israel.
Israel's response to the unexpected arrivals has been incoherent and contradictory. Threats to expel them have clashed with humanitarian sentiments inspired by the memory of Jews vainly seeking sanctuary from the Nazis.
Eytan Schwartz, an advocate for Darfur refugees in Israel, said about 400 have entered Israel in recent years. Baker said they would be allowed to live in Israel, and that the ban applied to new arrivals.
Schwartz objected to any such ban. "The state of Israel has to show compassion for refugees after the Jewish people was subject to persecution throughout its history," he said.
But Ephraim Zuroff of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center said the Jewish people could not be expected to right every wrong just because of its past.
"Israel can't throw open the gates and allow unlimited access for people who are basically economic refugees," Zuroff said.
The asylum-seekers found sanctuary from mass murder by fleeing to Egypt, he said. "Their desire to enter Israel was motivated primarily by the difficult living conditions and bleak economic prospects in that country," he added.
That the refugees are from Sudan further complicates matters, because Israeli law denies asylum to anyone from an enemy state. Sudan's Muslim government is hostile to Israel and has no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
Israel estimates that 2,800 people have entered the country illegally through Sinai in recent years. Nearly all are from Africa, including 1,160 from Sudan, and many spent months or years in Egypt before entering Israel.
The number of infilrators shot up in the past two months, apparently as word spread of job opportunities in Israel. As many as 50 people arrived each day in June, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Israel recently announced it had reached an understanding with Egypt to take back many of the refugees and that they would be treated well. But Egypt has denied any obligation to take them back, and it was unclear what fate expelled Africans would face once returned to Egypt.
Many Sudanese find life difficult in Egypt, where riot police killed nearly 30 people when clearing a refugee encampment in central Cairo in 2005.
Israel has often urged Egypt to step up its surveillance of the border to prevent the illegal flow of goods and people. Egypt has increased its efforts recently, with almost daily reports of African refugees arrested by authorities before entering Israel.
In July, Egyptian police shot and killed a Sudanese woman who was trying to cross into Israel, the first confirmed death of its kind. And earlier this month, Israeli media reported that Egyptian border guards beat to death two Sudanese men in front of Israeli soldiers.
Egypt neither confirmed nor denied the incident.