Netanyahu bows to pressure, scraps UN deal to resettle thousands of African migrants

Hours after touting an agreement with the United Nations to resettle thousands of African migrants, Israel’s prime minister scrapped the deal due to pressure from hawks in his coalition.

Benjamin Netanyahu said he “decided to cancel the agreement” after meeting with residents south of areas with large migrant populations who feel slighted by the deal.

The Israeli prime minister had announced the arrangement with the U.N. on Monday – a deal which called for sending about half of the 35,000 African migrants in Israel to Western nations and allowing the rest to remain.

However, some hours later Netanyahu posted on his Facebook page that he was putting its implementation on hold until further review.

Israelis Hold signs during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, April 3, 2018.  Israel announced a deal with the U.N. on Monday to resettle African migrants in Western nations, but hours later put the agreement on hold. Hebrew sign reads: "Stop the deportation". (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israel announced a deal with the U.N. on Monday to resettle African migrants in Western nations, but hours later put the agreement on hold. A protester carries a sign written in Hebrew reading "Stop the deportation."  (AP)

“I have listened carefully to the many comments on the agreement. As a result, and after I again weighed the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the deal,” a statement from the prime minister’s office quoted Netanyahu as saying, Reuters reported.

It continued: “Despite legal restraints and international difficulties that are piling up, we will continue to act with determination to explore all of the options at our disposal to remove the infiltrators.”

Residents in south Tel Aviv complained the agreement doesn't address their needs and demanded assurances remaining migrants will be dispersed around the country as promised.

The move to cancel the agreement came after pressure from Netanyahu’s nationalist allies who lashed out against the deal.

Hardliners in Netanyahu's coalition strongly criticized the deal for allowing thousands of Africans to remain after the prime minister announced it.

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay slammed the sudden turnaround on Army Radio, questioning if defense decisions are also made in the same manner.

"It is sad, troubling and even a little scary that decisions are made that way," Gabbay said. He accused Netanyahu of leadership based on polls and comments on social media.

En esta imagen de archivo, tomada el 24 de febrero de 2018, solicitantes de asilo protestan contra su deportación en Tel Aviv, Israel. El primer ministro de Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, anunció el 3 de abril de 2018 que canceló el acuerdo con Naciones Unidas para reubicar a migrantes africanos en países occidentales. (AP Foto/Ariel Schalit, archivo)

Israel initially said it had reached an "unprecedented understandings" with the U.N. refugee agency.  (AP)

Dozens of migrants and their Israeli supporters protested the suspension outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem and government offices in Tel Aviv as Netanyahu met with the neighborhood representatives.

Some protesters stripped to the waist, draped themselves with chains and taped their mouths shut at a protest in Tel Aviv. Others waved signs reading "Human lives are not to play with. Yes to the deal."

Writing in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Sima Kadmon noted Netanyahu's decision "lasted for just six hours and 45 minutes" before "an important and courageous decision by the prime minister was trampled under the boots of the right wing divisions."

Most of the African migrants are from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea, the latter having one of the world's worst human rights records. The migrants say they are asylum-seekers fleeing danger and persecution, while Israeli leaders have claimed they are merely job seekers.

The Africans started arriving in 2005 after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the porous desert border with Egypt before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.

The prime minister's turnaround threw into limbo the surprise agreement, which had finally offered a solution to an issue that has divided Israel for a decade. The deportation plan had been widely criticized at home and abroad, even by some of Israel's closest supporters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lucia I. Suarez Sang is a Reporter for Follow her on Twitter @luciasuarezsang