Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rejected calls from the country’s opposition politicians to accept refugees fleeing the war in Syria, stating that the country lacked the “demographic and geographic depth” to house refugees. Israel, which is still technically in a state of war with Syria, has so far remained largely uninvolved in the ongoing refugee crisis in the region.
“Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa,” Netanyahu said, at the beginning of a weekly cabinet meeting Sunday. “But, Israel is a small country, a very small country. …Therefore, we must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”
Syria, Israel’s immediate neighbor in the northeast, accounts for the largest chunk of refugee population fleeing to Europe, according to an estimate by the United Nations Refugee Agency. More than half of the 366,000 refugees that have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean this year are Syrians attempting to escape the multi-pronged conflict in their home country.
On Saturday, Isaac Herzog, leader of Israel’s center-left Labor Party, urged the Netanyahu-led government to allow Syrian refugees into Israel -- a demand that triggered fierce debate in the country.
“Jews cannot remain indifferent when hundreds of thousands of refugees are seeking safe harbor,” Herzog said, in a Facebook post. “Our people experienced firsthand the silence of the world, and cannot be indifferent in the face of the rampant murders and massacres taking place in Syria.”
Official figures show that there are currently 45,000 refugees in Israel, almost all of them from the African nations of Eritrea and Sudan. However, given the intractable nature of the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict, which has pitted most Muslim-dominated nations against Israel, the country has so far refrained from accepting refugees from Syria and Iraq. Syrians too have avoided seeking refuge in Israel, and have instead sought shelter in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, in addition to Europe.
Also on Sunday, Netanyahu announced the start of the construction of a fence along Israel’s border with Jordan. The proposed fence will connect existing ones along the Egyptian and Golan Heights borders.
“To the extent that it is possible, we will encompass Israel’s borders with a security fence and barriers that will allow us to control our borders,” Netanyahu said. “We will not allow Israel to be flooded with illegal migrants and terrorists.”