JERUSALEM - ISRAEL has begun deporting refugees from the massacres in the Sudanese region of Darfur despite claims that the legacy of the Holocaust imposes a special responsibility on the Jewish state to protect fugitives from genocide.
On Saturday, for the first time Israel deported African refugees who had sneaked across its border with Egypt. The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported most of the 50 refugees returned to Egypt were believed to be from Darfur, where militias allegedly supported by the Sudanese Government have killed an estimated 200,000 people.
This month 63 of Israel's 120 parliamentarians, including the opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, signed a petition asking the Government to allow Sudanese refugees to remain in Israel until another country could be found to take them.
"The refugees need protection and sanctuary, and the Jewish people's history as well as the values of democracy and humanity pose a moral imperative for us to give them that shelter," the petition said.
In recent months the number of African migrants trying to sneak across Israel's border with Egypt has reached 50 a day, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says.
Although most of them say they are fleeing persecution, the Israeli Government argues that they are economic migrants who have chosen to leave the safety of Egypt in search of better conditions in Israel.
At the weekend an Israeli Government spokesman said that some of the approximately 500 Darfuri refugees already in Israel would be allowed to stay but new arrivals would be sent back.
Israel estimates that around 2800 mainly African migrants and refugees have illegally crossed its border in recent years - far fewer than the numbers of would-be migrants coming to European Union states but high for a country where non-Jewish immigration is frowned on.
Over the past two decades Israel has accepted about 100,000 immigrants from Ethiopia and a million from the former Soviet states. They have been encouraged to come under Israel's Law of Return, which grants citizenship and benefits to anyone who can show they had at least one Jewish grandparent.
The Israeli Government argues that it is entitled to return the fugitives to their country of first refuge and that it has been assured by the Egyptian Government that they will not be harmed or returned to Sudan.
Human rights groups say there are already about 2 million Sudanese refugees in Egypt, where they complain of discrimination and state brutality.
This month an Israeli television channel said that it had footage shot by Israeli border guards of two Sudanese refugees being beaten to death by Egyptian border guards. It said it would not show the footage to avoid a dispute with Egypt.
Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.