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Israel's plan to deport African migrants prompts soul-searching

Israel has started handing out notices to 20,000 mainly Eritrean and Sudanese migrants, giving them two months to leave or risk being thrown in jail.

TEL AVIV — Dawit Habtai wants Israelis to know one thing: He’s an asylum-seeker, not a criminal.

"I only want to build my life here in Israel," the 40-year-old Eritrean said. "I'm willing to pay taxes and only want the chance to build a life here."

Image: Dawit Habtai
Dawit HabtaiDavid Copeland / NBC News

Under plans unveiled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, Habtai and tens of thousands of other Africans will soon be expelled from Israel.

Habtai's plight and that of other mainly Eritreans and Sudanese has triggered a political firestorm, with some critics saying the country founded in the wake of the Holocaust should never turn away those in need. Pilots and doctors, among others, have struck out at the move and said they would not cooperate with any government efforts to remove the migrants.

On Sunday, officials started handing out notices to 20,000 male migrants, giving them two months to leave the country or risk being thrown in jail. These unmarried men are being given two options: go to prison, or take $3,500 and be transported to a third country — rumored to be Rwanda.

Members of the migrant community and their supporters fear that women and children will be next.

Since 2005, Israel has grappled with an influx of migrants prompted by neighboring Egypt’s crackdown on Sudanese refugees. Some 60,000 Africans crossed into Israel before a 130-mile barrier was finished in 2013. Around 20,000 have left since.

Image: Map showing Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Israel
A map showing countries including Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt and Israel.Bing Maps

At the heart of the dispute is how Israel, founded as a home for persecuted Jews, integrates newcomers while preserving its Jewish character.

Israel's official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, has said the issue requires “as much compassion, empathy and mercy that can possibly be marshaled. The experiences of the Jewish people over the ages underscore this commitment.”

However, Yad Vashem's Jan. 25 statement added that it was “groundless and dangerous” to equate the issue of African migrants with the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Habtai said that "anyone who is Israeli needs to look at these steps and think about their history and think that this will be with them in the future — the politicians will change but this will stay with you forever."

"What hurts me is that I see young people supporting these acts," he said. "They too can find themselves one day as refugees."

Habtai, who works at a hotline for fellow African migrants, described how he had been wounded after being drafted into the Eritrean army during a war with neighboring Ethiopia.

He said he realized then while living in "inhuman" conditions that he did not know what he was fighting for. Then Habtai was thrown in jail after being caught trying to flee Eritrea, he says, and was tortured for five years before getting out and smuggling himself to Israel.

Image: African migrant
A migrant walks near the entrance of the Population and Immigration Authority in Bnei Brak, Israel, on Sunday.Nir Elias / Reuters

Netanyahu and his government have said they would not expel true asylum-seekers and instead were only going after economic migrants.

"Genuine refugees and their families will remain in Israel. We have no obligation to allow illegal labor migrants who are not refugees to remain here,” the prime minister said on Jan. 3.

Netanyahu and others in his government — which is dominated by nationalists — have defended their policy toward migrants, referring to them using the term “infiltrators.”

Howevers, critics accuse the government of acting in bad faith.

"It's unreasonable that only in Israel these are 'infiltrators' and everywhere else in the world they are refugees,” said Dror Sadot, of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an advocacy group.

Admit Merhatsion, 28, another Eritrean, clings to the hope that she will be allowed to stay in the country because the alternative is simply unthinkable.

"I’m not happy here but I also don't have anywhere else to go to," Merhatsion, a mother of one, said. "If I go back to Eritrea, they will put me into prison."

Image: Asmait Merhatsion
Asmait MerhatsionDavid Copeland / NBC News

Merhatsion who says she got into trouble in her homeland after trying to organize an underground Christian prayer group, described a harrowing solo journey through Sudan, Libya and Egypt to reach Israel.

She pleaded with the Israeli people and government.

"I am asking the government not to forget their history," Merhatsion said. "Don't deport refugees — they, like us, were refugees and passed what we are passing now."

Paul Goldman reported from Tel Aviv, and F. Brinley Bruton from London.