Netanyahu refuses to accept Syrian migrants into Israel, moves to construct fence to keep them out

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister on Sunday rejected calls from opposition politicians for to accept refugees from Syria, saying that was “a very small country that lacks demographic and geographic depth.” He also said that plans to construct a fence along the eastern border with Jordan would go ahead.

Israel has found itself in a somewhat paradoxical situation: Syria is an immediate neighbour, as are Lebanon and Jordan, countries that have taken in huge numbers of Syrians and share borders with Israel. Yet Israel has remained largely isolated and off the ’ path since Syria and Israel are technically in a state of war.

Isaac Herzog, leader of the centre-left Labor Party and head of the opposition, stirred a heated national debate over the issue after he said Saturday that “Jews cannot remain indifferent when hundreds of thousands of refugees are seeking safe harbour.” He added, “Our people experienced firsthand the silence of the ,” alluding to the Holocaust, “and cannot be indifferent in the face of the rampant murders and massacres taking place in Syria.”

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Israel, a state of about 8 million people that was largely founded by refugees, has long been torn between the humanitarian demands of taking in non-Jews in need and its fears about maintaining its Jewish character and security in a hostile and increasingly chaotic region.

In broadcast remarks at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu said, “Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa. We have already devotedly cared for approximately 1,000 wounded people from the fighting in Syria, and we have helped them to rehabilitate their lives.”

But he added, “We must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”

Yisrael Katz, a minister in Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, said of Herzog’s call: “Israel must not get involved in what is happening is Syria. We are not a European country. We are too close.”

Herzog replied to his critics with a post on Facebook on Sunday, writing, “You have forgotten what it is to be Jews. Refugees. Persecuted.”

About Isabel Kershner, The New York Times