Israeli pilots say they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers back to Africa: 'I will not be a partner to this barbarity'

New scheme offers migrants $3,500 and a plane ticket to leave the country

Judith Vonberg
Tuesday 23 January 2018 18:03 GMT
African asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea, take part in a protest against Israel's deportation policy last year
African asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea, take part in a protest against Israel's deportation policy last year (Getty)

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Three Israeli pilots have spoken out against the forced deportations of asylum seekers back to Africa, saying they would refuse to take control of planes involved the practice.

“There is no way that I, as an air crew member, will take part in flying refugees/asylum seekers on their way to a destination whose chances of survival after reaching it… are close to zero,” wrote pilot Shaul Betzer in a Facebook post and later on Twitter.

“Not much courage is required for such a mission, but I will not be able to do what is required of me in such a mission. As a pilot and as a human being.”

Pilot Iddo Elad posted a statement on his Facebook page a few hours later, declaring: “I will not be a partner to this barbarity.”

Both Facebook posts have been shared hundreds of times and attracted many comments, most of which support the men’s stance.

The public refusals come three weeks after the Israeli government ordered thousands of African refugees and migrants to leave the country within three months or face prison.

Thousands of Africans – many from Eritrea and Sudan – crossed from Egypt into Israel before it erected a fence along the border in 2013.

Many have fled conflict and persecution, but Israel's leader Benjamin Netanyahu has called them “infiltrators” and said they are mostly economic migrants whose numbers threaten the nation’s Jewish character.

According to Israeli charity Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an average of just 0.15 per cent of people who file asylum claims in Israel are ultimately recognised as refugees.

Under the new proposals, “infiltrators” will be offered $3,500 (£2,500) and a plane ticket to their home country or “a third country” – likely to be Rwanda or Uganda.

Israeli media has reported that some asylum seekers have faced torture or human trafficking after being sent to Rwanda and Uganda by the Israeli government.

Yoel Piterbarg, a former combat helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, was the first of the three men to speak out.

“The state of Israel is populated mainly by Jews who, in the near and distant past, were refugees in countries around the world,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Most went through the Holocaust, many were forcefully expelled from their countries, and many others emigrated out of a desire to improve their lives in better countries that agreed to accept them.”

He continued: “Out of all people we, the Jews, must be attentive, empathetic, moral, and leaders of public opinion in the world in how we treat the migration of refugees, who have suffered and continue to suffer in their countries of origin.”

Mr Piterbarg has spoken out on human rights issues before in his role as a pilot.

In 2003, he was one of 27 Israeli air force pilots who refused to take part in further operations inside the Palestinian territories, describing the military’s actions in the occupied areas as “illegal and immoral”.

The statements published by the three men regarding the deportation of migrants are largely symbolic as El Al - the airline all three men are understood to work for - does not currently operate any routes to the countries in question.

“El Al does not fly any immigrants to Africa,” a spokesperson for El Al told The Independent.

“El Al has absolutely nothing at all to do with these flights. El Al pilots won’t be flying these immigrants.”

The airline does however have a code share agreement with Ethiopian Airlines, allowing passengers to book flights via El Al’s website from Tel Aviv to destinations across sub-Saharan Africa with a stop-off in Addis Ababa.

According to the spokesperson, no El Al crew are involved on any of those flights.

A petition calling on the Israel Airline Pilots Association and ground services staff at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to refuse to participate in the deportation of migrants and refugees has gathered more than 8,000 signatures.

The petition was partly inspired by news from Germany, where pilots stopped 222 deportations of asylum seekers between January and September last year.

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