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January 22, 2018 12:14 pm

Amid Growing Unease With Israeli Plan to Deport African Migrants, Three El Al Pilots Say They Won’t Participate

avatar by Ben Cohen

An El Al jet on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen.

Citing “Zionist values” and examples of persecution from Jewish history, at least three pilots with Israel’s national airline, El Al, have announced their refusal to fly planes carrying migrants being deported from the Jewish state.

Over the last week, the pilots have taken to social media to voice their objection to the Israeli government plans to deport undocumented migrants from African countries. While the precise details of the policy are still to be clarified by Israel’s Interior Ministry, under the “Assisted Voluntary Return” program announced last week, migrants who depart Israel voluntarily receive a plane ticket to their country of origin or a third country, along with a lump sum of $3,500. Those migrants who do not take up this scheme by April, however, could face compulsory deportation.

There are just over 38,000 African migrants in Israel, most of whom arrived from war-torn countries like Eritrea and South Sudan between 2006 and 2012.

One El Al pilot, Shaul Betzer, wrote on his Facebook page that he was speaking out as “part of the Jewish people, as someone who was raised and educated with the Zionist values that renewed the existence of our nation in the Land of Israel, who has lived here his entire life.”

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“There is no way that as a member of the flight crew, I will take part in flying refugees/asylum seekers to a destination in which their chance of survival after arrival (‘a third country’) is close to zero,” Betzer declared.

“I have joined many of my good friends in declaring that I will not fly refugees to their deaths,” another El Al pilot, Ido Elad, wrote. “I won’t take part in that barbarism.”

Meanwhile, El Al Captain Yoel Piterbarg stated that “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.”

The pilot’s statements follow the launch of a petition so far signed by 7,500 Israelis opposing the government’s deportation policy.

“After years of abuse, the government plans to deport tens of thousands of people to African countries where their lives are in danger — but there is a way to stop the expulsion,” the petition stated. “Israeli pilots and ground crews at Ben-Gurion Airport can refuse to cooperate with the government’s cruelty by simply not participating in the deportation flights.”

On Monday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the stand taken by the pilots’ will not affect immediate deportations, as El Al does not operate flights to Rwanda — the third country to which migrants are deported. To date, Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been flown to Rwanda on foreign airlines via Jordan, Turkey and Ethiopia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his governments’ policy on migrants in remarks Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.

“We are not acting against refugees,” Netanyahu said. “We are acting against illegal migrants who come here not as refugees but for work needs.”

The  prime minister added, “Israel will continue to offer asylum for genuine refugees and will remove illegal migrants from its midst.”

Indirectly addressing the claims made in a letter of protest against the policy sent to his office last week by two prominent US Jewish organizations — the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) — Netanyahu strongly denied that migrants who had been deported from Israel were thrust into life-threatening situations.

“Contrary to these claims, I have heard many claims that the arrangements we have set with the third country assures the personal security of those who leave here,” Netanyahu said.

Deported migrants “receive significant financial assistance from us,” Netanyahu continued. “Do not forget that Israel invests considerable capital while they are here and for their passage to the third country.”

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