JERUSALEM: Israel ended a stalemate Thursday with about 20 African migrants stranded along its border with Egypt for more than a week, allowing two women and a child to enter but turning the rest of the group away, officials said.
Some 60,000 Africans have entered Israel from Egypt in recent years, either fleeing persecution or searching for work. Many Israelis are concerned the continued influx is challenging the state's Jewish character, and the government recently has adopted tough measures in a bid to stanch the flow of migrants.
For the past week, a group of around 20 Eritreans had been living beside a nearly-completed border fence, where the Israeli military was providing them with food and water. Israel allowed the two women and one child to enter the country, but sent the rest to Egypt, where officials said they were arrested for allegedly crossing a border illegally.
"It is important that everyone understand that Israel is no longer a destination for infiltrators," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. He said Israel was "determined to stop the flood" of migrants.
An Egyptian intelligence security official said Egypt had agreed to allow the migrants to enter upon Israel's request. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Israel has been building a barrier along 200 kilometers (125 miles) of its border with Egypt to try to block migrants from entering the country. It has erected detention facilities and launched crackdowns in Tel Aviv's southern neighborhoods to rid the area of illegal migrants, many of whom were drawn by the hopes of finding work.
Rights groups had appealed to Israel's Supreme Court to decide the fate of the group of Eritreans that was stuck at the border, but the agreement to have them return to Egypt was reached before the Court made a decision.
Most of the African migrants entering Israel are from Sudan and Eritrea. Under international law, Israel cannot return people to those two countries because of their poor human rights records.
Israel's hardened policies have drawn criticism from rights groups who say the country is shirking its international responsibilities and sending migrants back to countries where they could face persecution. Thursday's episode was chided as well.
"It's a cynical arrangement that endangers the welfare and security of the migrants," said Ran Cohen of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which helps migrants.
In a similar standoff last month, Israel permitted four Eritreans stranded by the border to enter after four days.