At the end of 1999, Israel hosted about 400 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 41 refugees recognized by UNHCR, about 300 asylum seekers pending a UNHCR refugee status determination, and some 50 refugees from Kosovo remaining in Israel at year's end. Of the refugees recognized by UNHCR, 21 came from Ethiopia and 10 from Iraq.

Although Israel is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol, it has no refugee law or asylum procedure. Therefore, UNHCR determines the status of asylum seekers in the country. UNHCR reported that about 300 asylum seekers filed applications for refugee status with its Israel office in 1999; most remained pending a decision at year's end. Although unable to provide comprehensive data on its refugee status determinations, UNHCR reported that its approval rate in 1999 was under 10 percent.

Israel also hosted some 300 refugees from Kosovo during the fighting in the Yugoslav province in the spring and summer of 1999. Some 250 had repatriated by year's end.

In 1948, an estimated 725,000 to 810,000 Palestinians fled their homes in Palestine, becoming refugees with Israel's creation. By the end of 1999, the number of Palestinian refugees and their progeny had grown to more than 3.93 million. Although UN General Assembly Resolution 194 upholds the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel (and, for those not wishing to return, the right to receive compensation for their losses), Israel rejects Resolution 194, saying that the "right of return" is incompatible with Israel's right of self-determination. (For more on Palestinian refugees, see reports on the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria.)


Asylum conditions for non-Jewish foreigners seeking protection in Israel reportedly were poor at the beginning of 1999 but improved steadily during the rest of the year. As 1999 began, UNHCR reported that Israeli authorities sometimes abused, arrested, and detained asylum seekers who had filed applications for refugee status with UNHCR and possessed UNHCR identification documents. Israeli authorities reportedly refouled an Ethiopian asylum seeker early in the year. In November, local media reported that Israel deported three Iraqi asylum seekers to Jordan.

However, during the second half of the year, UNHCR said that its relations and cooperation with the Israeli government improved markedly and that conditions for asylum seekers and refugees improved as a result. Israeli authorities began honoring UNHCR documents issued to asylum seekers; while not granting temporary residence permits to UNHCR-registered asylum seekers, authorities stopped arresting and detaining them. Israel released other asylum seekers from detention (except those from "enemy countries"), pending an outcome of their refugee status determinations.

Along with these improvements, Israel reportedly began referring asylum seekers to UNHCR for status determinations. UNHCR reported that Israeli authorities honored UNHCR decisions in 1999, also recognizing as refugees those approved by UNHCR. According to UNHCR, Israel grants recognized refugees the full range of rights afforded by the UN Refugee Convention, with the exception of refugees from "enemy countries."

UNHCR anticipates that Israel will soon pass a law on refugees and create its own refugee status determination procedure.

Refugees from "Enemy Countries"

In accordance with its Law Against Infiltration, Israel detains foreigners from "enemy countries," including asylum seekers, attempting to enter Israel clandestinely. During the 1990s, UNHCR recorded the entry into Israel of some 59 non-Jewish asylum seekers and refugees from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria to whom the law applied. Because some refugees from "enemy countries" released in 1995 disappeared into Arab Israeli society instead of leaving the country, Israeli security has been reluctant to release others.

Nevertheless, Israel's Supreme Court on November 24 ordered the release from detention of ten refugees from Iraq, Iran, and Syria provided that they live on kibbutzim (communal agricultural settlements). UNHCR pursues third-country resettlement for such refugees because Israel does not permit them to remain permanently. Three of the ten released from detention had resettled in third countries by year's end. A total of 12 refugees and asylum seekers from "enemy countries" remained in detention.

Lebanese Militia Requests Asylum

On December 19, members of the South Lebanese Army (SLA), which operates in Israel's self-proclaimed "security zone" in southern Lebanon, filed a class-action suit with the Israeli Supreme Court requesting asylum in Israel. SLA members reportedly fear that their lives will be endangered when the Israeli army eventually pulls out of southern Lebanon. Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak promised several times in 1999 that Israel soon would pull its forces out of southern Lebanon, which most observers believe will result as part of any peace deal with Syria. If the law suit is successful, it would benefit an estimated 17,000 SLA militiamen and their family members.

Internal Displacement

Israel's Arabs represent about 20 percent of the country's population. Among them are several groups of displaced persons, including a small group of Israeli Arabs from 1948 who remained internally displaced in 1999. During the 1948 war, the Israeli army ordered the evacuation of two Christian villages on the border with Lebanon – Iqrit and Biram – telling the residents, who never opposed the Israelis, that they would be able to return in two weeks. They were taken to another Arab village within Israel and eventually became Israeli citizens, but were never permitted to return.

The issue remains controversial in Israel. Although the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that there is no justification for not allowing them to return, their homes have long since been razed and the area converted into a national park, and Israel has allowed some Jewish settlements to expand into the disputed land.

The residents of Iqrit and Biram are part of a larger group of as many as 250,000 long-term displaced Palestinians resided in Israel in 1999, according to the National Committee for the Rights of the Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel. The National Committee called on the Israeli government to respect their right to return to their former homes, asserting that a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will not bring a just peace if it does not respect this right.

In 1999, Arab-Israeli organizations continued to protest the government's use of the "Master Plan for the Northern Areas of Israel." The plan, drafted in 1996, lists as priorities increasing the Galilee's Jewish population and blocking the territorial contiguity of Arab villages and towns.

Unrecognized Arab Villages

During the year, Israel did not resolve the legal status of some 100 unrecognized Arab villages where an estimated 70,000 people live. Because they lack legal status, the villages are cut off from Israeli electricity, water, sewage, and other basic infrastructure networks.

Nor had the eight villages that the Israeli government has recognized since 1994 been connected to Israeli infrastructure networks by year's end. In 1998, the high court ordered the Ministry of Education to provide electricity to schools in several unrecognized villages in the Negev.

Israeli Immigration

Jews are eligible to immigrate and become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return. This welcome applies regardless of their reasons for leaving their countries of origin, and Israel declines to categorize any Jewish immigrants as refugees. In 1999, Israel admitted 77,495 new immigrants, a 32.6 percent increase from the 58,430 admitted in 1998.

Former Soviets

During the year, 66,481 new immigrants arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union, 86 percent of all immigrants to Israel in 1999. This represented a 46 percent increase from the number of former Soviets admitted in 1998, reversing a downward trend in former Soviet arrivals for several years running.

A sharp rise in Jewish immigrants from Russia in 1999 accounted for much of the increase. In recent years, Russian admissions had lagged behind immigrants from Ukraine. In 1999, however, some 31,000 Russian immigrants arrived in Israel, more than double the number in 1998, accounting for 47 percent of total immigration from the former Soviet Union. Observers attributed the rise in Russian immigration to economic and political insecurity in Russia.

Some 23,000 Jewish immigrants, or 36 percent of the former Soviet total, arrived from Ukraine in 1999. A total of 7,634 Jewish immigrants arrived from the former Soviet republics in the southern Caucasus and Central Asia, 2,700 from Belarus, 1,327 from Moldova, and 575 from the Baltic states.

Since the latest wave of immigration began in 1989, almost 850,000 Jews have immigrated from the former Soviet Union.


Ethiopian Jews represent another significant immigrant group with a history of persecution in its country of origin. Numbering about 70,000, most of Israel's immigrants from Ethiopia arrived in dramatic airlifts in 1984 and 1991. In 1999, 2,300 Ethiopians immigrated to Israel, a 26 percent decrease from the 3,110 in 1998.

While former Soviet immigrants are generally secular in orientation and immigrated for practical rather than ideological reasons, many of the Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel specifically for religious reasons. It is therefore ironic that the controversy surrounding the integration of Ethiopian immigrants largely centers on religious issues. Israeli religious authorities have not been willing to recognize much of the Ethiopians' practice of Judaism, which developed separately from the main streams of the Jewish tradition.

Ethiopian immigrants also have faced difficulties integrating into Israeli society in other ways. According to a November 1999 report commissioned by the Israeli Ministry for Immigrant Absorption, the unemployment rate among Ethiopians is about three times the national average. Despite having received preferential housing and mortgage terms, most Ethiopians have settled in Israel's most impoverished towns and cities, frequently paying exorbitant prices for substandard apartments. This has segregated the Ethiopian population from the rest of Israeli society. Members of the Ethiopian community also have complained that Ethiopian children have been segregated into the country's poorest schools.

Perceiving that they have few opportunities elsewhere, many young Ethiopians have focused on military service as a way to integrate and advance in Israeli society.

Guest Workers

Israel employs about 200,000 foreign workers from Asia and Eastern Europe who are not eligible for permanent residence or citizenship. As many as half of this group are thought to be living and working in the country illegally. Nevertheless, the employment of foreign workers was part of a conscious government policy to reduce the number of Palestinian workers who used to commute daily from the Gaza Strip and West Bank into Israel. Israeli human rights groups have protested the treatment of the foreign workers, who have few legal rights and have been summarily deported when involved in labor disputes. No mechanism exists for identifying and adjudicating refugee claims among this group.


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