At the end of 2000, Israel hosted about 4,700 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 4,400 refugees from Lebanon, 100 nationals of Sierra Leone granted temporary residence permits because of civil war in their country, and an estimated 200 asylum seekers of other nationalities. An estimated 200,000 to 250,000 Palestinians with Israeli citizenship remained internally displaced at year's end.
More than 6,000 South Lebanese Army (SLA) militia men and their families sought asylum in Israel following the Israeli army's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. Of these, 1,580 returned to Lebanon in the latter part of the year, several hundred resettled in other countries, and 4,400 remained in Israel.
Jews are eligible to immigrate to Israel 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.
At the time of Israel's creation in 1948, an estimated 725,000 to 810,000 Palestinians fled their homes in Palestine. By the end of 2000, the number of Palestinian refugees and their progeny had surpassed four million. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 upholds the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and, for those not wishing to return, the right to receive compensation for their losses. Although Israel rejects Resolution 194, saying that the "right of return" is incompatible with its right of self-determination, three UN human rights treaty committees have found key aspects of Israel's nationality, citizenship, and land legislation – which effectively bar Palestinian refugees from exercising their right of return – to be incompatible with the rights codified in relevant human rights conventions. (For more on Palestinian refugees, see reports on the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Syria.)
Although Israel is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol, it has no refugee law or asylum procedure. During 2000, however, the Israeli government decided to establish an agency for adjudicating asylum claims, which it expects to function in November 2001. Until then, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will continue to determine the status of asylum seekers in the country. Although unable to provide comprehensive data on its refugee status determinations, UNHCR reported that it conducted fewer than 100 in 2000.
Asylum conditions for non-Jewish foreigners seeking protection in Israel reportedly improved in 2000. Israeli authorities reportedly honor UNHCR identification documents issued to asylum seekers; while not granting temporary residence permits to UNHCR-registered asylum seekers, authorities stopped arresting and detaining them, which had been common practice in 1999.
In 2000, Israel recognized as refugees those approved by UNHCR. According to UNHCR, Israel grants recognized refugees the full range of rights afforded by the UN Refugee Convention, except for those from countries with which Israel has hostile relations.
In accordance with the Law Against Infiltration, in previous years, Israel detained asylum seekers (along with other foreigners) from "enemy countries" attempting to enter Israel clandestinely. During the 1990s, UNHCR recorded the entry into Israel of about 60 non-Jewish asylum seekers and refugees from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria. On November 24, 1999, Israel's Supreme Court ordered the release from detention of ten refugees from Iraq, Iran, and Syria on the condition that they live on kibbutzim (communal agricultural settlements). Israel released an additional 16 refugees from enemy countries in 2000.
UNHCR promotes resettlement to other countries for such refugees because Israel does not permit them to remain permanently. UNHCR-Israel resettled 13 refugees in 2000. No non-Palestinian refugees remained in Israeli detention at year's end, according to UNHCR.
Lebanese Militiamen Seek Asylum
In May, Israel withdrew from its self-proclaimed "security zone" in southern Lebanon, ending its 22-year occupation. As Israel pulled its forces back into northern Israel, its surrogate, the South Lebanese Army (SLA), disintegrated, and more than 6,000 of its members and their families fled to Israel, fearing retribution from Hizballah guerrillas and Lebanese forces for collaborating with Israel.
Although Israel provided former SLA members and their families with accommodation and modest stipends, many SLA members complained that they were not treated well enough, given their lengthy cooperation with the Israeli military. In December, hundreds of former SLA members and their families petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to order the government to grant them citizenship, pensions, and other benefits at the same level as retired Israeli military officers, as well as compensation for their losses in Lebanon.
Several hundred SLA members resettled to third countries without UNHCR assistance during the year, and about 1,580 SLA militia men and accompanying family members returned to Lebanon. Lebanese authorities arrested and tried for treason most of the returnees. (See report on Lebanon.)
At more than one million, Israel's Arabs represent about 20 percent of the country's population. Of these, as many as 250,000 long-term displaced Palestinians resided in Israel in 2000, according to the National Committee for the Rights of the Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel, created in 1992 to raise awareness and advocate on behalf of displaced Palestinians in Israel. Most of this population were displaced in 1948 (or are the progeny of persons displaced at that time), but remain within Israel- proper. 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 Israel does not respect this right.
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 of Justice ordered the Ministry of Education to provide electricity to schools in several unrecognized villages in the Negev.