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Israel paid African country to accept migrants before cancelling UN deal: Report

Leaked details of the deal reveal that Israel supplied an African country with money and potentially weapons for accepting migrants in return
African migrants wait for a bus after being released from Saharonim Prison in the Negev desert in Israel, 4 April (Reuters)

Israel paid financial sums to an African state last month in return for accepting thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers living in the south of Tel Aviv city, as part of a mass deportation plan approved by the Israeli government, according to the Hebrew news site Ynet.

Israel has now technically cancelled the plan to forcibly deport migrants, but it remains unclear as to whether the government will attempt to partially or fully reinstate the plan in the coming weeks and months.

The African state that will act as the "third country" in the deportation plan was not named by Ynet, but alludes to it being Uganda.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week dispatched a special envoy to Uganda, referred to as the "third country" in Ynet's report, to establish whether a deal Israel had signed with it on the matter remained valid, the website reported.

Last week, the Israeli government told judges at the High Court of Justice that there is a high probability that a "third country" in Africa would accept the migrants.

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The financial stage of the secret deal took place in March, one month before Netanyahu declared his intention to scrap the deportation plan, and replace it with a UN deal. 

The Ynet report referred to previous reports, in other outlets, of arms trade deals between the Israeli government and African countries.

For example, in 2013, the Israeli paper Haaretz reported that the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had visited Israel to purchase weaponry.

According to a report in 2013, Vice magazine also alleged that Israel was providing the east African state with military assistance, supplying training weapons and drones in exchange for its commitment, when the day comes, to taking in migrants from Eritrea and Sudan who are deported from Israel.

A few weeks after Netanyahu’s visit to Uganda in 2017, a Ugandan government spokesman spoke about the deportation plan, reported at the time in The Ugandan magazine.

“We have checked with our Immigration Department but we don’t have an agreement with the Israelis to accept Eritreans and Sudanese here,” the spokesman said, at the time.

Cancelling the UN migrant deal

It comes days after a diplomatic debacle in which Israel accepted, suspended and then wholly cancelled a deal with the UN aimed at resolving the African migrant crisis.

The deal was opposed by right-wingers and residents of south Tel Aviv, as it would give thousands of migrants the right to stay in the country, and two of the Western countries named - Italy and Germany - said they did not know of any such agreement.

The Israeli prime minister declared the agreement dead at a meeting on 3 April with representatives of residents of south Tel Aviv, an impoverished area that has attracted the largest migrant community and where many of its inhabitants want the Africans to leave.

"I have listened carefully to the many comments on the agreement. As a result, and after I again weighed the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the deal," a statement from the prime minister's office quoted Netanyahu as saying at the session.

Netanyahu himself announced the agreement in a televised address on 2 April. Hours later, he changed course and put the deal on hold until a further review, just to cancel it on Tuesday.

As part of the UN deal, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was planning to work to reach agreements with different Western countries to take in at least 16,250 of the migrants, which Israel says are economic migrants.

Within a year and a half, the first 6,000 asylum seekers were to leave for Western countries, and within five years the remaining 10,250 were supposed to leave Israel.

Angering many, Israel, in turn, would have granted legal status to protected populations among the asylum seekers, some 18,000 refugees who would have remained in the country regardless.

The UN Refugee Agency was quick to express "disappointment" over Netanyahu's decision to reverse course and urged him to "reconsider" a decision to scrap the agreement. 

Naftali Bennett, Israel's minister of education, congratulated Netanyahu on Twitter for his "wise decision" to cancel the deal regarding absorbing "infiltrators", an Israeli term used to refer to African migrants inside Israel.

According to a report by the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority at the end of 2017, there are 34,187 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea in Israel.

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