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About 350 refugees from Sudan have entered Israel illegally over the last two years. About a third of them are from Darfur, where the Sudanese government has been accused of waging genocide. All these refugees were caught and jailed in Israel, many for more than a year. Israeli officials say they have to be cautious about Sudanese because Sudan is an enemy state. But Israeli human rights groups say a nation built in part by genocide survivors has a special responsibility to help other victims.
NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: On an early spring morning almost six years ago, members of Sudan's Janjaweed militia burst into Abdullah al-Bakr's village in west Darfur. He says they set the huts in the village on fire and killed dozens of people. Abdullah grabbed his 17-year-old sister and tried to run away.
Mr. ABDULLAH AL-BAKR: Unfortunately, one of Janjaweed was, you know, shoot her on her head and it was very, you know - this was tragic scene I have ever seen in my life. You know, my gentle sister dying in front of me, and I can't, you know, just, like, I can't do anything. I can't protect her. I can't.
GRADSTEIN: Abdullah ran into the mountains to escape, wandering for days barefoot and with no food. He hasn't seen his parents since then and he doesn't know if they are still alive.
Abdullah's eyes well up as he recounts the rest of his saga: a few months in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and then two years in Egypt.
Fearful of deportation, he fled again, giving a Bedouin smuggler $100 and a leather jacket to take him through the Sinai desert to Israel. But less than two hours after crossing the border, Abdullah was caught by Israeli soldiers, handcuffed, and taken to an army base where he was interrogated.
Mr. AL-BAKR: I told him that we are Darfurian, escaped from genocide, we're crossing from Egypt looking for protection. I said I'm sick of this; we're looking for protection - protection that we lost in our homeland, I'm looking for it in Israel.
GRADSTEIN: Abdullah was jailed under a 1954 law on infiltrators from enemy states, including Sudan. He spent 15 months in prison and says that, although well treated, he and his fellow refugees began to despair.
Mr. AL-BAKR: You start to wonder, what's going on? Will we stay all our whole life or entire life in this prison? Or, what is this? We are not criminal. We are not. We are innocent people, we are the victims of genocide. Supposed the Israeli government to help us, not to punish us.
GRADSTEIN: Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says Israel is sympathetic to the refugees' plight but has to make sure they are not dangerous to Israel's security.
Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry): Sudan as a country has a very hostile relationship with Israel. And it's not a secret that there is, unfortunately, a very strong al-Qaida and terrorist presence in Sudan. And so there is a need that everyone who is crossing the border is of course interrogated and so forth. They are here illegally, you know, they're illegal immigrants. They're enemy aliens.
GRADSTEIN: Critics say none of the refugees has any connection with al-Qaida. They also say the 1954 law which mandates their arrests is unfair and should be changed.
Michael Bavli is the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jerusalem.
Mr. MICHAEL BAVLI (Representative, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Representative): When Jews fled away from Nazi Germany and arrived in Britain, they were arrested in 1939 in Britain as Germans. They were not German; they were Jews fleeing Germany. There should be a method by which someone fleeing Sudan should not be treated by his being a Sudanese but his being a victim of Sudan.
GRADSTEIN: As a temporary solution, Bavli and several Israeli human rights groups negotiated a deal with the Israeli government to release more than a hundred of the refuges, Abdullah among them, into the custody of kibbutzim, collective farming villages. Abdullah shares a small apartment with four other Darfur refugees. He says it's better than being in jail, but he wants a more permanent solution.
Mr. AL-BAKR: Actually, if I get a chance to stay here, I'll be glad. I'll be glad, and this is what we ask the Israeli government.
GRADSTEIN: So far, Israel has said it will not allow any of the refugees to stay permanently. Bavli says the U.N. has been unable to get any third country to agree to accept them either.
Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.