CAIRO (AP) — Israel has been sending soldiers into Egypt's Sinai desert to stop African migrants before they reach the border, handing them over to Egyptian forces, human rights groups charged in a report released Friday.
The groups called on Israel to stop the practice.
Israel has also increasingly concerned over the numbers of African migrants sneaking across the porous border. Most come from Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. About 60,000 migrants are already in Israel, and some Israelis have expressed concern that the influx could harm the Jewish character of their state.
A senior Egyptian military official in Sinai denied that any Israeli soldiers entered Egypt to chase migrants. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
The Israeli military spokesman's office said it would not confirm or deny the specific report, as is military policy. But it added, "In line with protocol Israeli military activity is within Israel."
It said Israeli forces are working "to prevent the infiltration of both hostile terror elements as well as criminal smuggling." It said Israeli soldiers have stopped groups several times and held them "until the arrival of Egyptian forces that took the infiltrators," but did not comment on where this took place.
The groups said the Israeli military censor banned Israel-based journalists from writing about the report.
The use of Israeli soldiers just inside Egyptian territory, with apparent Egyptian consent, would be a startling move, given widespread anti-Israeli sentiment among Egyptians and the strong sensitivities over Sinai, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and returned after the 1979 peace deal between the two countries. Cooperation with Israel is a touchy subject in Egypt, which has had cool relations with Israel since the peace treaty was signed.
The report came as tension rose over the security situation in the lawless desert, where Islamic militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, stole armored vehicles and drove into Israel, apparently to carry out a further attack until they were struck by Israeli forces. Egypt has deployed additional troops in the peninsula near the borders with Israel and Gaza in an operation to stamp out militant groups.
The report, released Friday by Amnesty International and several Israeli groups, including Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that Israeli soldiers have entered several hundred meters (yards) into Egyptian territory to catch migrants and hand them over to Egyptian police.
The report cited an Israeli soldier and several migrants whose relatives were seized by Israeli soldiers inside Egyptian territory.
In an affidavit included in the report, the Israeli reserve soldier says his unit was posted in June several hundred meters (yards) inside Egypt to stop African migrants. The soldier describes three incidents in which his unit dealt with African migrants on the Egyptian side. On two occasions Israeli soldiers marched the groups several kilometers (miles) along the border on the Egyptian side and handed them over to Egyptian police.
In the other, he writes that soldiers guarded a group of about 40 migrants, including women and a baby, for two days before the migrants "dispersed," and most of them crossed into Israel.
The soldier's name is blacked out. A Tel Aviv attorney countersigned the statement.
The report also cites migrants who succeeded in making it to Israel but say their relatives were in groups that were intercepted and handed over by force to Egyptian authorities.
The three rights group called on Israel to stop the practice, saying it was aimed at preventing migrants from entering Israel, where the government would then have to consider their claims of asylum. The groups said repatriating asylum seekers who might be in danger in their home countries is a violation of international law.
"Israel is responsible for the action or omissions of its soldiers, whether they are located in Israeli or Egyptian territory," the report said. It added that they fear that "victims of physical and sexual abuse by traffickers in the Sinai desert may be among those returned."
Israel believes that most of the migrants are seeking work, not asylum.
Israel has begun deporting migrants from South Sudan, giving financial incentives to those who agree to leave voluntarily. South Sudan, which gained independence a year ago, has friendly relations with Israel.
The rights groups' report coincides with a sharp drop in the number of migrants crossing the border. In July, Israel said 248 migrants entered, less than half the average. The report quotes Egyptian newspapers saying that 514 migrants were caught in July, several hundred more than usual.