Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended Monday a resettlement deal for African migrants faced with deportation, just hours after his office had announced the agreement with the UN refugee agency.
"I've decided to suspend implementation of this accord and to rethink the terms of the accord," Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page, saying his move was in response to criticism of the deal.
Several ministers said they opposed the accord with the UNHCR, on which they had not been informed before the announcement by Netanyahu's office.
A group of residents of southern Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants have settled, immediately denounced the new plan in a statement, calling it "a shame for the state of Israel," according to AFP. Netanyahu said he would meet with them on Tuesday.
Israel had announced a deal with the UNHCR to cancel a controversial plan to deport African migrants and replace it with one that would see thousands sent to Western countries. The new accord would at the same time have allowed thousands more of the mainly Sudanese and Eritrean migrants to remain in Israel at least temporarily.
The deal announced by Netanyahu's office appeared to end the possibility that many would be forcibly deported.
Instead, it would see a minimum of 16,250 migrants resettled in Western nations including Canada, Germany and Italy.
"The agreement stipulates that for each migrant who leaves the country, we commit to give temporary residence status to another," Netanyahu himself said in a televised address. Germany and Italy, however, said they were unaware of any such resettlement deal for African migrants from Israel.
As the migrants could face danger or imprisonment if returned to their homelands, Israel offered to relocate them to an unnamed African country, which deportees and aid workers said was Rwanda or Uganda. But Netanyahu said that he had to abandon the initial plan because the option of sending them to a third country "no longer exists." Rwanda and Uganda have said they would not accept those deported against their will.
In late February, nearly 700 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan launched a hunger strike in Israel's Holot detention center in response to the jailing of seven Eritreans for refusing to sign a document obliging them to leave the country "voluntarily" by the end of March.