Thousands of African asylum seekers protested outside the Rwandan embassy in Israel, calling on the African country not to cooperate with an Israeli plan to deport them. The fate of Africans in Israel is posing a moral dilemma for a state founded as haven from persecution.

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An African migrant with half of his painted white wonders if black lives matter in Israel during a protest outside the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya Jack Guez/AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is offering 20,000 male migrants, most of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea, $3,500 (£2,500) and a plane ticket to what it says is a safe destination in another country in sub-Saharan Africa. The unnamed African destination is widely known to be Rwanda, based on testimonies of people who have already left. Those who don't leave face indefinite incarceration.

Immigration officials have said that women, children and men with families in Israel were to stay for now, as was anyone with outstanding asylum requests.

The protesters say the plan would put them in danger and said the deportations were racist. They urged Rwanda and its president, Paul Kagame, not to cooperate. Rwanda is one of Israel's closest African allies. "Deportation kills," the crowd chanted. "We are not criminals. We are refugees," they said.

Protesters – many in 'whiteface' – held placards reading "Would you deport me if I was white?", "Kagame — We are not for sale" and "Prison or Deportation? What would you choose?"

In August 2016, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that those unwilling to go could be held for up to 60 days, with certain provisions allowing extending that time.

AFP spoke to African migrants at a detention centre in Israel's Negev desert. They said they would rather be imprisoned than sent to a country they know nothing about. "I won't go there," Abda Ishmael, a 28-year-old Eritrean, said in excellent Hebrew outside Holot, an open facility housing some 1,200 migrants and set to be shut down on 1 April as part of the government's expulsion policy.

Israel has 40,000 migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, who say they fled from danger at home. Both countries have poor human rights records. Israel contends that most of the migrants are job seekers and cites complaints that they have transformed working class neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv into unrecognisable slums.

The migrants say they do not want to settle in Israel, but want to remain as refugees until it is safe for them to return to their homelands.

The migrants and their supporters say those who have left have run into danger in Rwanda and Uganda, another destination country. They claim they have no rights in those countries, and quickly are forced to flee through war-torn countries like Sudan and Libya in hopes of making their way to Europe. In a 2015 incident, a migrant who had left Israel was captured by Islamic State militants in Libya and decapitated.

African migrants Israel
African protesters hold photos that show the 2015 beheading of an African migrant in Libya and the 2011 capture of an alleged African mercenary in Tripoli Jack Guez/AFP

Israeli authorities have said Israeli officials will keep in touch with migrants accepted in a third country to oversee their progress. Rwanda has said it will only accept migrants who have left Israel of their own free will. Nonetheless, the UN's refugee agency has urged Israel to reconsider, saying migrants who have relocated to sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years were unsafe and ended up on the perilous migrant trail to Europe, some suffering abuse, torture and even perishing on the way.

William Spindler, spokesman for UNHCR, told Reuters: "Most said they had been transferred from Israel to a country in Africa and provided with a lump sum of $3,500. However, the situation on arrival was different to what most had expected and with little further support provided beyond accommodation on the first night. They reported feeling unsafe, as they were known to have money. Some said that people travelling with them had died en route to Libya, where many experienced extortion and detention, as well as being subjected to abuse – including torture – and violence."

The deportation plan has sparked outrage in Israel, where groups of pilots, doctors, writers, rabbis and Holocaust survivors have appealed to have it halted. They say the deportations are unethical and would damage Israel's image as a refuge for Jewish migrants.

Immigration officials have said women, children and men with families in Israel were allowed to stay for now, as was anyone with outstanding asylum requests. On 5 February, Reuters reported that out of 6,800 requests reviewed so far, Israel had granted refugee status to just 11 migrants. It has at least 8,000 more requests to process.

Some 40,000 migrants, , nearly all from Eritrea and Sudan, entered Israel via neighbouring Egypt in recent years, until Israel completed a massive border fence to stop the flow. Since then, Israel has struggled to find a solution for those who entered the country.

The government says it has no obligation to take in migrants, and that it has taken steps to make sure they are not harmed. Women, children and families, for example, are exempt from the deportation order.