Israel Supreme Court: Holot illegal, Africans jailed in desert must be freed within 90 days

The Supreme Court of Israel ruled this evening to close a desert prison called Holot, a facility that Israeli lawmakers created last December to indefinitely hold African asylum seekers who had “infiltrated” the border.

According to the whopping 216-page decision on the “Anti-Infiltration Law” that allows for their detention, the state must release all prisoners within 90 days.

“Everybody is so happy here,” said Darfuri refugee Jamal Yacob over the phone from Holot. “People are dancing, people are giving speeches — wow, we are so happy here in Holot.”

Read more on Simone Wilson's “Hella Tel Aviv”

Protesting African migrants sent back to Israeli detention center

Israeli police on Tuesday sent back to custody about 150 African migrants who had abandoned a desert detention center in protest against a new law allowing them to be kept there indefinitely.

Aided by rights groups, the migrants had travelled to Jerusalem to demonstrate outside the Israeli parliament, which last week passed a law allowing authorities to hold illegal migrants in an “open facility” until they leave the country.

The Israeli government says that most of the 50,000 African migrants, mostly Sudanese and Eritrean, who have since 2006 crossed over the Egyptian border into its territory, are illegal job-seekers who threaten the Jewish state's social makeup.

But rights groups and liberal lawmakers say many are asylum-seekers fleeing hardship and persecution in their homelands.

“We came from a war-place and we want our dignity. We want to save our lives. We are not criminals,” one migrant, who did not give his name, said at the protest.

Police and immigration officers broke up the migrants' demonstration and loaded them on to buses headed for prison. A police spokesman said there were some minor scuffles at the scene, but no one was hurt.

An Israeli immigration official said the migrants would be held in prison for up to 90 days, for breaking the terms of custody in the newly-built open facility that they had abandoned late on Sunday.

The center, in a remote southern Israeli desert, allows the 400 migrants who were moved there from a nearby prison last week, to leave during the day and return at night.

The newly-passed law says they may be held there pending voluntary repatriation, implementation of deportation orders or resolution of their asylum requests.

“The law is the law and it surely applies to the illegal job-seeking infiltrators. The infiltrators who were moved to the special facility can stay there or go back to their own countries,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Rights group have appealed the new law, which replaced previous legislation, annulled by the Supreme Court last September.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Knesset passes migrant detention amendment

Israel’s Knesset passed legislation that will allow the state to detain illegal migrants without trial for one year.

The legislation, an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, passed its final readings in the Israeli parliament late Monday night by a vote of 30-15 following a lengthy discussion.

It also allows the state to operate a detention facility for the mostly African migrants that will provide food and shelter, health care and social services. The facility, which will have room for 3,300 people, will be closed at night.

Under the amendment, the migrants will not be allowed to work.

The amendment was approved three months after Israel’s Supreme Court struck down one that went into effect in June 2012 allowing the state to hold illegal migrants for up to three years without trial.

The judges gave the state until Dec. 15 to examine the cases of 1,700 African migrants who are being held in Israeli detention centers under the current amendment. Some 707 migrants have been released, Haaretz reported, and the cases of 500 remain under review.

More than 50,000 African migrants are living in Israel.

Bill on Israel’s African migrants has their advocates crying foul

A long chain-link fence with barbed wire seems to rise up out of the desert at the new Sadot facility in Israel for African migrants.

Situated along Israel’s barren border with Egypt and across the street from the notorious Ketziot Prison, which houses thousands of Palestinian prisoners, Sadot is slated to begin operations this month as an “open residence facility” for some 3,300 African migrants.

In a large dirt field, long rows of railroad-style red-and-beige rooms sit under a long, white-pitched roof. Behind them, the rounded metallic tops of large hangars peek out. Like Ketziot, Sadot will be run by Israel’s Prison Service.

The residence is the centerpiece of proposed legislation meant to provide a framework for handling the African migrant population in Israel.

The bill, which passed an initial vote with a strong majority in the Knesset last week, is expected to become law in the coming weeks. Backers of the measure hope it will encourage migrants to return voluntarily to their home countries.

“We need to create a deterrent,” Interior Minister Gideon Saar, of the Likud party, said in a Knesset debate last week. “The location of Israel as the only Western state sharing a border with the African continent necessitates it. If we decide to be the exemplar of liberalism among Western states, we will bring about, with our own hands, the destruction of the only Jewish state.”

According to the Israeli government, some 60,000 African migrants crossed into Israel illegally from Egypt between 2006 and early this year, when Israel completed a border fence that virtually halted the cross-border influx.

Proponents of the bill say the African migrants — whom the bill and many Israelis refer to as “infiltrators” — pose a threat to the state’s social order and its Jewish majority.

Last year, tensions over the migrants prompted angry demonstrations, and polls taken at the time showed that 40 percent of Israelis supported their mass expulsion from the state. Last week, the government approved a plan to provide stipends of about $3,500 to migrants who choose to leave Israel.

But human rights groups in Israel say the Africans, most of whom hail from the dictatorships of Eritrea and Sudan, are refugees fleeing violence and forced military conscription, and they should be granted asylum. The advocates are condemning the proposed legislation as draconian.

“It’s meant as a tool to embitter their lives to the point where they’ll self-deport,” Marc Grey, a spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, told JTA. “This is not a solution. This allows the government to say, ‘Look, we’re not really releasing these people.’ ”

The proposed law aims to replace legislation passed last year allowing up to three years’ imprisonment without charge for anyone who crosses the border illegally. Israel’s Supreme Court unanimously struck down the law in September because it violates a guarantee of personal freedom enshrined in one of the Basic Laws — Israel’s equivalent to a constitution — even if a person is in Israel illegally.

Now the state must pass its replacement law by a court-ordered deadline of Dec. 15 or release the 1,500 migrants imprisoned in the Saharonim detention center near Sadot. The high court mandated that any new law significantly lighten the punishment for illegal immigration, which the government says the proposed law fulfills.

Under the bill, the migrants would be detained in prison for one year, not three, and then transferred indefinitely to the open facility, where they would receive food, shelter and health care. The bill’s sponsors hope the stick of Sadot plus the carrot of the financial grants will persuade migrants to find a way out of Israel.

“The law needs to remove economic incentives for them to come and send back people whose lives aren’t in danger,” said Yonatan Jakubowicz, director of public relations for the Israel Immigration Policy Center, which supports the bill. “The open facility takes away the ability to work but gives them respect and fulfills all their needs.”

While in theory migrants will be able to leave Sadot freely, several of the facility’s restrictions would restrict free movement. Residents would have to stand for roll call three times a day, a process that could take hours, and the facility’s gate would be locked between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

In addition, migrants would be prohibited from working outside the facility. Though jobs will be available inside the facility, the government would not be required to pay minimum wage.

“The government is mandating prison for a year, and then an open facility run by prison guards,” said Michal Rozin, a Knesset member from the Meretz party, which opposes the bill. “You can’t work. What are you supposed to do all day? It’s like a jail. It’s mocking the court’s decision.”

Instead, advocates propose that the government evaluate the migrants’ asylum requests and provide them with social services, such as health and job protection. While migrants are now entitled to free education and are not penalized for working, they do not hold work visas and are not entitled to public health care.

But with broad Knesset support for the proposed bill, including backing from inside the government coalition and outside it, such a scenario is unlikely.

Israel’s Cabinet OKs $124 million plan to deal with illegal migrants

Israel’s Cabinet allocated nearly $124 million to a plan designed to have illegal African migrants return to their countries of origin.

Most of the money allocated from the plan approved unanimously on Sunday will go toward building a new migrant detention center in southern Israel and paying migrants who agree to leave the country up to $3,500.

The plan also is aimed at reducing the presence of migrants in city centers and increasing security for Israelis.

It calls for adding 550 positions to law enforcement teams from the Public Security Ministry, the Population and Migration Authority and the Economy Ministry that will carry out enforcement against the illegal migrants and their employers. The number of police officers in areas of south Tel Aviv frequented by illegal migrants also will be increased.

“We are determined to deport the tens of thousands of illegal migrants who are here after having reduced to zero the number of illegal labor migrants who enter Israel’s cities,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the meeting, according to his office.

“The steps that we unanimously approved today are proportionate and necessary for maintaining the Jewish and democratic character of the state and will restore security to Israel’s citizens while upholding the directives of the High Court of Justice and international law.”

The plan is in conjunction with a new illegal migration prevention law that allows illegal migrants to be held for one year in a closed detention facility rather than three years. The Israeli Supreme Court struck down the original law.

The new detention facility will provide the migrants with food, sleeping accommodations, and health and welfare services, and will be closed only at night. However, the migrants will have to appear three times a day for roll call and are not permitted to work.

African migrants remain trapped at border following hearing

A group of African migrants remain trapped at the border with Egypt after Israel's Supreme Court decided to hold another hearing next week on their situation.

The decision to hold a second hearing was made at a court hearing on Thursday. The hearings are in response to a petition filed by the We are Refugees, an Israeli NGO. The petition calls for Israel to provide food, water and medical care to the refugees.

Also Thursday, Israeli police and troops blocked a delegation from the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights from visiting the trapped migrants.

The 20 African migrants have been trapped for a week between Israel's border fence with Egypt, and Israeli soldiers have been ordered not to let them in.The soldiers reportedly are providing water to the migrants, who include a pregnant woman and a teenage boy. The migrants have refused to be sent back to Egypt.

The Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday evening released a statement saying that Israel is not obligated under international law to allow the migrants to enter, since they do not face persecution in Egypt.

Also Wednesday, the envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, William Tall, called on Israel to allow the refugees to enter Israel and apply for asylum.

Last month, a group of migrants stuck along the border was allowed to enter Israel after four days. They were sent to a holding facility for illegal migrants.

Israel deports 150 more South Sudanese

Israel deported 150 more migrants from South Sudan.

A plane loaded with the African migrants, which Israel calls illegal infiltrators, left Israel for South Sudan on June 25. Some 120 South Sudanese migrants had left Israel last week.

The migrants reportedly are leaving voluntarily in exchange for a cash grant and a flight home. Migrants who do not leave voluntarily will be imprisoned, according to reports.

Israel rounded up dozens of South Sudanese last week in immigration control sweeps.

More than 1,500 South Sudanese migrants are living in Israel, according to estimates. Some 600 reportedly have signed statements saying they are willing to be repatriated to South Sudan

Two more group flights reportedly will return to the country next week.

Violence against African migrants has increased in Israel in recent weeks. 

Tutu reaches out to Jewish journalist upset with Israel over migrants

Archbishop Desmond Tutu responded to the outrage of a Jewish journalist in Cape Town over Israel’s policy toward African immigrants.

Tutu responded to a public letter by Cape Town Jewish journalist Moira Levy, who had condemned Israel’s move to deport illegal African migrants. Levy had said publicly that she will turn on her Jewish roots and cut off her past because of Israel’s intention to deport African immigrants and its intention to create ‘‘deportation camps’’ in the south of the country.

‘‘Israel has declared that the threat they allegedly pose is to the racial purity of the Jewish state. As a Jew and a white South African I have to ask myself if I can continue to be associated with people who’ve learnt from history only the ability to repeat the same horrific mistakes,’’ Levy wrote in her letter, which was published last week in the daily Cape Times.

Tutu wrote that he was moved by Levy’s “anguish” but urged her not to abandon her belief, and not to blame her faith over ‘‘policies of people in power.’’ The Nobel Peace Prize winner also wrote that ‘‘when our family behaved wrongly, we did not turn our backs on them, but tried to convince them to steer a fairer course.’’ He emphasized that some of the most outspoken critics of apartheid and of Israel were Jewish, saying that ‘‘these compatriots have a unique understanding of discrimination.’‘

A spokesman for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies said the board defends the fundamental right of people to express their opinions. He added that it was difficult to accept the arguments of a person who would choose to alienate herself from a 3,000-year-old tradition over her dissatisfaction with a specific issue.

Israel begins repatriating South Sudanese migrants

A planeload of 120 illegal migrants was scheduled to leave Israel for repatriation in South Sudan.

The migrants reportedly began boarding buses Sunday afternoon headed for Ben Gurion Airport for a flight that evening.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the repatriation “orderly and dignified.”

“We have a Jewish tradition of treating strangers humanely, and even when we need to deport them from our midst due to the state’s desire to control its borders, we must do so humanely and in a manner that finds expression in a restrained and humane manner,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu said that a second plane bound for South Sudan would leave next week.

He added that as of last week, infiltrators are placed in detention and can be detained for years. New detention facilities are being built, he said.

The Population, Immigration and Borders Authority said at the end of last week that it would extend the one-week deadline for illegal migrants from South Sudan to voluntarily leave the country, receiving a cash grant and a flight home in exchange.

Meanwhile, a firebomb was thrown Saturday night at a bar in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood where migrants from Eritrea gather. One man was wounded.

Firebombs were thrown last month in two separate incidents at apartments in which several African migrants lived.

Out of Israel, back to Africa

African migrants chosen for deportation from Israel were nervously awaiting a knock on the door or a tap on the shoulder on Tuesday as immigration officials rounded up hundreds for departure flights due to begin at the weekend.

“The people are very tense. It’s pretty traumatic,” said Jacob Berri, a spokesman for the South Sudanese community of migrants, the first to be repatriated under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency plan.

“There are children here who only speak Hebrew. They won’t even know the language where they’re going,” Berri said.

Africans were being stopped on the street and issued deportation orders, he added. “About 100 more have been arrested this morning.”

Many of the migrants have been working in hotels and restaurants, while others have been holding down manual jobs or working as contracted day labor. All of them were technically working illegally.

Israeli opinion is divided over plans to eventually deport some 60,000 African migrants deemed a social irritant and a threat to the Jewish character of the state. A columnist in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth called it “hysteria”. Another in the same paper said the methods may be “needlessly brutal” but it was necessary.

The first deportation flight is expected to leave Israel on Sunday for Juba, the capital of South Sudan, as part of what Israel calls Operation Returning Home.

Detentions began on Sunday in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, where Israeli television filmed weeping African women and men in handcuffs. Those detained were sent to the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev Desert, close to where they first entered Israel over the porous Sinai Desert border with Egypt.

The South Sudanese, whose country was established in 2011 after they fled civil war in Sudan five or six years ago, will be the first to be repatriated, under an agreement between South Sudan and Israel. They number only some 1,500.

“The next stage is the removal from Israel of all the infiltrators from Eritrea and Sudan, whose number comes close to 50,000 people,” said Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

It is legally questionable whether Israel can actually remove all of the migrants and some critics have said the government’s tough rhetoric is far removed from reality.

“At the moment, we are permitted only to deport from Israel the citizens of South Sudan and the Ivory Coast,” the minister was quoted as saying.

“I hear those who say these infiltrators cannot be sent back, but this is an important mission …saying “No” is tantamount to shelving the declaration of independence, the end of the Zionist dream,” said Yishai, who heads a religious party.


South Sudanese who agree to deportation within five days will receive a grant of 1,000 euros. Those who do not are interned until they can be forcibly repatriated.

“We have arrested about 140 infiltrators up until last night, a main portion of whom are South Sudanese,” senior immigration official Yossi Edelstein told Israel Radio.

“There is also an impressive movement in the South Sudanese community of people coming to us to leave on their own free will. About 100 people have come forward to register…”

Israel, a country of 7.8 million, has almost completed a high fence along the border to deter more would-be migrants who are brought to the frontier by Bedouin people-smugglers.

Newspaper reports said Netanyahu had asked officials to examine whether a fence should now also be built along the border with southern Jordan, in the event that migrants try to cross the narrow Gulf of Aqaba and enter Israel from the Arab kingdom.

An Eilat hotel director said the expulsions were “a terrible shame”. “Most of them are educated people who fled from a bloody war in their homeland. They speak a number of languages, most of them are Christian, and they did their job in the best way possible,” David Blum of Isrotel was quoted as saying.

Thousands of Palestinians used to come into Israel daily from the West Bank and Gaza to do mostly minimum-wage jobs. But tight security provisions to prevent attacks by Palestinian militants ended that mutually beneficial arrangement years ago.

Netanyahu says legislation to stop the illegal hiring of Africans would now be strictly enforced.

Despite claims of rampant crime in sections of south Tel Aviv where most Africans live, a senior police commander, David Gez, was quoted as saying the level of crime among the migrants was relatively low.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Edited by Andrew Osborn

Give Israeli migrants absentee voting rights, Jerusalem institute recommends

Israel should give Israeli migrants absentee voting rights for their first four years abroad and finance schools for the children of Israelis in the Diaspora, a new policy paper recommends.

The policy paper released this week by the Jewish People Policy Institute based in Jerusalem argues that Israelis residing abroad, especially in North America, can be a strategic asset to Israel, and help facilitate a process of demographic and identity regeneration within Diaspora Jewry as well as serve as a bridge between Israel and Jewish communities abroad.

The paper, titled “Helping Yordim Remain Jewish: A new policy for the treatment of Israeli migrants abroad,” was authored by JPPI fellow Yogev Karasenty. It calls on Israeli decision makers to give Israeli migrants absentee voting rights for their first four years abroad to strengthen ties with Israel, and to finance the establishment of kindergartens and schools for children of Israelis in the Diaspora, as well as to finance special study tracks for the children of Israeli migrants studying in Jewish schools.

Yordim, which literally means those who descend, is the Hebrew term used to describe Israelis who leave for the Diaspora.

The paper pointed out that the second-generation Israeli migrant community is exposed to an accelerated assimilation process and that Israeli parents abroad face difficulties in instilling an “Israeli” identity in the next generation.

JPPI President Avinoam Bar-Yosef said that “Israel should make a real effort to embrace the children of Yordim, who have moved away from Israel as a result of the negative attitude of the Israeli state and public opinion toward their parents, in order to strengthen their Jewish identity and long-term ties to Israel. This approach must be accompanied by economic investment and a shift of strategy, especially in an era when distances are decreasing, allowing many people to live their lives in more than one country.”

Israel deports 150 African migrants

Israel sent 150 Sudanese migrants back to their home country.

The deportees, who left late Monday night, will fly through a third country on their way back. Sudan would not take them back directly since the African nation is technically at war with Israel.

Israeli officials stressed that each of the migrants had agreed to leave voluntarily. In addition to paying for their flights home, Israel also gave each returning family $500. Most of the migrants entering Israel are economic migrants, not refugees, according to reports.

The deportation was coordinated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Some 200 other Sudanese agreed to be repatriated and received stipends for doing so in recent months, Reuters reported.

In recent weeks, Israel has begun to make a greater effort to halt illegal African migration into Israel. The government recently approved the building of a detention center near the border with Egypt to hold and deport illegals, and last month Israel began construction of a barrier between parts of its border with Egypt to prevent illegal migrants from entering the country.