Israel said on Monday it had started rounding up African migrants in the first stage of a controversial “emergency plan” to intern and deport thousands deemed a threat to the Jewish character of the state.
Israel Radio reported that dozens of Africans, mainly from South Sudan, had already been detained in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, including mothers and children.
The Israeli government wants to get rid of “60,000 African migrants, whose numbers are seen by many Israelis as a law and order issue and even a threat to the long-term viability of the Jewish state,” according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For some in Israel, built by immigrants and refugees, internment and deportation are bad solutions that may damage the international image of the country needlessly.
They say rounding up members of a different racial group and holding them in camps for deportation may invite allusions to the Nazi Holocaust, however unfair such comparisons may be, and betrays Jewish values.
In Israel, Sudanese immigrants “are caught up in a wave of hostility towards Blacks in general, focused on a poor area of south Tel Aviv where they are forced to live.” An opinion poll last week showed 52 percent of Israelis agree that the Africans are “a cancer.”
They’ve come here to rape and steal,” an Israeli woman shouted during an anti-migrant demonstration earlier this month in south Tel Aviv. “We should burn them out, put poison in their food,” an elderly man suggested.
In the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, racists call them “a cancer and an AIDs virus on the Israeli people.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said illegal immigrants from Africa are “flooding” and “swamping” Israel and threaten “the character of the country.”
The major raids 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 Arab 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 with dignity,” 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 drastically lower than among Israelis.
ALSO SEE: RACISM REPORT AFRICANS IN ISRAEL