Tel Aviv — Even as a high-profile round-up targets illegal African immigrants, the Israeli government may be laying the groundwork for a softer policy toward the estimated 60,000 undocumented newcomers whom lawmakers have branded “infiltrators” and a “cancer.”
Independent human rights groups and academic experts say the government knows it cannot deport the vast majority of immigrants because they come from Eritrea or Sudan, both of which are ruled by repressive regimes.
Even inside the government, there is embarrassment over the impression that mass deportations are imminent, and from the provocative statements of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who leads the Orthodox Sephardic party Shas.
In one such recent statement, Yishai, whose own family immigrated to Israel from Tunisia, told the daily newspaper Maariv on June 3, “Most of the people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.” In fact, most of the immigrants from South Sudan and Eritrea are Christians.
“We’re very frustrated by the Minister of the Interior and his populist statements,” a senior Foreign Ministry source told the Forward. “Some of them are very irresponsible and they are causing great damage to Israel abroad.”
The source, who would not speak on-the-record due to the sensitivity of clashing with the chief of another ministry, said that it is “very clear” that there will be no major deportation at the moment, due to considerations of international law.
“We’re not going to clash with the UN or the UNHCR,” he commented, using the abbreviations for the United Nations and its High Commissioner for Refugees.
But no government official has been willing to criticize Yishai’s stance on the record, and it is his Interior Ministry exclusively that has direct control of deportation policy.
Despite this, close observers of the government say it is likely to resign itself to a small-scale operation that will aim to satisfy the Israeli public’s desire for action.
Among other things, the analysts point to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shifting statements about the crackdown on African immigrants.
Netanyahu initially promised harsh measures. “My policy on the matter of the illegal foreign workers is clear: First, stop their entry through the fence, while at the same time, expel all infiltrators from Israel,” he said in a May 29 speech.
By June 4, his public position had softened dramatically. He admitted that Israel cannot consider deporting the vast majority of African immigrants, due to the poor political or humanitarian situation in their countries.