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Tel Aviv — “It’s clear that we cannot return Sudanese and Eritreans to their countries,” Netanyahu said, according to Haaretz. Almost 90% of illegal immigrants come from these countries.
William Tall, representative in Israel for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, sees the shift as significant. “They are acknowledging to the public that there is no quick solution and that there is going to be no quick round-up and deportation,” he said.
The government is “trying to make it look like they’re doing something,” said Bar-Ilan University professor Sam Lehman-Wilzig, an expert on political communication.
The initial crackdown has pointedly aimed at immigrants from South Sudan, a relatively small community of about 1,000 people, and from Cote d’Ivoire. Both those groups may be deported back to their homelands.
Instead of focusing on those African immigrants already inside Israel, experts predict that Israel will push harder to prevent more from coming. A fence is being built along the border with Egypt, and a massive detention camp is planned to house detainees.
“I think [the government’s] policies are not for the 60,000 who are here, but for the 600,000 who could come,” said Tall, the UNHCR representative. “If there is any indication that the flow isn’t endless and is manageable, I would think that the policy would change.”
Lehman-Wilzig predicts that if the border were sealed, “most people will accept that the government has done its best.”
He believes that Israelis would eventually accept the continued presence of Africans as about 1% of Israel’s population. “If we know no more are coming, we can definitely swallow the bullet,” Lehman-Wilzig said.
Some prominent intellectuals have been suggesting such a course of action for some time. In 2010 the Metzilah Center for Jewish, Zionist, Liberal and Humanist Thought released a position paper calling for Israel to adopt a clear immigration policy that makes provision for absorbing some non-Jews. One of the authors, Amnon Rubinstein, dean of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told the Forward that he has long considered the best course of action to be “seal off people from entering Israel and treat humanely and with human rights those who are here.”
Still, it’s not at all clear that the Israeli public will be satisfied by a more conciliatory approach. Right-wing politicians have found an eager audience for their claims that Africans are a growing source of crime that must be removed from Israeli society at any cost.
Yishai, who ordered the arrests of South Sudanese immigrants, shows no signs of backing down.
“The deportation operation is getting under way,” he told local television on June 10, after the roundup began. “We are starting the job.”
Africans have been slipping into Israel in large numbers since 2005, but the issue has only recently come to the heart of the country’s national agenda.