Tel Aviv — Israel’s heavily publicized plan to round up and imprison thousands of illegal immigrants from the Sudan, including many refugees from the Darfur conflict, has been scrapped — and now appears to have been little more than a stunt by a rogue minister.
The state attorney revealed this week that the government never authorized Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s plan for a mass round-up. A new law aimed at stemming the tide of illegal immigrants would only apply to the handful who have arrived since it was promulgated in June.
“The Immigration Authority has yet to receive any order pertaining to the incarceration of Sudanese infiltrators,” the state attorney wrote on October 25 in response to a legal challenge by advocates for immigrants. It added that if such a decision is ever taken, “it will be stated publically by the authority, 30 days before going into effect.”
The estimated 15,000 Sudanese nationals who are seeking asylum as refugees in Israel had been in a state of panic, as the Interior Ministry was expected to start its operation by the end of the month. But the revelation, which came on the eve of the Muslim holy festival Eid al-Adha, meant that the Sudanese illegals celebrated the holiday in a jubilant mood.
“It was very good news, coming as we started the festival, making people very happy,” Bahad Adam, a Sudanese man who has been in Israel for five years, told the Forward.
Yishai, who has famously declared war on African immigrants and accused them of being AIDS-ridden criminals, would not comment on the extraordinary legal slap in the face. It was also not clear why government officials did not disown the much-ballyhooed crackdown earlier.
Questioned on the matter, an official from the Prime Minister’s office said only: “The Prime Minister respects the decisions of the Israeli court system.”
A controversial new amendment to Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law means that anybody who entered Israel since it entered the statute books in June can be imprisoned for lengthy periods. But in August, Yishai announced that he planned to round up and imprison all asylum seekers, even those who arrived before the law took effect.
After Yishai’s announcement, human rights groups and advocacy organizations representing illegals petitioned Jerusalem District Court to block the move. The United Nations refugee agency echoed their concerns. The including in their court papers an appendix by the United Nations Refugee Agency which echoed their concerns. American Jews have also expressed concerns over the planned round-up.
It was in response to this petition that the State Attorney admitted that Yishai’s plan lacked any government authorization.
The new development means that all asylum seekers who arrived before June are safe from arrest and imprisonment, however it does not change the fact that asylum seekers who have arrived since June can be imprisoned under the Prevention of Infiltration Law.
As Sudanese asylum seekers celebrated the State Attorney’s revelation, the groups who filed the petition attacked the government for failing to clarify the legal situation sooner.
“We do not understand why there was a need for us to serve a petition to court and wait two months before the relevant authorities bother to clarify that Yishai’s announcement was his alone and does not reflect government decisions,” said Sigal Rozen, public activities coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers. “During these two months, many Sudanese, fearing endless detention, run away from Israel to neighboring counties risking their life once more. Others, who could not leave, had to live with the fear that they will end their lives in prison. “
The attorney who filed the petition Oded Feller said he believes that Yishai was aware that he could not follow through on his threat but hoped to frighten as many immigrants as possible into leaving the country voluntarily.
“(He) probably tried to scare people so they will be in panic and try to leave Israel.” said Feller, attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, adding that he believed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials should have spoken out sooner.
Analysts believe that while they expect the imprisonment of asylum seekers who have arrived since June to continue, Israel may have seen the back of the ultra hard-line plans for dealing with earlier arrivals.
Yishai, who has been spearheading this approach with a demagogic approach, already was isolated within the ruling coalition governement even before the humiliating legal setback.
Yishai serves as interior minister as a result of his leadership of the Shas party, which mostly represents Sephardi Haredi Jews. But following an internal power struggle in the party he will now share the leadership with his Aryeh Deri, his predecessor in Shas. Deri reportedly wants to sideline the asylum seeker issue, and a more gentle approach when it is discussed.
“It’s going to be a much lower-key issue, dealt with in accordance with the letter of the law ad much more methodically,” predicted Bar-Ilan University professor Sam Lehman-Wilzig, an expert on political communication.