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Israel’s New Push To Keep Africans Behind Bars

Asylum-seekers Detained in Israel’s Desert from Jewish Daily Forward on Vimeo.

Israel’s Parliament has passed a new law aimed at keeping African immigrants behind bars — and a controversial jail to house them open — beyond a deadline set by the country’s highest court.

The Knesset by a 43-20 vote approved an initial legislative step for a new law that mandates three months in prison for African asylum-seekers who enter Israel without documentation and a year and eight months more in the spartan Holot detention center, which Israel euphemistically refers to as an “open facility.”

If it passes two more hurdles, the new law will permit Israel to keep more than 2,000 African detainees imprisoned in Holot — and likely to jail many more.

It is the third time lawmakers have sought to amend to the nation’s so-called anti-infiltration law. Earlier amendments were twice struck down by Israel’s High Court of Justice on the grounds they were unconstitutional.

Advocates say Israel should offer a haven to the refugees, most of whom are fleeing authoritarian regimes in the Sudan (many hail from the genocide-ravaged Darfur province) and Eritrea, considered one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

In its latest decision on September 22, Israel’s High Court gave the state 90 days to come up with a solution. Otherwise, it ordered the expensive Holot facility in the Negev desert shut down.

To make this happen before the December 22 deadline, the internal affairs committee of the Knesset scheduled ahead six different discussions on the bill in the upcoming two weeks so it can prepare it as soon as possible for second and third readings in hopes of passing the law on time.

It remains to be seen if opponents, which include leftist parties and human rights proponents, can derail the plan to fasttrack the bill.

Proponents of the new law say it significantly eases the burden on immigrants in response to the high court decision. It limits the period that the state can detain migrants in Holot to one year and eight months, compared to the old law, which allowed indefinite detention. It also decreases the number of times Holot detainees need to check in there from three times a day to just once. It also reduces the amount of jail time immigrants could face upon apprehension from one year to three months, before they would be sent to Holot.

Advocates for the immigrants and human rights groups scoffed at the changes as tweaks to an unjust and failed policy.

A coalition of human rights organizations including Amnesty International slammed the new law as a violation of international law, which requires Israel to impartially evaluate the immigrants’ claims to asylum.

It also pointed out that the law does nothing to solve the longterm social problems faced by immigrants and the Israeli communities in which they live.

“The new bill not only ignores the High Court ruling, it will also make the situation worse in south Tel Aviv,” the group said in a statement. “What will happen two years from now when thousands of asylum seekers will be released from Holot? Where will the government send them this time around?”

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