Israel has “succeeded in blocking the entry of infiltrators from Africa” and can now start focusing on returning those that have made it into the country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.

Several hundred migrants from South Sudan were repatriated after that country announced its independence in July 2011.

“We have succeeded in blocking the entry of infiltrators from Africa to Israel. After having faced the threat of the entry of hundreds of thousands, this month not one infiltrator entered Israel’s cities,” said Netanyahu at a special forum convened to discuss Israel’s response to mass infiltration by economic migrants.

The number of African migrants crossing into Israel from Egypt plummeted in the last few months from roughly 2,000 in May to zero in December.

Netanyahu said Israel “will complete the construction of the fence along the border with Sinai” next month. The 240-km-long fence has been under construction for over a year.

“Now we are moving on to the second stage, that of repatriating the infiltrators who are already here,” the prime minister said.

Netanyahu appointed former Mossad agent Hagai Hadas to lead the repatriation effort. Hadas “is in contact with various African governments,” the prime minister said.

The second stage of the plan was not easy, but doable, Netanyahu said. “Just as the blocking was possible, so too the repatriation is possible.”

The legal status of most migrants in Israel is complicated. Many are asylum seekers by virtue of their nationalities — citizens of Sudan and Eritrea face incarceration, torture and death upon return to their countries — but are not formally recognized as refugees. As a result, they receive temporary permits to live in the country, but are not legally allowed to work, which results in widespread poverty.

Previously, Netanyahu said the migrants in Israel threatened the country’s Jewish identity. Other right-wing politicians openly spoke out against the presence of Africans in Israel, stirring a storm over racist statements.

In addition, the Africans living in Israeli cities came under physical attacks on several occasions. In one incident, the home of an African couple in Jerusalem was set ablaze; and in another, three migrants were stabbed in Tel Aviv.