ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Cabinet allocates NIS 20 million to encourage migrants to leave country

Funds earmarked to encourage ‘voluntary departure,’ week after a massive street brawl between Eritrean migrants injured over 170

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday approved NIS 20 million ($5 million) to incentivize African migrants and asylum seekers to leave Israel, a week after violent riots broke out between politically opposed camps of Eritreans living in Israel.

The result of a special ministerial committee convened last Sunday, the government’s plan also includes about NIS 10 million in other initiatives to help residents who claim their quality of life has been adversely affected by a large concentration of migrants and asylum seekers in their neighborhoods.

In addition, an inter-ministerial team, headed by ministry directors general, will be set up to “prevent infiltrators from harming citizens’ quality of life” and to further “remove infiltrators” from Israeli neighborhoods.

The Israeli government generally refers to African migrants and asylum seekers as “infiltrators,” due to their having entered the country illegally. Critics of the policy point to the fact that Israel largely refuses to evaluate refugee or asylum seeker status requests for the nearly 30,000 African migrants currently residing in the country.

Immediately after last Saturday’s riot, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed a ministerial team to look into deporting migrants who were involved in the violence, which spilled over into direct conflict with the Israel Police and injured over 170 people, including about 50 police officers.

A portion of the 17,850 Eritreans living in Israel are asylum seekers who fled near-lifetime military conscription, among other human rights abuses, at the hands of Eritrea’s autocratic regime. Others are regime supporters who do not claim to fear the same political retribution if repatriated to Eritrea, and are considered by some to be economic migrants. Netanyahu said last Sunday that he would only look to deport pro-regime migrants who took part in the violence.

Eritrean asylum seekers who oppose the regime in Eritrea and pro-regime activists clash with police officers in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

The United Nations quickly poured cold water over Netanyahu’s idea, saying that expelling Eritreans en masse would be unlawful.

Israel has long struggled with how to respond to an influx of largely Sudanese and Eritrean migrants and asylum seekers into the country, which at their peak topped over 60,000 people. Netanyahu brokered a deal with the UN in 2018 to resettle half of the Eritrean population in third countries in exchange for granting status to the other half, but then quickly called off the arrangement, caving to political pressure against absorption within Israel. While the flow has tapered off due to the 2012 construction of a physical barrier along the border with Egypt, many remain in the country today, often in difficult conditions.

As an alternative to forcible deportation, the Prime Minister’s Office said the NIS 20 million is geared toward “encouraging the voluntary departure of infiltrators.”

A spokesperson for Negev and Galilee Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf, whose ministry pledged the money toward the cabinet initiative, said that the government has not yet decided the amount or mechanism for deploying the bulk of the funds, in cash grant or otherwise.

Netanyahu and Wasserlauf both said on Sunday that their broader plan will help residents in areas with large concentrations of migrants and asylum seekers, in particular south Tel Aviv, the site of last week’s riots.

Eritrean migrants who oppose and support that country’s regime clash in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023 (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

Among these initiatives are offering legal assistance to residents, renovating synagogues damaged by vandalism to the tune of NIS 1.5 million a year, pledging NIS 1.5 million toward building robust student communities in affected communities, and helping senior citizens in high-concentration areas.

“The plight of the residents of neighborhoods full of infiltrators is a problem for all of us. Like many problems, it gets exposure only when it breaks through the circles of immediate casualties and goes out into the public domain,” read a statement from Wasserlauf, accompanying the cabinet approval.

“I know the residents of neighborhoods saturated with infiltrators very well, I have lived among them – concerned citizens, who fear for the safety of their children and elderly parents and live a harsh, unacceptable reality,” the minister, who now lives in a tony north Tel Aviv neighborhood, added.

Minister for the Advancement of Women May Golan also chipped in about NIS 3 million from her ministry, helping to fund a women’s focused community rehabilitation program in south Tel Aviv for NIS 3 million and a NIS 1.5 million plan to increase women’s personal security in affected areas, in response to sexual assaults perpetrated by asylum seekers and migrants in recent years.

“As someone who has been leading the fight against illegal infiltration for over a decade, I am determined to help as much as possible, and within the limitations of my existing offices, those neighborhoods that suffer from the cruel and unbearable burden of infiltrators,” Golan said in a statement.

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