‘Infiltrators’ dominate media debate after court ruling
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‘Infiltrators’ dominate media debate after court ruling

Decision to limit detention of illegal migrants and asylum seekers opens debate on constitutional authority

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Detainees at the entrance to Holot. (photo credit: Nehama Shimnovic)
Detainees at the entrance to Holot. (photo credit: Nehama Shimnovic)

A High Court of Justice decision to limit the detention of illegal migrants to a year instead of 20 months will have catastrophic consequences, and the tabloids are fretting over what comes next. Hide your kids, lock up your antique porcelain miniatures, dust off the razor wire in the garage, because a horde of African asylum seekers will be descending upon the good people of Israel.

Maybe not exactly. The ruling struck down most of an amendment to the existing law, save the clause about detention for up to 20 months. “There’s no grounds for nullifying the law for preventing illegal immigration,” Israel Hayom says, but the daily nonetheless sows panic.

The ruling was the third of its kind by the High Court of Justice on the law seeking to curb deter African migrants from entering Israel illegally. Until the law is amended by Knesset and passed, the justices ruled that the maximum period that migrants can be held at the Holot detention facility in the Negev is 12 months, and anyone already held there over a year will be released retroactively. They ordered that lawmakers set the maximum detention period lower than the current 20 months, which they deemed excessive.

“Within 15 days about 1,000 infiltrators will be released from the facility,” the paper reports. Its main story’s headline reads “The law is approved, but the problem remains” alongside a photo of four black Africans outside the Holot facility.

“According to Israel Prison Service statistics, of the 1,700 people held in Holot about 70% have been held there for over a year already,” Yedioth Ahronoth reports. “Therefore the implication is that over a thousand illegal migrants are expected to be set free within two weeks.” Its headline cites an even larger figure than Israel Hayom, 1,200 migrants.

Yedioth Ahronoth’s Page 3 photo shows a single African man surrounded by what appears to be a baying mob of south Tel Aviv residents who came out to protest the High Court’s decision.

For Haaretz, the primary takeaway appears to be that, contrary to the first two times that the High Court of Justice struck down the law passed by the Knesset, this time the justices effectively gave sanction to the motivation behind it by “approving the principles of the amendment to the law regulating the detention of asylum seekers in the Holot facility.” The paper notably refers to the illegal migrants as “asylum seekers” whereas the other papers use “infiltrators” in their reporting.

Aeyal Gross, a member of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, one of the petitioners in this case, writes in Haaretz that the ruling has both upsides and downsides, but hails the court’s decision for having “greatly curtailed [the government’s] grandiose plan to imprison asylum seekers for long periods.” He notes, however, that the decision could result in “revolving door policy” by which illegal migrants current at Holot would be released after the prescribed time, but others will be incarcerated in their stead, albeit for shorter periods. It also doesn’t get at the underlying argument behind the law, which is breaking the spirit of the illegal migrants through incarceration.

While his heart goes out to the poor migrants who seek work and a crust of bread, writes Professor Avraham Diskin in an Israel Hayom op-ed, “once more the High Court of Justice has erred in the disproportionate use of the dubious term ‘proportionality.’ His beef is not with the issue in particular, it would seem, but the principle of judicial oversight of the legislature.

“Those charged with determining proportionality in these issues are the politicians also known as ‘the elected,'” not the Supreme Court justices, he argues. “This is the essence of democracy.”

That conflict — between those who advocate supremacy of Israel’s legislature and those who see the judiciary as higher — is also at the crux of Ben-Dror Yemini’s op-ed in Yedioth Ahronoth. “The hourglass for another conflict between the legislature and executive, and the High Court of Justice has been ticking a long time already,” he says, mixing up his timepiece metaphors. “Attempts to influence the decisions of the Supreme Court are a matter of course, but yesterday morning marked an escalation.”

He knocks Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s move to preemptively criticize the High Court’s decision before it had even been made with a Facebook post in which she said that she’d post videos “every two hours” showing incidences of migrants harassing Israelis or committing petty crimes until the ruling was made.”Her concern for the residents of south Tel Aviv is justified, but her response was preemptive and therefore also unnecessary,” Yemini writes.

Yemini says the state tries to balance human rights and its need to heed public pressure to curb illegal immigration. “The balancing point set [Tuesday] wasn’t just between human rights and the needs of the state, it was also between the High Court of Justice and the state,” he says.

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