A bill easing restrictions on African migrants in Israel, including limiting the amount of time they can be held in detention, passed a key Knesset committee Monday, paving the way for lawmakers to pass it into law.
Under the proposed regulations, a new 20-month limit will be placed on the confinement of migrants at the Holot detention facility and they will only need to be present for roll call once a day.
Under current regulations, residents are permitted to leave the remote desert site during the day but must return to attend three daily roll calls.
The Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee okayed the new rules by a 6-4 vote, clearing it for second and third readings in the Knesset when it reconvenes after coming elections.
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan welcomed the approval, which was squeezed in on the last day before the parliament was due to dissolve itself ahead of coming elections scheduled for March 17.
“The debate here is between two political groups,” Erdan said. “Between those who see Israel first of all as the one and only country of the Jewish people, and the left wing that to my regret is prepared to endanger that.”
Further changes to the law included a reduction in the incarceration period in prison for newly apprehended migrants to three months, down from one year.
After the three months, they will be transferred to Holot, described by the Israeli government as an open detention facility.
The bill was drawn up by the Interior Ministry after the Supreme Court struck down a previous version in September. The former amendment lacked any time limitation on the holding of asylum seekers in the facility.
The new terms were agreed upon following two months of intense government efforts to formalize a new draft.
Since 2006, some 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese have entered Israel illegally via the Sinai desert, prompting authorities to construct a fence along the border and build the large Holot detention facility in the Negev desert to house them.
For the past eight years, Israel has struggled to establish and implement a clear legal framework to deal with the large influx of migrants, which has resulted in confusing and often conflicting ad hoc immigration policies.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court repealed the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, designed to stem the flow of African migrants into the country. Judges deemed Holot to be more akin to a prison and granted the government three months to find an alternative policy before it completely repealed the law.
If final legislative procedures for the bill had not been completed before the breaking up of the 19th Knesset, the government would have been required to release the estimated 2,500 migrants currently detained in Holot.
Committee chairperson MK Miri Regev (Likud) expressed her disappointment Monday that the final version of the bill was too weak.
“The proposal as it came is bad and is with one eye on Geneva,” she said.
Regev had wanted to increase the initial incarceration period to six months and the holding period in Holot to 24 months but voted in favor of the bill in order to ensure it passed the committee review before parliament ended.
The new draft of the bill keeps the employment prohibition on Holot detainees, and new measures were placed to deter employers from taking on asylum seekers who were ordered to report at the facility. The law will allow steep fines for anyone found illegally employing asylum seekers.
Employers of permit-holding asylum seekers will be obliged to garnish the workers’ wages, and only return the money upon their departure from Israel.
Tamar Pileggi and AP contributed to this report.