Netanyahu vows to reopen migrant jails after deportation plan fails

PM is backing bill that would allow Knesset to override High Court, after justices order state to release imprisoned asylum seekers

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Detained African migrants inside the Holot detention center, located in Israel's southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border, on February 4, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Detained African migrants inside the Holot detention center, located in Israel's southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border, on February 4, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to pass legislation to reopen asylum seeker detention centers, overriding court rulings, hours after his own government scrapped its controversial plan to forcibly deport tens of thousands of African migrants from Israel.

“After several third-party countries refused to receive the infiltrators according to the conditions Israel demanded, I decided, together with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, to immediately prepare to reopen jail facilities for infiltrators, to advance [legislation allowing the Knesset to override the High Court] so that we can operate [the prisons], and to advance other means for solving this problem,” the prime minister said in a tweet.

Ministers in November 2017 approved a plan to shutter the Holot detention facility as Netanyahu announced an agreement to deport 40,000 Africans who entered the country illegally.

But earlier on Tuesday, state officials told the court there was “no possibility” to forcibly deport the asylum seekers — most of whom are from Sudan and Eritea — to a third country and announced that existing deportation orders would be canceled. The state said migrants with expired temporary residency permits will be able to get their visas renewed,” and that “no more deportation decisions will be made at this time.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event marking the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, with Israeli and Foreign Ambassadors at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, on April 23, 2018. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

The High Court had demanded the government present a deportation plan that would safely resettle the migrants in a third country, or set them free from detention.

Last week, after Netanyahu’s special emissary to Uganda returned without a signed agreement after 11 days of negotiations in Kampala, the court ordered the release of 200 African migrants from the Saharonim Prison, where they had been held since refusing to leave Israel voluntarily. Earlier in April, 58 migrants were freed from Saharonim after a similar reported deal with Rwanda fell through.

The government’s admission on Tuesday appeared to mark a dramatic setback for the government in its years-long attempts to expel the asylum-seekers and a triumph for activists who appealed to the court against the government plans.

African asylum seekers leaving the Saharonim prison in southern Israel where they had been imprisoned due to their refusal to leave the country, April 15, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s government was seeking to advance legislation that would allow 61 out of the Knesset’s 120 members to re-approve a law struck down by the Supreme Court, effectively giving any government the ability to quash ruling from Israel’s top court.

The coalition Kulanu party has objected to a sweeping High Court of Justice supercession law, but has said it will support a bill to override the court on the issue of migrants.

Netanyahu’s announcement Tuesday was praised by Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett who said he “welcomed” the prime minister’s plans to reopen the detention centers.

A wide coalition of critics in Israel and in the Jewish American community had called Israel’s deportation plans unethical and a stain on the country’s image as a refuge for Jewish migrants. Several mass protests against it have taken place in several Israeli cities in recent months.

The initial deportation plan, which offered each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket to third-party countries, has been condemned by the United Nations as chaotic, poorly executed, and unsafe. Asylum seekers previously deported to Uganda and Rwanda have told the Times of Israel they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents.

The expulsion policy drew further criticism after Netanyahu last month bowed to coalition pressure and nixed his own deal with the United Nations under which roughly half of the migrants would have been resettled in the West and others absorbed in Israel.

African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against deportation of asylum seekers at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 24, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Netanyahu called off the agreement with the UNHCR hours after it was announced on April 2, under pressure from his right-wing political allies.

Israel considers most of about 35,000 African migrants to be job seekers and says it has no legal obligation to keep them, and officials commonly refer to them as “infiltrators.” The Africans, nearly all from dictatorial Eritrea and war-torn Sudan, say they fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return.

The Africans started moving toward Israel in 2005 after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the porous desert border before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.

Israel has struggled with what to do with those already in the country, alternating between plans to jail and deport them and allowing them to work in menial jobs.

Thousands are concentrated in poor neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv, an area that has become known as “Little Africa.” Their presence has sparked tensions with working-class Jewish residents, who have complained of rising crime and pressed the government to take action.

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