Knesset passes bill on prolonged detention of refugees without trial

Despite loud opposition, the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which passed with a large majority, would detain asylum seekers for three years without trial, or indefinitely if they come from “enemy” countries like Sudan

By Elizabeth Tsurkov

The Knesset passed on Monday night an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which metes out harsh punishments on Africans seeking refuge in Israel. The law passed the second and third readings in the plenum with a large majority (37-8) following a boisterous discussion.

Under the law, refugees would be held for three years in detention without trial or any charges being brought against them. Refugees from enemy states, like Sudan, would be kept in indefinite detention, although they have not been convicted of a crime. Minors arriving with family members will be subjected to the same punishment. This amendment was introduced by the government, which countered repeated attempts of opposition MKs to mitigate the most draconian provisions of the law.

The amendment does not distinguish between refugees, unauthorized immigrants or “infiltrators” with intention to harm Israel’s security. In fact, according to the law, even people who are granted refugee status or permanent residency, but entered Israel without permission, will still be considered “infiltrators.” While official Israeli rhetoric describes the refugees as “labor infiltrators,” the Israeli government does not deport most of the Africans entering Israel, recognizing or at least mostly complying with UNHCR guidelines that forbid the deportation of Sudanese, Eritrean, Congolese and Somalis back to their homelands.

The amendment is the cornerstone of a series of anti-refugee measures that have been executed and planned by the Israeli government. Other measures include the construction of a fence along the Egyptian border that will cost taxpayers NIS 1.35 billion ($360 million), the construction of a large open-air prison that will house 11,000 refugees that will cost at least NIS 1.16 billion to operate per year, and enforcement against employers of refugees. These expensive measures will be partially funded by a 2% cut in the budget of all government ministries.

The Knesset’s legal advisor, Eyal Yanon, voiced his opposition to the law, stating that it does not meet “minimal constitutional standards.” The Prevention of Infiltration Law was originally passed in 1954 as part of Israel’s emergency regulations to deal with the phenomenon of armed Palestinian infiltrators who entered Israel to conduct sabotage operations. The 1954 law criminalized the entry of all “infiltrators” from Arab countries, whether armed or not, setting their punishment to five years in prison. Currently, the application of the law is tied to the “state of emergency” (which has been in effect in Israel since independence), but the amendment would decouple the application of the law from the state of emergency. This means that even if the state of emergency is one day lifted, the law will remain in effect. In his opposition to the law, Yanon stated that using the 1954 law to deal with the tide of African refugees entering Israel “poses difficult legal problems, which we made known in past meetings with representatives of the Government.”

During the Knesset committee discussion on the bill, slight amendments were added, according to some of the reservations the legal advisor voiced. Prior to the committee vote, the law criminalized any assistance to refugees, setting a punishment of five years imprisonment for a person providing assistance to a refugee, and 15 years for a repeat offender. The committee narrowed down the application of this provision to those aiding armed infiltrators and drug and human traffickers only. Another change from the original bill removed a passage that stated that any refugee convicted even of a petty property crime would be automatically sentenced to life in prison. The Ministry of Justice strongly opposed the changes, and during the second reading in the plenum, attempted to broaden the application of the law to all refugees. However, due to the opposition of Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) during the reading, the state agreed to withdraw the amendments, which means these passages apply only to armed infiltrators and human or drag traffickers.

The purpose of the long to indefinite detention periods, according to the explanatory notes, of the proposed amendment, is deterrence: “The expectation is that the detention period will stop the massive infiltration or at least minimize it.” Asaf Weitzen, a lawyer at the Hotline for Migrant Workers, insisted that prolonged deprivation of liberty without due process for the sake of deterrence does not meet the legal standards set out by the Israeli Supreme Court. Arguing that the Law of Entry into Israel is well-equipped to handle the entry of illegal migrants, Weitzen said, “This law specifically targets refugees and asylum seekers that the state is unable or unwilling to deport” due to the legal prohibition on the deportation of asylum seekers.

The law is designed to target the weakest of the groups living in Israel – survivors of genocide, civil war, prolonged servitude, torture and rape – by using a law originally intended to combat armed saboteurs. Past attempts to pass this law (which was first drafted in 2006) were foiled due to a harsh public response. However, following years of systematic incitement against refugees by Israel government officials, the Israeli public now largely sees refugees as illegal migrants, undeserving of sympathy, and as a result, this inhumane law has now become reality.

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a blogger and activist for migrant worker and refugee rights in Israel.