On March 29, President Shimon Peres granted the Hotline for Migrant Workers an award for its work at a ceremony attended by the prime minister and justice minister.
"The Hotline for Migrant Workers and its volunteers serve the public, often at great cost to themselves," wrote the public committee that granted the award.
Now, three months later, the organization's activists, like all the other activists at human rights organizations that assist refugees, may be jailed as lawbreakers. How could this be?
In May 2008 the Knesset passed the first reading of the Infiltration Prevention Bill, by a majority of 21 to 1 (voting against was Hadash's Dov Khenin). Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai presented the bill in the plenum, and said it was necessary due to the wave of asylum seekers arriving via Egypt.
Israel had tried to combat this phenomenon with the old infiltrators law, but faced legal opposition because that law was an emergency measure.
The new bill is much harsher than the law it is replacing. Now, a refugee arriving from Sudan (including war-torn Darfur) may be imprisoned for up to seven years; if he crossed the border with a smuggler equipped with a knife, he may be jailed for up to 20 years.
Furthermore, the bill states that anyone helping a refugee in order to ease his stay in Israel may face the same penalties - up to 20 years in jail.
This includes citizens who offer shelter and assistance, and aid workers doing fulfilling duties.
Last month the Knesset passed the Infiltration Prevention Law with a majority of 59 MKs. Again, the only objector was Khenin.
"The bill seriously restricts the freedom of asylum seekers in ways that are not in line with the directives of the refugees treaty, the civil rights convention and policies that Israel is a party to," says Prof. Yuval Shani, an expert in international law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"Furthermore, the bill defines a much broader criminal offense of assisting, which theoretically criminalizes activities designed to protect the human rights of asylum seekers in Israel. This bill contravenes the UN General Assembly's 1998 resolution calling on countries to abstain from actions against human rights activists and their activities."
How do the MKs explain their support for this questionable law? Here are some responses:
Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz): "We were given a long list of continuity laws [that passed initial readings during the last Knesset] that the government wanted, and I accidentally voted for it, even though I oppose the law. It is a despicable law and I truly regret my mistake. Before being elected to the Knesset I protested this law and I am continuing to fight it."
Daniel Ben Simon (Labor): "There is a tremendous amount of legislation. We cannot learn every issue and I'm telling you honestly, that in my ignorance this law slipped passed me because of its wording. I did not know that Darfur refugees were included in this. I am the last person who would pass such a law."
Eitan Cabel (Labor): "I actually support the Infiltration Prevention Law, but I confess that I did not read it thoroughly and did not examine the details. I was distracted. I have no intention of harming human rights activists and there must certainly be some distinction."
Orit Noked (Labor): "As a member of the Labor Party I am bound by coalition discipline. Even so, my support in the plenum prior to the second and third readings depended on fundamental changes."
Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi): "I am part of the coalition and I vote in favor of continuity laws when the government and the coalition request this, regardless of the details of the law. It is not practical for us to read every bill. There are delegates for that, and you vote for or against."
Tzipi Hotovely (Likud): "Israel is acting in a few directions to halt the massive infiltration of job seekers. The state is morally obligated to take care of war refugees, but at the same time must stop migrant workers, and that is the intent of the bill."
Orli Levy (Yisrael Beiteinu): "How did I vote?"
"The idea of preventing the entry of infiltrators is appropriate, but aid workers shouldn't be imprisoned. That is not normal and should be amended in committee."
Then why did you vote for it?
"I voted that way because I am part of the coalition and I have to choose my battles. I have to choose my convictions and my main effort is for at-risk youth. There are plenty of injustices and one can't fix them all."
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