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Italy's plan to fingerprint the country's Roma is for their own good, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, visiting Israel this week, told Haaretz. The plan has raised an uproar in Europe: The European Union parliament called the fingerprinting clear racial discrimination yesterday, and ordered the Italians to stop the process.

An assembly resolution adopted in Strasbourg stated the measure flouts EU human rights treaties and that citizens of Roma (Gypsy) origin must be treated no differently than those of other ethnic groups, who are not fingerprinted.

Frattini, who is visiting Israel this week, said the furor stemmed from a complete misunderstanding. The Italian initiative is intended to protect human rights, not infringe on them, he said.

"Italy would never violate human rights," said Frattini, who served until recently as the EU's commissioner for justice and security. "We are not talking about raids against Roma, only an attempt to identify those living in our country.

"Thousands of people live in our cities without visas or any documents, in inhuman conditions," he said.

"Hundreds of children have asked us to fingerprint them so that we could give them temporary papers ... these children must be protected. By giving them papers, I am actually saving them."

Some 150,000 gypsies live in squalor in 700 camps, mainly around Rome, Milan and Naples.

Some 40 percent of them have Italian citizenship while the rest are immigrants, mainly from Romania and the Balkan states.

EU Parliament members have expressed concern over Italy's argument that the Gypsy camps around large cities necessitate an emergency situation.

Massimo Barra, head of the Italian Red Cross, said the fingerprinting initiative was aimed at integrating Roma into Italian society.

Others, like Tito Brunelli, a former Verona councillor in charge of social policy and immigration, believe the Gypsies were being identified only so that they could be expelled.

Amos Luzzatto, former head of the Union of Jewish Communities, said the policy was dangerous and recalled the racist laws Mussolini enacted in 1938. "Italy has lost its memory," he said.