Knesset - Emil Salman - 10012012
The Knesset. Photo by Emil Salman
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The Knesset approved a law late Monday night that allows illegal infiltrators to be jailed for up to three years even if they haven't been convicted of any crime.

Though the law aroused much controversy, it ultimately passed easily, by a vote of 37-8, because the vast majority of opposition MKs didn't bother to stay to the end of the lengthy debate to attend the vote.

Most of the votes in favor came from coalition members, joined by MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima ) and the National Union party MKs. In a rare move, even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed up for the vote, which finally took place at about 1:30 A.M. yesterday, to demonstrate the importance he attaches to the law.

The eight votes against came from MKs Dov Khenin (Hadash); Zahava Gal-On, Ilan Gilon and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz); Eitan Cabel and Isaac Herzog (Labor); and Nino Abesadze and Shlomo Molla (Kadima ). There were no abstentions, but Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan (Likud) refrained from voting despite being present.

The version finally passed last night is considerably softer in one regard than the government's initial proposal. The original bill would have made helping an illegal infiltrator in any way a criminal offense punishable by five to 15 years in jail. But the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, which processed the bill, objected fiercely, and following a last-minute pressure campaign by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud ), Netanyahu acquiesced to the changes it proposed. As a result, helping an infiltrator will not be a crime unless the infiltrator is either armed or was involved in trafficking either people or drugs.

However, the law makes no similar distinction between different kinds of infiltrators, enabling labor migrants and asylum seekers alike to be jailed without trial.

Rivlin launched his pressure campaign in full view of the television cameras just moments before the vote began. While the bill forwarded by the Interior Committee already included the wording ultimately adopted, under which helping an infiltrator would in most circumstances not be a crime, the government had proposed an amendment restoring the original language, under which any form of assistance - even giving an infiltrator a bed for a night - would be prosecutable. Fearing that amendment might pass, Rivlin pleaded with his colleagues to reject it, warning that it would tarnish Israel in the world's eyes.

"Someone needs to get up and explain to the people voting here what this means: Most of you will wind up in Geneva one of these days," he warned, apparently intending to refer to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

He therefore proposed that the Knesset enact the Interior Committee's version for now, while leaving open the possibility of enacting the harsher version later if experience proved it necessary.

"This is an extremely harsh law" even as it stands, he concluded. "We can't come here and approve everything; we need to be able to stand up before the entire world."

Netanyahu then acceded to his appeal and withdrew the proposed amendment, allowing the Interior Committee version to be passed.

The new law is an amendment to the Law for the Prevention of Infiltration, originally enacted in 1954 to combat the fedayeen - cross-border terrorists who posed a significant security threat during the 1950s. But while the 1954 law applied mainly to terrorists, the new law expands the definition of "infiltrators" to cover labor migrants and refugees as well.