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The Knesset on Monday approved the first reading of a bill to prevent illegal entry into the country. The draft law, passed by a vote of 21-1, would impose a sentence of up to five years in prison on people who cross the border illegally, including refugees and labor migrants, while infiltrators from enemy states, such as Sudan, could be sentenced to as much as seven years behind bars.

The bill also authorizes the state to hold illegal entrants, including refugees, for up to 18 days without bringing them before a judge for arraignment. In addition, it would legally authorize "hot returns" of infiltrators back to Egyptian territory, a practice that endangers their lives.

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), the sole dissenter in the plenum vote, called the bill draconian, while refugee rights organizations said it contained a number of "terrible" provisions. They also criticized the fact that legislation on such a sensitive subject was entrusted to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which does not have experience with migration issues and whose sessions are held in camera, despite the fact that in recent months, Israel has almost completely ceased to treat infiltrators across the southern border as a security threat rather than as refugees or labor migrants.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, who presented the bill to the Knesset, said it was needed because between the beginning of 2007 and the end of March 2008, over 20,000 people entered Israel by crossing the southern border from Egypt illegally. The state's effort to use the old law against border infiltrators met with judicial resistance because it was an emergency regulation enacted in 1954. The current bill is supposed to replace the old law. But since its provisions are extremely harsh, it is unlikely to be an improvement over the emergency law.

"We will turn the Darfur refugees that reach us as a result of a human holocaust and genocide into criminals" if the law is passed, charged Khenin. "These are terrible directives. We need a completely different law, a law that will recognize the rights of the refugees and their status, that is appropriate to an advanced, humanitarian society in the 21st century."

Among the bill's other provisions:

* The enemy states and territories from which infiltrators can be imprisoned for up to seven years include the Gaza Strip.

* An infiltrator who returns to Israel after being deported can be jailed for 7.5 years, or 10.5 years in the case of someone from an enemy state or territory.

* An armed infiltrator, or someone in the company of an armed infiltrator (including refugees who arrive with an armed guide), can be sentenced to 20 years. Knives are considered weapons for this purpose.

Attorney Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel objected to the fact that the bill would permit the detention of suspects for 96 hours without a court order and 18 days without arraignment. Moreover, he said, it would allow officers to issue deportation orders without ever meeting the subject, based only on reports written by a soldier.