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The ongoing efforts first by former interior minister Avraham Poraz and now by the current holder of the post, Ophir Pines-Paz, to legalize the status of the children of the small number of foreign workers still in Israel is but the latest chapter in one of the most scandalous affairs the State of Israel has known in recent years - the case of the children of the shadows.

These are children who were either born in Israel or entered the country under B2 tourist visas, and who have lived here for many years without any legal status. They are ineligible for medical care or child allowances, depend on the Education Ministry providing fictitious identification numbers so they can attend school, and live under the constant threat of expulsion from their homes.

During the past year, it has become clear that no one really knows the number of children who live under these conditions. The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for enforcing the Law on Entry, certainly doesn't.

In February 2004, the Knesset's research and information center published a report based on data from the education system and tipat halav (well-baby clinics) reporting that there are 2,007 children of migrant workers in Israel, including some 420 over the age of ten.

But the Interior Ministry's legal bureau said that tens of thousands of children have been born to foreign workers and that it is not known how many more either have entered or left the country. A month later, the ministry's Population Registrar told the Knesset Committee on Immigration and Absorption that there are 93,000 children in Israel who lack legal status, including several thousand children of foreign workers. The registrar later corrected itself, saying that there are only several thousand children who lack citizenship or residency status.

In August 2004, the Population Registry, citing Border Police data, told the Immigration and Absorption Committee that 83,000 children entered Israel between 1998 and 2004 on tourist visas and have left no record of leaving the country. This figure also turned out to have a short shelf life. Last month, the registrar told the Knesset that there are 4,000 to 8,000 cases like this, including the children of foreign workers.

Last week, in a meeting with representatives of the Association for Citizens Rights in Israel (ACRI) and the Moked advocacy group for foreign workers, the head of the Population Registrar, Sasi Katzir, said that the most reliable data is probably from the Education Ministry. He said that he had received a list of about 7,000 pupils registered by passport number and not by identification number. He estimated that about 2,500 of these pupils meet the criteria defined by Pines for receiving legal status.

The criteria, designed to keep the number of eligible children at a minimum and prevent the inclusion of Palestinian children, include: birth in Israel, initial legal entry by their parents - either as tourists or workers, age between 10 and 18, and knowledge of Hebrew. Pines told the ministerial committee that met last Wednesday to discuss his proposal that about 2,750 children are eligible.

A letter submitted by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposing the proposal indicates that he and his officials are unaware that only several hundred of those who are eligible are the children of foreign workers. The lion's share is comprised of the children of new immigrants who meet the criteria and whom the Interior Ministry seek to include in the legalization process. Netanyahu wrote that the proposal would impose a heavy cost on the treasury because social benefits would need to be extended to some 3,000 children and their families.

If most of the children are indeed the children of new immigrants, their parents already receive these benefits and about NIS 50 million can be deducted from the NIS 90 million figure quoted by Netanyahu.

Some argue that the arrangement contradicts the policy of reducing the number of foreign workers. But the danger posed to the labor market by several hundred single mothers and their children is negligible in comparison to the moral obligation to grant them new lives. This moral obligation also applies to another large group of children who have lived for years on the margins of society: Great-grandchildren of Jews whose parents are eligible for citizenship but who are not themselves; children who are the product of a previous marriage of a non-Jewish parent who later married a Jew and immigrated to Israel; children who came with their grandmother or grandfather and were not officially adopted; and so on.

During the past 15 years, Interior Ministry officials have been swamped by a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union and hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. It is clear from the dismal cases of children with no legal status that the system has yet to recover from this flood. Organizations such as the Child Welfare Council and ACRI handle the cases of hundreds of children whose families have fallen victim to the annoying foot dragging that stems from a lack of clear procedures.

Ministry officials are not prepared to go out on a limb and make decisions, because in any case the ministers change before long and each new minister sets new policies. Some order needs to be made here. Children who meet the criteria should be given legal status and a quick and sensitive response should be given to children who are not included in this arrangement. Israel is a signatory to the United Nations' Convention on Children's Rights, and this means that it is forbidden to abuse children.