UNICEF to Open Active Office in Israel

Organization seeks to play prominent public and legal role in the country in the field of child welfare.

The United Nations Children's Fund intends to expand its activities in Israel and to open an active office here. The organization has said it expects to play a prominent public and legal role in the country in the field of child welfare. Against the backdrop of the government's plan to deport children of illegal foreign workers, UNICEF also expects to intervene on behalf of children in distress who arrived as refugees and infiltrated into the country, and to provide treatment to Israeli children in areas of military conflict.

Moriel Matalon of Tel Aviv has been appointed chairman of UNICEF in Israel. The organization is currently looking for a location for its office. Matalon told Haaretz that one of his first goals will be to intervene on behalf of the 1,200 children of illegal foreign workers who are set to be deported. Matalon called on Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) to reconsider the government's decision, and asked that the children be given the right to legally remain in the country.

Matalon said UNICEF will serve as an umbrella organization for other groups dealing with this issue. He didn't rule out the possibility that UNICEF would petition the High Court of Justice in an effort to prevent the planned deportation. "The State of Israel," he said, "is the one that brought tens of thousands of foreign workers here to take care of our elderly. Now they come and tell them to leave the country, and their children - who were born here - have to hide. The solution is to legalize [the presence] of these people and at the same time to halt the entry of others. There is no reason children who were born here, who know no other country and no language other than Hebrew, should have to hide through no fault of their own."

Matalon added that UNICEF would not take a political position on the Arab-Israeli conflict in connection with its activity in Israel. At the same time, he said in the event of an escalation in the north or south, the group would be more involved than it has been in the past in removing children from areas of military hostility, so that, as he put it, "they are not left at the mercy of tycoons."

He said UNICEF also intends to get involved in local issues involving children, with an emphasis on child abuse and neglect, among other concerns. "There have been terrible instances in which children have been left in cars and we will lead a fight on this issue. We will educate the public and contact those who need to be contacted; we will also demand greater awareness regarding these dangers and tougher punishment for those involved in these cases," Matalon said.

He indicated that UNICEF in Israel will also work on behalf of the children of immigrants from Ethiopia in light of recent allegations of discrimination in the refusal of a number of schools in Petah Tikva to admit students of Ethiopian descent.

UNICEF in Israel expects to enlist the support of popular local personalities as goodwill ambassadors to regions of distress around the world. He also expressed hope that wealthy Israeli donors would support the organization's activities in Asia and Africa. Last week, American actress Mia Farrow, who is an active goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, visited the Gaza Strip, Sderot and Jerusalem.