Gideon Sa'ar: Israel Mustn't Give Up on Detention Center for Illegal Immigrants

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Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar at a press conference, August 21, 2013.Credit: Moti Milrod

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Monday he would not accept the High Court of Justice’s overturning of legislation that allowed asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally to be incarcerated without trial for up to a year.

He also criticized a second component of the court’s overturning of an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law: the closure of the Holot detention facility in the south. In fact, he said the facility should be expanded and that he and his staff had met with the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office to that end.

Asylum seekers can be seen at Holot after a High Court ruling to close the facility within 90 days, Sept. 22, 2014.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Sa’ar is about to step down – he announced last month that he would take a “time-out” from political life after the Jewish holidays that end in mid-October. But on Monday he said he would submit new legislation on the asylum-seeker issue before the Knesset reconvened on October 26. 

“It is impossible to do without Holot. Giving up on Holot would be a stage of capitulation; the inevitable result would be the assimilation of the infiltrators into Israeli society,” Sa’ar told the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee.

“We are definitely willing to take into account some of the court’s remarks concerning the facility ... but in no way is it possible to give in on Holot.”

Israel’s fence on the Sinai border was not enough, he added. “Many other Western nations give the punishment of detention .... This is necessary for deterrence, alongside the physical barrier of the fence. It exists in Australia, Italy, in Greece.”

Based on the High Court’s ruling last month, the Holot detention center would be closed within 90 days.

“The Holot facility was built to reduce the concentrations of infiltrators in city centers .... Holot made a decisive contribution to the infiltrators leaving of their own free will, not just from city centers but from the country in general,” Sa’ar said. “If there is no Holot what will become of them? They will be in the streets.”

As the situation stands now, the authorities will be permitted to detain asylum seekers for up to 60 days, as stipulated in the Entry into Israel Law. The nine-justice bench decided to close Holot by a 7-2 vote, and to overturn the provision allowing asylum seekers to be jailed up to a year by a 6-3 vote.

The panel had already struck down a previous version of the law, which allowed asylum seekers to be jailed for three years without trial. It was the first time the High Court had overturned two versions of the same law.

An estimated 2,200 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan are still being detained at Holot.

MK Miri Regev (Likud), the chairwoman of the interior committee, said Monday that “with all due respect to the court, Holot will not be dismantled. [The High Court] did not build Holot.”

She also implied she would support legislation to limit the court’s authority. “The Knesset gave [the court] this authority and it is the one that will limit it,” Regev told the committee.

“This law gave hope to thousands of Israelis that these labor migrants would return to their countries of origin. I’m not talking about refugees. The refugees we’ll absorb into Israel including in [upscale Jerusalem neighborhood] Rehavia, [upscale Tel Aviv suburb] Kfar Shmaryahu and where the judges live.”

According to Regev, the court’s decision “sent a message to thousands of Africans: Come, cross the fence, spend 60 days in a detention facility and be released. It really is a land of milk and honey here.”

MK Michal Rosin (Meretz), chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, attacked Sa’ar and the government’s policy.

She said Sa’ar, Regev and MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) were “trying to divide and rule and sic the residents of south Tel Aviv on the asylum seekers. But it’s time to wise up and understand that the one to blame for this situation is the government, which does not provide an effective and humane immigration policy.”

“You have a hidden agenda here,” added MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz). “You are trying to wear down the High Court of Justice. For how long can the High Court of Justice save us from ourselves?”

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