Inspectors from the Interior Ministry's Oz immigration unit took 11 African migrants into custody during a sweep in the southern city of Arad on Monday.
The ministry's Population, Immigration and Border Authority said the migrants were in the country illegally. But social activists in Arad said those caught up in the sweep included a family from Sudan, who, unlike migrants from the newly independent country of South Sudan, cannot be deported because sending them back would put their lives at risk.
"They are from northern Sudan and they have documents showing that," said Moran Mekamel, who has been assisting several Sudanese families.
She said the family, which includes two children, was detained after they set out in the morning to renew their Israeli visas.
The authority said that family was simply being detained, not deported.
"The family was not arrested, but just detained for a hearing and questioning at the unit's facility in Omer [near Be'er Sheva] to verify their identities," it said in a statement. The authority said the family had not requested to leave Israel voluntarily.
Ninety-seven citizens of South Sudan who have been living in Arad will be leaving Israel shortly, including 86 who signed documents in which they said they would leave voluntarily, according to the immigration authority. It said the remaining 11 were those arrested on Monday.
Some Arad residents expressed disapproval of the way in which the family was taken into custody.
"They took them home, giving them a few minutes to pack their things," said Mekamel. "They packed everything in hand luggage. The way it was done was shocking."
Another Arad resident, Tova Ben-Zvi Mark, said: "When I asked [the immigration police] why they couldn't wait a few days, because there is another bus to Ben-Gurion Airport [for those leaving the country] next week, they said it was more complicated."
"Even if [the immigration authorities] are right," Ben-Zvi Mark added, "there is a way to do it, not rushed or so quickly."
In a related development, Foreign Minster Avigdor Lieberman expressed criticism of operations around the country to expel South Sudanese migrants, in what appeared to be veiled criticism of Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
"It's been a long time since I've seen such harmful babbling like the festivities surrounding the [migrants'] return home," Lieberman said at a meeting of his Yisraeli Beiteinu Knesset faction. Many people are sacrificing Israel's national interest in favor of the "interest of the moment of one or another party," Lieberman said, adding that a number of people are ruining the Foreign Ministry's efforts to arrive at an acceptable resolution to the issue.
Yishai's office issued its own barb in return.
"There are those who deal with delivering commentary and those who deal with carrying things out," his office said in a statement.