Knesset Passes Controversial Law to Keep African Detention Facility Open

After High Court strikes down two previous versions of Holot law, MKs rush to get new version passed before Knesset disperses.

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African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility protest the expulsion from Israel of others, February 17, 2014.
African asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility protest the expulsion from Israel of others, February 17, 2014.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In its final act before dissolving itself ahead of the March 17 election, the Knesset gave final approval on Monday to a controversial amendment authorizing the continued operation of the Holot open detention facility for asylum seekers.

Had the amendment failed to pass, Holot would have had to be shut down by December 22 on orders from the High Court of Justice.

But the human rights organizations that successfully petitioned the court against two earlier versions of the law promptly vowed to file a petition against the latest version as well.

The Prevention of Infiltration Law, two previous versions of which were struck down by the High Court, passed 47 to 23, with three abstentions.

Immediately after passing the law, the Knesset voted by a much larger majority, 93-0, to dissolve itself and hold new elections on March 17.

The latest version of the anti-infiltration law allows new asylum seekers to be incarcerated at Saharonim Prison for three months immediately after they enter the country, down from one year in the previous version. Thereafter, they can be sent to Holot for a maximum of 20 months, as can asylum seekers who were already in Israel prior to the law’s passage. The previous law allowed asylum seekers to be held at Holot indefinitely.

While at Holot, the asylum seekers will be barred from working. But they will only have to report for a head count once a day, down from three times a day under the previous law.

The new law also states that if someone detained at Holot breaks any of the facility’s rules, he can be sent to Saharonim for up to four months.

The Knesset passed the first reading of the bill last week, and since then had been in a race to prepare it for its final readings before dissolving itself on Monday.

The chairwoman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, MK Miri Regev (Likud), who presented the bill to the plenum, said she would have liked to submit a tougher law, but was forced to compromise in order to get it passed before the Knesset dispersed.

“The fact that the attorney general always keeps one eye on Geneva and is disconnected from what is happening here to the Israeli public won’t prevent me from bringing a better law in the future,” she added, referring to Yehuda Weinstein’s warning that he wouldn’t be able to defend the law in court if the detention terms were made any longer.

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) retorted, “It’s too bad Regev and the interior minister didn’t read the High Court’s first verdict overturning the law. They would have understood that in a democratic state, it is impossible to imprison people without a trial. It doesn’t matter whether they’re blacks from Africa, blonds from Sweden or people from Tel Aviv or Yeruham.”

The Knesset Interior and Environment Committee approved the bill on Monday morning without making any changes, primarily because Yesh Atid said it would support only the cabinet-approved version of the bill; its MKs would vote against the bill if any of the provisions were made harsher.

Even so, the committee approved the bill by only a vote of 7 to 4. The committee’s two Yesh Atid members were absent from the vote. Hatnuah’s David Tsur voted in favor. Had these three MKs, in the opposition since last week, voted against the bill it would not have passed the committee.

More than 2,200 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers are being held at Holot. Had the law not been passed on Monday, they would have been released in two weeks.

Human rights activists warned that the revised law would do nothing to help the residents of south Tel Aviv, where a majority of asylum seekers live, and said that passing it amounted to “wasting the taxpayers’ money on unacceptable solutions.” Barring asylum seekers from working will simply deepen their distress, and thereby also the distress of the areas where they live, the activists said. They added that they hoped the next Knesset would take a different approach to the issue.

Immediately after the vote on the anti-infiltration law, the Knesset moved on to its final order of business for the day — dissolving itself. But despite the overwhelming vote in favor of that motion, some MKs noted that holding a new election just two years after the last one was decidedly less than optimal.

“Holding frequent early elections is undesirable,” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein warned during the brief debate on the motion. “Moreover, it’s improper and superfluous. The public rightly received this decision with surprise, and even with revulsion.”

Nevertheless, he added, under the current circumstances, early elections were “the lesser of two evils.”

“In a situation where legitimate differences of opinion have become gaping disagreements, where differing views have turned into personal enmity and led to account-settling that bogs down every initiative and every possibility of cooperation within the coalition, the government has become an empty vessel, an ineffective body,” Edelstein said.

But other speakers greeted the decision with unabashed delight. “The 19th Knesset will be remembered as the worst in the history of the state, because of the government’s failure in every area,” Litzman declared, citing the economy, housing, the cost of living and the undermining of the middle class in particular.

Nevertheless, he and other Haredi MKs reserved their greatest wrath for the coalition’s “crude assault on the ultra-Orthodox public,” in Litzman’s words. His party colleague MK Meir Porush termed the outgoing coalition “the worst ever for ultra-Orthodox Jewry.”

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