New Head of Population Directorate Worries Human Rights Groups

Meir Sheetrit's first day at the Interior Ministry was rather awkward: The very day Sheetrit was picked for the post, outgoing minister Roni Bar-On announced that he had adopted a search committee's recommendation to appoint Yaakov Ganot to head the Population Directorate.

The head of the Population Directorate is probably the most important appointment an interior minister can make. Yet Sheetrit was presented with a fait accompli.

The ministry announcement said Ganot was chosen unanimously "by a special search committee, after careful screening of dozens of candidates." But the committee was headed by Bar-On's confidant, Interior Ministry Director General Ram Belinkov.

Ganot's appointment will apparently be brought to the cabinet for approval this Sunday.

The appointment has human rights groups and some Knesset members very worried. Ganot, 60, most recently served as prisons commissioner. Prior to that, he founded the Immigration Authority and headed it during the great expulsion of foreign workers, and his officers at this authority became famous for violent altercations when arresting migrant laborers. He also once commanded the Border Police, meaning that he specialized in operating checkpoints and dispersing Palestinian demonstrations. In other words, Ganot oversaw some of Israel's toughest organizations.

In the annals of the Population Directorate, Herzl Gedj is remembered as its toughest and strictest manager. In view of Ganot's history, people who work with immigrants and migrant laborers expressed concern yesterday that "Ganot will make Gedj look humane." Many declined to respond on the record. Ganot's intentions have yet to be clarified, and nobody wants to start a fight.

The chair of the Knesset Foreign Workers Committee, Ran Cohen (Meretz-Yahad), said he "sincerely hopes that Ganot will know how to make the appropriate transition from semi-military service to civilian service, because in the Population Directorate, you have to show tremendous sensitivity for people's fates."

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it "hopes that Ganot will know how to lead the Population Directorate with the sensitivity required of someone in whose hands have been placed the most basic rights and freedoms of every Israeli resident."

On the plus side, much of the Population Directorate's lousy reputation stemmed from administrative failures. Thus Ganot's record as an administrator offers some hope.