Israel's Hidden Aim With Asylum Seekers: To Break Their Spirit

Time after time the state passed bills seeking to mistreat asylum seekers, and time after time these were struck down by the High Court. It's time to put a halt to this farce.

2014 | Southern Israel.
Asylum seekers signal their solidarity with hundreds of their fellow migrants through the fence of the Holot detention facility.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“This could become the state’s finest hour in which the reality foisted upon it leads it to find humane solutions, compatible not only with international law but also with a Jewish viewpoint,” wrote Justice Miriam Naor, now president of the Supreme Court, in 2013, when the High Court of Justice struck down the amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law that permitted the detention of asylum seekers without trial.

The state, however, chose not to follow this path, but tried instead to circumvent the High Court’s ruling with a new law that made the asylum-seekers’ situation even worse. It did so by building the Holot lodging facility, which despite its name is actually a jail. When in 2014 the law allowing detention in Holot for an unlimited time was struck down, the state was given another chance to mend its ways, but instead passed a law that allowed detention without trial for up to 20 months.

This past August the High Court ruled that 20 months is an unreasonable amount of time and sent the issue back to the government and the Knesset.

The memorandum on a new bill that the Interior Ministry distributed on Sunday shows that the government is once again trying to get around the High Court ruling. The bill calls for allowing asylum seekers to be detained without trial for up to 18 months, only two months less than what was already struck down by the court. While those asylum seekers already in Israel can be held for only 12 months, even they can have their detention extended to 18 months under certain circumstances.

The bill even exacerbates the situation in other ways. It allows asylum seekers who are here with children to be sent to Holot. It invalidates temporary legal steps meant to delay or prevent being sent to Holot, and allows greater use of the punishment of imprisonment at Saharonim prison for those who don’t report to Holot as ordered or who leave the facility without permission.

Once again we have a bill that seeks to mistreat asylum seekers; once again the state is trying to evade its legal obligations; once again the absurdity of the Anti-Infiltration Law amendments is there for all to see. If the principle of non-refoulement, in whose name Israel doesn’t return asylum seekers to Eritrea, is meant to protect their lives and their freedom, what’s the point of denying them freedom in Israel itself?

The bill shows that the state wants to use those asylum seekers sent to Holot to deter others, an objective the High Court has already ruled illegitimate. It’s also clear that a hidden aim of the bill is to break the spirit of the asylum seekers so that they leave Israel of their own accord.

If this new bill passes, the High Court of Justice must strike it down as well. But this time, to put a halt to this farce, it must unequivocally disqualify the detention of asylum seekers for such purposes.