With Asylum Seekers, Israel Is Staging a Theater of the Absurd

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Asylum seekers at the entrance to Holot detention facility, December 29, 2015.
Asylum seekers at the entrance to Holot detention facility, December 29, 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A bill recently approved by the Knesset in first reading would limit the maximum period for which asylum seekers could be held at the open detention facility in Holot to one year. This is admittedly necessary in light of a High Court of Justice ruling that overturned the previous maximum period of detention, 20 months, as not proportional, but it nevertheless continues the great harm being done to asylum seekers, who originate mainly in Sudan or Eritrea.

In its most recent ruling – the third so far – on the amendment to the anti-infiltration law, the court said that imprisoning asylum seekers to break their spirit and get them to leave Israel would be illegal. The government’s attorney, Yochi Gnessin, countered that “surely, surely, surely” that is not the purpose of detention at Holot.

But immediately after the ruling was issued, then-Interior Minister Gilad Erdan wrote on his Facebook page that the amendment the court had just overturned was aimed at “setting a period of detention that would create an incentive for them to return to their countries of origin and not settle in cities and neighborhoods.” And even before the ruling was issued, Yossi Edelstein, head of the Interior Ministry’s Foreign Workers’ Enforcement Unit, told the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, “The open facility is meant to encourage the departure from Israel of those held there.” Similar remarks were made by Erdan’s predecessor as interior minister, Gideon Sa’ar.

Despite these statements, the court chose to accept Gnessin’s assurance and conclude that this is not the law’s primary purpose. The law’s central purpose, wrote Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, is preventing asylum seekers from settling down in major cities, and therefore, it does serve a just cause. The biggest fault the court found in the law was the lengthy period of detention.

The result of the ruling, as Naor herself noted, is a revolving door at Holot. Asylum seekers will stay there for 12 months at most, then others will enter in their stead. This scenario doesn’t solve anyone’s problems – not those of the asylum seekers nor those of residents of south Tel Aviv, where the asylum seekers have their largest presence.

It’s time to put an end to this theater of the absurd. Israel doesn’t deport asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan back to their countries because, at least with regard to Eritrea, it recognizes that it must abide by the principle of non-refoulement, which bars the deportation of a person to a place where his life or freedom would be in danger.

But what’s the point of that, if Israel itself deprives them of their freedom by imprisoning them in Holot?

The Zionist Union Knesset faction recently put forth a practical proposal by which asylum seekers would receive proper Israeli residency and work permits, while towns that agreed to absorb them would receive financial incentives, thereby encouraging their dispersal throughout the country. But instead of aspiring to humane solutions of this sort, the Knesset is once again passing a law whose essence is the detention without trial of people whose only crime is seeking asylum.

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