Netanyahu Backs Plan to Keep Asylum Seekers' Detention Facility Open

Outgoing Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar had proposed to keep Holot center open, even after High Court ordered the government to close it.

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Asylum seekers can be seen at Holot after a High Court ruling to close the facility within 90 days, Sept. 22, 2014.
Asylum seekers at Holot after a High Court ruling to close the facility within 90 days, Sept. 22, 2014.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday backed his interior minister’s assertion that the government will continue detaining asylum seekers for long periods at the open detention facility in Holot, despite a recent High Court of Justice ruling that overturned the relevant legislation.

The court ruled that incarcerating asylum seekers violated the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. It also harshly criticized conditions at Holot.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu called a meeting at his office to discuss options for enacting a third version of the law, which the court has already struck down twice.

The participants included Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, Prisons Service Commissioner Aharon Franco, Tel Aviv police chief Bentzi Sau and the head of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority, Amnon Ben-Ami.

Sa’ar announced that he intends to submit a draft of a new law later this month, before his planned resignation from the government.

“At the end of the meeting, the prime minister ordered that a new bill be submitted that will reflect the Israeli government’s determination to continue acting against illegal infiltration – determination that has halted infiltration into Israel and led to the departure of some 6,000 illegal infiltrators to date,” said a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office. The new bill “will enable [the authorities] to continue arresting new infiltrators and bringing them to a detention facility for an effective period of time, and also to continue operating the Holot open residential facility, while taking the High Court’s comments into consideration,” it continued.

The statement added that the government would continue “encouraging the voluntary departure of infiltrators” and step up enforcement against businesses that employ them illegally.

During the meeting, Sa’ar and Livni clashed repeatedly over what the new law should contain. Sa’ar favored making only minor changes to the old law, relying heavily on a dissenting opinion authored by Supreme Court President Asher Grunis and ignoring many of the comments made by the majority justices. It is the Knesset’s job to make the law, not the court’s, he argued. But Livni insisted that the majority’s ruling must be respected.

They also clashed over the idea of amending the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty to let the Knesset override it under certain circumstances. Sa’ar pointed out that in the early 1990s, Yitzhak Rabin’s government passed an amendment allowing the Knesset to override another Basic Law, the one on freedom of occupation, after the High Court used that law to overturn a ban on importing non-kosher meat. He therefore suggested doing the same in this case. But Livni argued that there’s a difference between “overriding freedom of occupation and saying the State of Israel is overriding human dignity and freedom.”

Weinstein also opposes the idea of an override. Netanyahu has not yet decided, but is not ruling out Sa’ar’s proposal.

A third argument was over how long asylum seekers should be detained in a closed facility (as opposed to Holot) when they first enter Israel. The law the court recently overturned allowed them to be held for a year. Sa’ar proposed shortening this to nine months, while Livni advocated six months. Netanyahu has yet to decide on this issue, either.

Both Livni and Weinstein also proposed making use of a 1954 law that allows infiltrators to be jailed for up to five years. The law was intended for use against terrorists, but Livni suggested that asylum seekers who turn out not to be bona fide refugees could be indicted under this law.

One thing all the participants agreed on was that Holot, despite the court’s many criticisms of it, should continue operating. But while Sa’ar advocated making only minor changes in the facility’s operation – such as canceling the noon head-count, which Grunis also found objectionable – Livni and Weinstein argued that more substantial changes had to be made, in line with the comments of the majority justices. Inter alia, the majority justices objected to the fact that asylum seekers could be held at Holot for unlimited periods of time and that there were no grounds under which they could obtain their release.

“We have a supreme national interest in preventing the entry of new infiltrators into Israel and encouraging the departure of infiltrators who are already in Israel, and that’s what we’ll do,” the statement quoted Netanyahu as saying.

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