Amos Harel / Israel's Border With Egypt Is Like the Wild West

PM wants to build a fence along the Egyptian border, as tensions rise over the refugee question.

On January 21, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by senior army and police officers, headed to Eilat to inspect the border with Egypt. After hearing worrisome reports of increasing numbers of foreigners infiltrating from Africa, Netanyahu reiterated his plan to allocate NIS 1.35 billion for two sections of fence along the Egyptian border, opposite Eilat and south of Rafah. He had approved the plan some 10 days earlier.

At that time, the prime minister declared proudly that the fence "would ensure the state's Jewish and democratic character." Israel, he promised, "will remain open to war refugees, but will not allow its borders to serve [as an entry point] for floods of illegal immigrants."

During his visit to the south, he added: "The infiltrators cause cultural, social and economic damage and drag us into the Third World." The increasing flow of infiltrators (close to 1,000 in January alone, Netanyahu was told) requires attention. But does erecting a barrier at that price make it one of Israel's top priorities?

Netanyahu's decision parallelled a passage from the first reading of a government-sponsored bill to block infiltration - which calls for serious imprisonment of infiltrators, makes it possible to hold them in administrative detention, and leaves open the possibility of swift expulsion for asylum seekers. Human rights groups adamantly oppose the bill, saying it ignores the moral and legal obligation of the state to not expel a person to a place where he will be in danger.

At present, some 20,000 African refugees are in Israel with temporary status. An unknown number of refugees have been expelled. Israel does not expel refugees from Sudan and Eritrea (where they would face clear danger to their lives), but it does not grant them permanent residency either.

Centers which provide assistance to foreign workers claim that 80 percent of the infiltrators are from those two countries, with the remainder arriving from Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast, Congo and other African nations.

The Promised Land

Israel - when compared to conditions in Egypt and those in their home countries - still appears to be the Promised Land. Or as one refugee described it: "the only Christian country in the region." This is what he told the soldiers who nabbed him near the border. Officials in the defense and interior ministries have warned Knesset members that "two to three million refugees" are waiting in Egypt, intent on coming here." However, Haaretz revealed another professional document (drawn up in the Knesset) which estimates that potentially 40,000 refugees are seeking entry into Israel.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai accused foreign workers of spreading disease after a skewed TV report on a defense establishment study claimed one out of every three infiltrators is HIV positive. MK Yaakov Katz (National Union) dreams of setting up an isolated (forced?) labor camp for infiltrators.

This week, an excited radio reporter described how the African refugees have taken over the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. The claims, unaccompanied by any statistical figures, included accusations from prostitutes that "the Africans try to choke us" when they have sex.

A concentration of poverty-stricken refugees lacking any official status undoubtedly leads to crime. But no one listens much to the police. The army gets more attention. When Israel admits to the United Nations that more than 90 percent of the infiltrators are refugees from UN countries, the public is fed a frightening image of an imminent security fear. One claim fed to MKs was that members of Al-Qaida were crossing the border posed as Africans seeking work. In fact, not a single infiltrator has ever been arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity.

There is an internal contradiction within the bill under discussion, specifically in the paragraph concerning "hot return" to Egypt (meaning immediate transfer to Egyptian territory of an infiltrator detained when crossing into Israel). If the person in question is a suspected terrorist, it would be in Israel's interest to keep him here and interrogate him.

Potential for risk

The area around the fence is now like the Wild West, with decisions left in the hands of the duty sergeant commanding the patrol that captures the infiltrators. In the dark, and often under Egyptian fire aimed at the infiltrators, it is difficult to determine who is a genuine refugee. Meanwhile, the "hot return" policy is simply on paper.

A senior security officer involved with this issue does not believe an immediate security risk exists, but says there is potential for risk. "This is a national issue, not a security issue," he says. "This has not happened so far, but in the future, a terrorist organization can use an African infiltrator to carry out terrorist attacks."

Senior IDF officers say that stopping infiltration is the central consideration behind the government's decision on the fence, not the danger of terror. They say the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service have found a reasonable solution to terror through combined surveillance and sophisticated deployment of forces. The rest depends on the budget allocated to the project, they told the prime minister. To seal the entire length of the border would cost NIS 5 billion.

The NIS 1.35 billion earmarked for the project will have to come at the expense of other items. On the home front, there is the distribution of gas masks to the entire population, which the cabinet approved last January, and the Iron Dome rocket interception system, of which so far only two batteries have been approved. "Because of another 5,000 Sudanese and Ethiopians, the workforce in Israel will not collapse," says a senior officer says. "The question is, what are our national priorities? Is it more important to earmark one and a half billion shekels for the Iron Dome project or for the fence in the south?

"The assessment of the cost of the fence is conservative," he continues. "Add ten percent for annual upkeep, not to mention deploying additional forces in the area. So Netanyahu toured the south and made an improvised decision. No one is treating this as a strategic change."

The human rights groups fighting the bill on infiltration tried to enlist a security figure to go after the dubious security considerations being mentioned. Retired generals refused. Only Maj. Gen. Eyal Ben-Reuven responded to the challenge. "There does not have to be a contradiction between such a law and the need to make it possible for people fleeing for their lives to find refuge in a Jewish and democratic state," he told Haaretz.

"The opposite is true," Ben-Reuven said. "We must remember the days not so long ago when our parents sought refuge in enlightened countries. The law must provide a decent answer for refugees. This merely requires a little bit of creative thinking. We have managed to overcome more complicated problems in the past."