For Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the government’s most vocal opponent of the African migrant community, the timing couldn’t have been better. A visit to the site of the future detention center for African migrants had been planned for weeks his aide said, when on Tuesday Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that national elections would be held as early as January 15.

Touted earlier in the week as a tour of the new detention facility, on the ground it appeared a hastily arranged photo-op. Yishai stood on a hilltop, giving a stump speech about how Shas will make sure that sweeping deportations of African migrants, who number more than 60,000, will be a prerequisite for Shas to join or stay in the next governing coalition.



As a largely irate crowd of reporters shoved each other and swarmed Yishai, the interior minister received a breakneck briefing from Defense Ministry general manager Bezalel Tryber on the construction of the center which will eventually house several thousand migrants in trailer houses. The center stands to be completed by the end of the year. Tryber talked about the sewage and sanitation and the humane conditions of the future facility, as well as the ministry’s desire to plant trees and build cultural and entertainment centers for the detainees – who can expect to be jailed for an extended period of time that remains unclear.

All the while the reporters peppered the minister with questions that appeared unsympathetic at best. Yishai stuck to his message of near-universal imprisonment and deportation, saying that almost all of the migrants come to Israel to work and are not asylum seekers, while at the same time admitting that very few have had their asylum requests examined. He vowed that Israel must build more detention facilities, but gave no answer for what the facility will be used for if and when the African migrants are all deported or if there will be money for future facilities. Yishai said Eritreans and north Sudanese are not refugees and will be encouraged to go back home. He also proposed some be sent to a third country, possibly indicating that he understands the difficulties of returning them home, where they could face persecution, but without an idea of where they can go or who would be willing to take them.

An official close to Yishai denied Wednesday that the minister has used the migrant issue as a platform to attract traditional Likud voters in south Tel Aviv and elsewhere, saying that Yishai is the one politician who has been at the forefront of the issue from the beginning, and that his concern for Israel’s demographic future supercedes politics. He also dismissed fears that former Shas party leader Aryeh Deri will return to politics and unseat Yishai as party list leader as “just spin.” The official did say, however, that Yishai’s image as a strong opponent of the African migrant community will not hurt his chances of bringing more seats to Shas in the coming election.

Long before Likud MK Miri Regev called them “a cancer in the body of our nation,” Yishai had vowed repeatedly to rid Israel of the “infiltrators” menace. With Yishai facing a threat from within his own party, he can be expected to continue to issue an antimigrant statement on a weekly basis, make more photo-ops in the Negev and south Tel Aviv and couch his discussion, of one of Israel’s most complicated social challenges in recent years. in terms of ominous forecasts of Israel’s future and vows to deport at any cost.

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