In a surprise move on the last day of the Knesset session, the government passed in its first reading a bill that would provide for the imposition of significant prison sentences on asylum-seekers and others who cross Israel’s southern border, as well as against Israelis who seek to aid them.

By a landslide vote of 42-5, the plenum advanced the Bill for the Prevention of Infiltration, legislation that sponsors said was designed to deter asylum-seekers and border infiltrators from entering Israel across the long – and often little-guarded – Egyptian border.

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The government quietly submitted the bill to the Knesset two days before the conclusion of the Knesset’s session, thus staving off any attempt to raise public outcry against the legislation. Last July, the government was forced to back down from its attempt to pass a similar bill, in the shadow of intense public criticism.

The legislation does not attempt to hide its efforts to put obstacles before asylumseekers as well as before border infiltrators. Any asylumseeker or refugee, including children, who security authorities determine come from a region, such as Darfur, in which there are “activities that could endanger Israeli security,” will not be released from detention.

The bill, if passed, would allow authorities to detain such infiltrators for up to three years, a significant extension of the current law, which allows up to 60 days of detention. The current law also requires the government to release from detention asylum-seekers whom the state is not allowed to expel.

According to the bill, detainees would not have the right to be brought to a speedy trial, and official visits would be allowed only once every two months, instead of the current monthly. If convicted, infiltrators and asylum-seekers alike would face up to five years’ prison sentence, and those aiding or abetting them could be sentenced to up to 15 years.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has maintained outspoken positions in opposition to illegal entry or residence in Israel said after the bill passed that he intended to “run a total war against the infiltrators. I will not allow sanctimonious people to threaten the Zionist enterprise.”

Civil rights organizations and organizations supporting refugees and asylumseekers scrambled to mount a hurried offensive against the bill.

“It is terrifying to think that the State of Israel, which was founded by refugees and for them, is legislating a bill whose only goal is to harm people who are fleeing for dear life from wars and genocide, and will not even allow them to seek asylum in her borders,” complained the We Are Refugees organization.

“We call on MKs to think of their grandmothers – they, like many of the war refugees seeking asylum in Israel – fled from genocide and ‘infiltrated’ to the land of Israel against the law. It is our moral obligation, as Jews and as humans, to aid these unfortunates and prevent the continued violation of their human rights.”

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