Human rights organizations on Wednesday accused Interior Ministry officials of inciting xenophobia following statements in the press from Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Tziki Sela, the head of the Immigration Authority's Oz enforcement unit.
The cover of Ma'ariv featured an interview with Sela, in which he lashed out against organizations that help migrant workers. "They want to bring about the destruction of Israel," he said.
"We mean business. Take yourselves and leave willingly. We will give you flight tickets. Leave. Return to your homelands," he said,
In reference to the 1,200 children of illegal workers, whose deportation was delayed following a decision by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last Thursday, Sela said, "At the end of the day, the result will be that with all the pain and sorrow, there is nothing to do. There is a large group of 1,200 children who have no legal permits and that's that. They are just guests here."
Later that morning, Yishai appeared on a radio talk show and defended Sela's remarks.
"Tziki [Sela] said what he believes in," the minister said. "He was in the army for many years. He dedicated his whole life to serving the country. He sees his service as a Zionist mission of utmost importance to the State of Israel, to get these people out of the country and stop them from entering it. He, and all those who work with him, are deserving of the gratitude and appreciation of all Israeli citizens."
Yishai said the tough approach would help stop illegal immigration to Israel.
"The moment there is a deportation, or rather, an expulsion policy in place, then people won't enter the country and more people will leave willingly. The moment there is no expulsion policy, tens of thousands of people will come in as tourists, stay, take up jobs that belong to Israelis, and have children.
"If 300,000 workers made it in here, believe me, if there won't be a clear policy, the number will rise to a million," he said.
Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, expressed dismay that such comments would come from a senior public official.
"We are unique in that overall there are not many blatant public displays of hatred toward foreigners, we don't witness the type of hate crimes against foreigners that you see in Europe," she said.
"However, we do see that elected officials and government employees allow themselves to express themselves using racist and vulgar terms that you wouldn't see in any other Western country. There's an anomaly. Those who lead and encourage the hatred come from the top."
Korzen said that foreign workers she meets generally have positive things to say about Israelis and about the way they are treated in day-to-day life. She pointed to a gap between the support she sees at anti-deportation protests and on the street, and the words of Sela and Yishai.
"It's easy to stir up hate and fear, much easier than making rational arguments. But that is the way of dark regimes. I advise them to stop making these types of statements and instead face the legitimate public criticism that is being heard in recent months."
In the wake of the comments, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel invited reporters to their clinic in Jaffa, to see for themselves whether their actions in support of migrant workers are the type of things that are intended to destroy the state.
The clinic, which provides medical care for uninsured foreign workers, refugees and others, was full of patients coming to see the volunteer doctors who treat patients for everything from influenza to cancer.
"We would like to be able to close down this clinic. We think it's the government's job to take care of these people, not ours," said Ran Cohen from Physicians for Human Rights. "We think the government should take responsibility for caring for its inhabitants, especially if we're talking about people it permitted entry to in the first place.
"When it's convenient, the government boasts of Israel's human rights record and the great organizations that it has. The government had no problem with the Sudanese refugees when they wrapped them in Israeli flags and took them to [the UN's European headquarters in] Geneva," said Cohen.
"What we heard today was incitement, against organizations and against foreigners. Such words contribute to xenophobia, especially when they're said during an economic crisis like we have today."
"I know Jews around the world often support the Israeli government's policies automatically," said Cohen, "but it's important they look at this critically and ask questions like: How come the government is flagrantly ignoring the Supreme Court's decision on the binding policy? Why is it that four years after the first mass deportation we already have another one on our hands? What kind of immigration policy do the Jews of the world want to see Israel have?"
Kav LaOved (Worker's Hotline), another nonprofit organization, sent out a response statement which read, "Sela's miserable comments brings the delegitimization campaign that the authorities are running against rights organization to a new low, and display a basic misunderstanding of the role these groups fill in democratic society.
"It is out of deep concern for the nature of Israeli society that Kav LaOved will continue tirelessly to act to protect the rights of all Israeli workers - migrant workers, Israeli workers, Palestinian workers, refugees and asylum-seekers - and to advance open public debate about the policy of arrest and expulsion," the statement said.
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