Three months after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced a moratorium on the final determination regarding the deportation of 1,200 children of foreign workers born in Israel, no decision has been made.
Following Sunday's regular cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the issue would be dealt with as part of a comprehensive plan to regulate the state's immigration policies. In the meantime the children will be allowed to stay until the end of the school year.
The prime minister on Sunday also created a professional committee headed by Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), which will have until May to examine the issue with an eye toward past cabinet decisions.
Netanyahu also asked Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) to head a team that includes Yishai (Shas) and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who is not a member of any political party, which will formulate a policy to reduce the number of illegal foreign workers in the country. It will investigate issues such as punishment for the employers of illegal workers, increased law enforcement, and the construction of a barrier along the Egyptian border.
Government ministers are split on what to do with the children, with one faction, led by Yishai and his Shas Party pushing for immediate deportation, and the other, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his Labor Party, along with the Likud's Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, calling to grant the children and their families permanent status.
"We oppose the expulsion of the children of foreign workers who live in Israel. We are dealing with a humanitarian issue that the State of Israel, as a Jewish state, must take a moral standpoint on according to its values. At the same time we understand that the whole issue of illegal migration to Israel requires thorough and intensive treatment," Labor chairman Ehud Barak.
Livnat said that if the special committee formed to decide on the matter would chose to deport the children, she would appeal to the full cabinet.
Shas chairman Yishai was blasted for statements he made about migrant workers and asylum-seekers during an interview on Channel 2's Meet the Press on Saturday evening. In the interview, Yishai warned about the risk of allowing foreigners into the country and said they would spread diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis.
"Interior Minister Eli Yishai is planting xenophobia and it is unclear where he gets the information on which he bases his dangerous statements," said Ran Cohen from Physicians for Human Rights.
"If anything of what he says is true then it is unclear why the government doesn't act immediately in order to treat those sick people and direct those that help them. Instead of resorting to cheap demagoguery the Israeli government must act responsibly and enact a structured policy whereby migrants and refugees receive health care within the national health insurance system," Cohen said.
PHR runs a free clinic in south Tel Aviv that provides health care to people who are not entitled to treatment by the state. Since its inception 11 years ago, PHR has treated more than 24,000 patients either in-house or with the aid of physicians working pro bono in hospitals.
According to PHR, there are currently 82 HIV carriers among the migrant and refugee population and 40 cases each of hepatitis and tuberculosis. "Most of those who are inflicted with tuberculosis didn't bring it into the country, as Yishai said, but caught it while in Israel," Cohen said.
Cohen, who heads the migrants and refugees department in the organization, also said that all of the foreign workers who enter Israel with a work permit undergo physical examinations before arriving in the country.
A request to gain additional information from the Health Ministry was not answered by press time.
Yishai's words were also criticized by Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog of Labor. He said that "anything that entails stereotyping or the depiction of a whole public as disease ridden is very serious and wrong." He labeled Yishai's statements as "populist."
Meretz MK Nitzan Horovitz called Yishai an "ignorant racist who failed as minister of interior," and said that if he is so afraid of the foreign workers he is invited to put an end to the revolving door policy of bringing in more and more new migrant workers while deporting those who are already in Israel.
Three years ago the government gave permanent status to roughly 3,000 people when faced with the same dilemma. Then-interior minister Roni Bar-On from Kadima said it was the most suitable and humane solution at the time and that until Israel established a structured immigration policy, there was nothing wrong with allowing several hundred people to stay.
According to the Interior Ministry, Israel currently has 280,000 illegal migrants. Of these, 118,000 entered the country with work permits and for a variety of reasons lost their legal status, 90,000 entered under tourist visas and stayed after they expired and 24,000 either illegally entered the country or are asylum-seekers whose status has not been determined.
Israel is also home to roughly 300,000 temporary residents who have valid work permits and were brought to the country to work in construction, agriculture and care-giving.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.