Interior Minister Eli Yishai made his position on the deportation of foreign workers and their families clear on Thursday, declaring that workers' children must be deported to prevent other immigrants from taking advantage of Israeli kindness and trying to gain permanent status through childbirth.
"I know it's not popular, but my job is to take care of the citizens of Israel and our nation," Yishai said on Army Radio. "It is no secret that if we continue to abandon the borders and allow the entrance of foreigners into the country and don't - call it what you will - deport, remove or return them to their homelands or if we are too 'good-natured,' as too may of us are, in a few years we will find hundreds and thousands of them here, and that is a threat to the Zionist project in Israel. We will lose our country."
While no formal decision has been announced yet, Yishai has been leading the government's firm line against granting permanent status to 1,200 children of foreign workers who were born in Israel.
"The foreign workers are using their children as charms so they can stay in the country," he said Thursday. "The moment the foreign public sees that every few years Israel grants recognition to the children, and with them the families, [migrants] will learn to take advantage of our kindness and gentleness and 'whitewash' more and more residency permits. Everybody needs to know: We are not an asylum state."
The interior minister said he was adamant that he wouldn't grant permanent status to any of the children or their families. Earlier in the week he told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that if the children were given status, he would give up control of the immigration authority, which is part of his ministry.
Yishai said he was sensitive to the children's feelings, but that he thought the parents should prepare them for their return to their homelands.
Speaking at the Galilee conference on Tuesday, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said that the continuing effort to expel illegal workers was "not only a Zionistic battle, but a battle against unemployment and rising income gaps."
"We will continue these actions because the poor of your town come first," said Steinitz. "There will not be a reduction in unemployment and income gaps as long as there are 400,000 African workers competing with low-income Israelis for jobs."
However, Dr. Roby Nathanson, director-general of the Macro Center for Political Economics, said the government was deliberately misleading the public about the reasons behind the deportation of foreign workers.
On Thursday, Nathanson released a statement saying that foreign workers did not actually take up Israeli jobs and that government's attempts to convince the public otherwise "sows the seeds of racism and evil."
"The recent statements by government officials, which justify the deportation of migrant workers and their children with the argument that migrants' presence in Israel increases unemployment and fundamentally changes the internal demographic balance, are statements that were better off left unsaid. If the government and its ministers had bothered to look into the matter and check the figures, they would realize that their claims are unfounded," said Nathanson.
Nathanson said that research conducted at the Macro Center in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation had found that it was not Israeli jobs that migrant workers were taking over, but for the most part jobs done previously by Palestinians.
"The real story that the government doesn't want to tell the public is that these foreign workers, who started arriving in the beginning of the 1990s, replaced Palestinian, not Israeli, laborers," said Nathanson. "Back then, the security situation, which made the employment of Palestinians impossible, combined with the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, drastically raised the demand for manual laborers, particularly in the construction sector, and Israel started bringing in foreign laborers to meet the demand," explained Nathanson in an interview to The Jerusalem Post.
Nathanson said his research showed that the jobs the foreign workers filled were jobs Israelis simply didn't do.
"The jobs they fill are known as the three D's - difficult, dirty and dangerous. The government must understand that employing the foreign workers in these jobs will only contribute to the growth of the Israeli market," he said, adding that the government was being hypocritical by deporting migrants on one hand and continuing to bring them in on the other.
Nathanson said Israel was no different from most other industrialized countries in the percentage of migrants in its midst.
"In most of the developed countries, the immigrant labor force makes up 10 percent of the general labor pool and the numbers are the same for Israel," he said. "In Switzerland the number even reaches 20%."
In the meantime more and more voices are coming out in favor of the children. On Wednesday a coalition of organizations representing Holocaust survivors called on the prime minister and the government to grant the children citizenship.
"You have a moral obligation, especially in light of what happened to the Jewish people," said Ze'ev Factor from the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. "We are talking about children who only know our country and only speak our language, and children must not be allowed to experience expulsion from their country of birth, just because of their ethnic origin. It is a lesson that is carved in our flesh."
He added, "The decision makers must leave the few hundred children with us and invest in them as part of a one-time policy that will not set a precedent."