Interior Minister Eli Yishai refused to appear before a special session of the Knesset Sub-Committee on Trafficking in Women Wednesday, after social action groups and children of foreign workers awaiting deportation showed up to tell their personal stories and make a plea for citizenship.
It was supposed to have been a discussion on the failures of the Interior Ministry's new Oz Immigration Unit to differentiate between illegal migrant workers and those brought to Israel via trafficking networks to work in slave labor or the sex industry.
However, the issue of the rights of foreign workers and especially the claim that children born here should be allowed to stay proved to be a far more potent issue in the hour-and-a-half-long discussion.
"Shas is scared of seeing the faces of these children," charged MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), in what quickly became an explosive meeting when one of the foreign workers stormed out in tears. "The interior minister is too scared to enter this room and hear their stories."
"It's an embarrassment that Eli Yishai did not show up at the meeting, especially after saying that he would destroy the government over this issue," one NGO representative told The Jerusalem Post later.
A spokesman for Yishai said, however, that the minister had decided not to participate after learning that the media, NGOs and young foreign workers' children would be present.
"It was an attempt by some to turn the Knesset into the theater of the absurd," said the minister in a statement, calling on the committee's chairwoman, MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), to reschedule "this serious and important discussion," which needed to be dealt with exclusively.
"As soon as [Eli] Yishai heard that the children would be here, he decided not to come," said Zuaretz, adding that the minister had known their presence would ignite a different discussion.
Zuaretz said the children had not been invited by her committee, but had been in the Knesset to attend an almost simultaneous discussion in the Committee for Foreign Workers on formulating a policy to prevent children set to be deported from being held in prisons.
Noa Maiman from the Israeli Children's Forum told the Post following the meetings that the deportation of illegal migrants, detecting those who were victims of human trafficking, and unfair treatment of children born and raised here were "all part of the same subject."
"It's about human rights and how we treat others, especially those that don't belong to us," said Maiman, whose organization brought some of the very young children to the Knesset on Wednesday. "This country needs to work on its policies regarding foreigners and, of course, should give these children citizenship."
One Israeli-born Ghanan girl, who asked not to be named, said that the Interior Ministry's threats to deport children of foreign workers who were here without official status was "a crime."
"We should not be punished for the mistakes our parents made," said the 14-year-old, who has spent her entire life in Tel Aviv and speaks fluent Hebrew. "I know that every state has its immigration policy and don't understand why there is nothing here."
Zuaretz, who also spoke emotionally at the second Knesset discussion, said that in her view, the main problem was lack of a clear immigration policy or regulations on who could enter the country.
"I find it very difficult to accept that in the Israel of 2009 there are cases of slavery and trafficking in human beings," she said. "The state is not taking responsibility for this issue, and while it is deporting those without status, at the same time it is turning a blind eye to more and more people coming in."
She added, "We cannot continue like this. We are hurting the rights of people. To send children back to a country they have never even visited is a crime. We have to find a way to give them full shelter."