Not all immigrants to Israel receive a warm welcome.
The prominent exceptions to the smiles and good wishes concern Africans who pay Bedouin to smuggle them from Egypt through the Sinai.
Americans know the problem with Mexican and other illegal entrants from Central America. Europeans can think about North Africans, Turks, or others from poor countries who manage to get to Spanish, Italian, French, or Greek islands or the mainland, and from there elsewhere to Europe.
Israel suffers from being the only first-world country with a well-to-do economy and decent social services having a land border with Africa. Insofar as it is a small country with a centralized administration and alert security services, and close to being hermetically sealed with respect to neighbors, it probably has better statistics about illegal immigration than the United States or Western European countries.
Recent figures from the Interior Ministry are that there were 55,000 African illegal immigrants as of January, 2012. That number is double what was recorded 18 months earlier in July, 2010. More recently, officials said that there are now 60,000 illegal African immigrants in the country.
Somewhat less reliable are statistics about East European prostitutes who get to Israel, either via the same route across the Sinai, or coming as tourists through the international airport. There may be several thousand individuals engaged in this trade. Women claim they were forced into prostitution after being recruited to work as waitresses or dancers, and then managed by especially cruel handlers. The proprietors of this trade include legal Jewish immigrants with roots and connections in Eastern Europe. Individuals familiar with the history of mass Jewish migration to Western Europe, the United States, and Latin America should not be surprised that an underworld develops among immigrants along with decent folks who work as professors of political science and in other respectable trades.
Africans looking for work, as well as the ladies from Eastern Europe find themselves in situations similar to those of illegal immigrants in other Western countries. There are employers and customers who use their services, state authorities who go through the motions of enforcing the laws, but generally seem to look the other way in order to let the economy do its things, and occasional upswings in the efforts of elected officials to deal more thoroughly with the issue.
The immigrants suffer en route the same indignities and dangers as individuals smuggled into the United States or European countries. The Bedouin who organize their trek across the Sinai charge for the service, exploit some clients sexually, abandon some in the desert, and murder others. Some have been drugged, have organs removed by Egyptian physicians who then sell them via the medical equivalent of the bazaars in Cairo or Alexandria, with the involuntary donors left to die.
As elsewhere, when the issue of the immigrants'' illegality becomes a public issue, there are claims about them involved in crime or taking jobs that should be available to legal residents. Politicians call them a threat to Israel''s character as a Jewish state. Currently underway is a physical and electronic barrier being constructed on what had been the long and unfenced border with Egypt from Gaza southward to Eilat. Bedouin have already managed to penetrate the portion of the barrier that is in place in order to deliver immigrants toward Eilat.
Israeli officials have sought the cooperation of Egyptian authorities to stop the movement, and are not entirely pleased with the response. Not only is Egyptian activity sporadic, but the most prominent action undertaken is to shoot in order to kill the immigrants.
Among Israel''s problems in dealing with the immigrants are the unsettled nature of the countries which supply the bulk of the immigrants (Eritrea, South Sudan, and Sudan), which hinder efforts to repatriate them, the lack of diplomatic relations with Sudan, and the unwillingness of African countries to accept individuals who arrive in Israel with no documents showing nationality..
Israel is expanding a detention facility near Eilat. The practice has been to house immigrants initially for some months in that facility, then to release them. There has been limited success in repatriating illegal immigrants to their home countries.
Against the expressions of politicians who demand to imprison all illegals until they can be repatriated are the actions of Israeli human rights organizations who take the immigrants under their wings, and press authorities to provide them with health benefits and education for their children. Many of the immigrants do menial work in Eilat hotels and restaurants, or menial jobs in and around Tel Aviv. Most live in a poor area of South Tel Aviv. Occasional crimes committed by them become high profile and spur campaigns to "send them all home." There have been fire bombings of the Africans'' dwellings and other vigilante actions by Israelis.
Most crimes associated with the African illegals appear to be committed within the illegal population. Statistical reports are that their crime rate is lower than than of the general Israeli population.
The head of Israel''s National Police recently toured the area of Tel Aviv that has become heavily African, and said that crime would decline if the immigrants were allowed to work legally during the time that their future remains unresolved.
Minutes after his comments aired on the media there were contrary expressions from Knesset Members and other officials. The head administrator of the Prime Minister''s Office said that the government would continue to enforce the law against employing illegal immigrants. A Knesset Member said that telephone calls from Tel Aviv to Africa would convey the message that coming to Israel could net an immigrant $1,000 a month, and that would produce even more massive illegal immigration. An official of the Population and Immigration Authority said that the police chief''s comment "is a kind of open invitation for hundreds of thousands of infiltrators to reach Israel."
After the next government meeting, Israel Radio quoted the Prime Minister as saying that the present number of 60,000 illegal African immigrants would reach 600,000 if the barrier was not completed soon, and if harsher penalties were not imposed on the immigrants'' employers. However, the minister with responsibility for police supported the comments of the police chief, and said that for the time being there would be no campaign to punish employers who provided work to the illegals.
Authorities are weighing criminal charges against the wife of the Attorney General for employing an illegal immigrant to clean the family resident. The Attorney General usually decides issues of prosecution, but he has recused himself from this case. There has been no noticable commentary about tensions within the family. We are left to wonder who is really to blame, and who may end up paying a fine or suffering an even more severe penalty.