Israelis caught assisting illegal immigrants could soon receive the same punishment as the people they help. If a bill being discussed in the Knesset becomes law, it would be the only legislation in the world that mandates equal punishment for both parties, refugee activists say. The most common penalties under the legislation would be five- and seven-year sentences, although under some circumstances illegal immigrants and their helpers could be sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison. According to the bill, Israeli citizens could be punished for helping an illegal immigrant either enter the country or stay in the country. "We understand illegal 'stay' as providing, for example, lodging, food, medication, legal assistance - anything, basically," Anat Ben-Dor, an instructor at Tel Aviv University Law School's Refugee Rights Clinic, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. If that clause, part of a larger bill that would amend procedures regarding illegal immigration, becomes law, it could halt all the work that activist organizations perform on behalf of illegal immigrants, many of whom are asylum-seekers whom activists say are fleeing persecution and threats to their lives. "It's a shame that people who do want to help will get punished for it - for taking responsibility for people who are here and no one else is taking responsibility for them," said Avital Banai, coordinator of refugee programs for Brit Olam, which assists Israel's African refugee community. Citing the Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, Banai said it is hard to believe such a bill could be proposed in Israel. "It's hard for me to believe that this kind of law could pass in this country. They'll have to arrest hundreds, if not thousands, of Israelis." According to explanatory notes in the bill, as a general rule people who help those who illegally enter the country would receive half the penalty that the immigrant receives. However, explanatory notes are not legally binding and therefore can be ignored, Ben-Dor said. Additionally, according to the bill, authorities can deviate from that general rule to deter migrants and their helpers and to help the state better handle the phenomenon of assistance to infiltrators, Ben-Dor said. The proposed legislation would alter several aspects of procedure for handling illegal immigrants. It is unnecessarily severe, redundant and runs counter to Israel's humanitarian obligations, opponents say. "This is one of the most extreme laws dealing with refugees and trying to help them," said MK Dov Henin (Hadash), the only MK to vote against the legislation in its first reading in May 2008 and when it was approved for continuation early last month. "This is very far away from the lessons we should all learn from Jewish history. In the past, the Jews were the refugees who needed help in places not willing to accept them," he said. The bill would mandate five years of imprisonment for most illegal immigrants and seven years for those coming from enemy countries or countries that assist enemies of Israel, such as Sudan. It also would give authorities a choice between detention and immediate deportation of illegal immigrants if authorities catch them within 72 hours of entering Israel. That clause is particularly troubling to refugee activists. If authorities are given the options of either immediate deportation or imprisonment, they will choose deportation, because it requires less time and fewer resources, said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers. "Our prisons are full, there is horrible crowdedness. If they have the chance to deport, they will choose that." Another concern is the lack of differentiation between asylum-seekers, who are fleeing persecution, and other illegal immigrants. Immediate deportation of asylum-seekers could mean returning them to a place where their lives are in danger, Ben-Dor said. The bill's explanatory notes clarify that authorities are expected to follow international principles that prevent deportation that could endanger someone's life, but such notes are not legally binding. According to Henin, it was first proposed by the Defense Ministry. Opponents of the bill hope budget debates will stall the bill's progress long enough for them to raise public awareness and opposition. Supporters of the legislation say it is a necessary security measure and will prevent illegal immigrants who pose a threat from gaining entry to Israel. However, opponents say the existing statutes are adequate. "We don't need this law in order to deal with the security issues. We already have very powerful solutions to those problems," Henin said. The new legislation would replace the 1954 Law for the Prevention of Infiltration, which was created to handle Palestinians entering Israel and mandates five years in prison for illegal immigrants suspected of posing a security threat. Under current procedure, most illegal immigrants caught entering the country are initially detained under the Infiltration Law but are prosecuted under less stringent legislation, the Entry to Israel Law, which sentences most illegal immigrants to one year in prison. Activist organizations are circulating a petition, asking that the Defense Ministry withdraw it support for the legislation and that MKs reject it. "If members of parliament understand and really read the law and understand its meaning, I strongly believe that the majority will vote against it," Rozen said. "There is no need for this law. This is our main goal - to make the members of parliament realize we are not dealing with security issues. We are taking about a law that will jeopardize the lives of genocide survivors and other refugees."