Editor's Notes: Setting immigration policy

The overall situation is not black and white – it is a complicated and delicate attempt to balance policy and values.

African migrants take part in a protest against Israel's detention policy toward them (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
African migrants take part in a protest against Israel's detention policy toward them
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
In July 2004, my IDF reserve unit was sent to Ketziot Prison, a military detention facility for Palestinian security detainees located a stone’s throw from the Egyptian border. Our mission was simple: For three weeks we were to man guard posts throughout the prison, which at the time consisted of a number of scattered, open-air compounds in which inmates were held.
There was a compound for prisoners from Hamas, for prisoners from Islamic Jihad, and for prisoners from Fatah. It’s no secret that while these terrorists might be united in their objective to destroy Israel and kill Jews, they are far from being united politically.
The days were fascinating, but mostly passed quietly. We, the reservists, did two-hour shifts manning the guard posts around the compounds, and then had a six-hour break after which we returned to guard duty. In between was downtime, which was mostly spent in the air-conditioned living quarters we were given to escape the stifling desert heat.
'Post' editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz's column on Ketziot Prison from 2004.'Post' editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz's column on Ketziot Prison from 2004.
During shifts we watched the prisoners go about their lives inside the enclosed compounds, surrounded by multiple fences lined with barbed wire. There were tents inside each compound where the prisoners lived, but outside, in the courtyard, were ping pong tables, barbecue grills and TV screens, hooked up to satellite feeds from across the Arab world. Little spit ball-looking objects would go flying through the air all day long, holding secret notes and messages that one compound would send to the other.
ONE DAY, after finishing a shift, I spotted something strange in the distance. In a corner of the base, far from the Palestinian compounds, was a small, fenced-in concrete structure with a few men standing out in front. All I could make out from afar was the men’s complexion, which seemed darker than the average Palestinian.
Curious, I walked over to investigate. It turned out that the men – there were seven – were from the Darfur region of Sudan, who had fled their war-torn country, crossed into Egypt, and then into Israel. The IDF had found them inside Israel, and not knowing what to do, brought them to Ketziot. Since they were not terrorists, they were held in a separate compound.
My journalistic instincts told me I had stumbled across a big story. But still in uniform, I knew that I had to wait for my reserve stint to end before writing it. Two days after my service ended, The Jerusalem Post published a front-page story – my reserve commanders weren’t too happy – about the seven refugees who had arrived in Israel.
The story was widely followed by the local and international media. The seven men were eventually released from Ketziot and sent to countries in Europe that agreed to take them (Israel did not and still doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Sudan, so it could not send them directly back to their point of origin).
We later discovered that this was just the beginning. In 2004, the border with Egypt was still wide open – the barrier would only be closed some eight years later – and the number of mostly Eritrean migrants would gradually increase. By 2011, some 15,000 were illegally crossing the Israeli-Egyptian border every year.
WHICH BRINGS us to today. The cabinet’s recent decision to deport the vast majority of the African migrants in Israel has stirred quite a bit of controversy in the country and throughout the Jewish world. Doctors, psychologists and academics have all come out against it. Some El Al pilots have announced that they will not fly the migrants to the two African countries with which Israel has reached agreements to receive them, and some rabbis have ruled that the new policy is against Jewish ethics.
Israel, many of them have argued, is a state built on the ashes of the Holocaust. It is a country made up of people who have suffered persecution and deportation, and should be more compassionate to the plight and suffering of others.
There is some truth to this argument, but on the other hand, Israel also has a right to determine its immigration policy. The vast majority of these migrants are young men in their 20s – the ratio is 5-1 male – mostly from Eritrea, who came here not because they were running away from genocide, like the refugees from Darfur, but because they were pursuing a better life.
While this is perfectly legitimate, it does not mean that Israel needs to agree. Some countries, for example, have recognized Eritrea’s compulsory military service as sufficient grounds to grant an Eritrean refugee asylum, but Israel has not. This is something that can be argued, but it is also a legitimate decision by the State of Israel – and one that in this case has been approved by the High Court of Justice.
“Migration trends adapt themselves to the policies of the various target countries,” explained Gideon Sa’ar, the former Likud interior minister, in an INSS study. “A ‘softer’ policy results in a stronger flow of immigrants, and vice versa.”
Sa’ar cited two examples, Australia and Sweden: Australia, which has tough immigration rules, and Sweden, with its laxer approach. After accepting 190,000 immigrants in 2015, however, Sweden’s prime minister – who in 2015 said “My Europe doesn’t build walls” – announced a year later that “Sweden is no longer able to accept the high number of asylum-seekers we’re seeing today.”
The same is true for Israel, which has the right like any country to set its own policy. We may not agree with it, but that is the government’s job: to steer the country in a direction that is based on the platform on which it was elected to office. As regular readers of this column know, I wish the government would set policy more often on other strategic issues, such as the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. But to accuse the coalition of Nazism – as some on the Left have done – is wrong on multiple levels.
First, deporting someone who illegally entered your country is not the same as the systematic extermination of Jews in places such as Germany and Poland. Second, Israel has granted asylum status to some of the migrants, including families with children, as well as several hundred whom it could prove were refugees from Darfur fleeing because their lives were genuinely in danger. I don’t recall the Nazis making similar gestures.
Nevertheless, Israel could do better: According to the Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees, most countries allow some 50% to 70% of the asylum-seekers seeking refuge within their borders to remain, while Israel is allowing under 10% to remain. So there Israel could improve, by letting more remain – while setting policy is important, it is just as important to live up to the high ethical and moral standards mandated by Jewish tradition, the same values that have motivated Israel to dispatch humanitarian delegations over the years to all corners of the globe.
But the overall situation is not black and white – it is a complicated and delicate attempt to balance policy and values. And while Israel must strive always to achieve the perfect balance, in governance, there is very rarely a perfect answer.