The government is stepping up its efforts to deport illegal foreign workers - but some organizations and politicians are critical of the efforts.
A recently established crack unit, the Interior Ministry's Oz task force, has been working intensively over the past few weeks to root out and deport illegal workers. The unit was formed by the Interior Ministry's immigration enforcement unit specifically to nab laborers working illegally in Israel.
Many Israelis support the efforts to deport the illegals, believing they could eventually turn into a large presence in the country and worsen the demographic balance between Jews and non-Jews. Others, however, have been protesting the efforts, claiming that as a western, democractic state, Israel cannot deport helpless refugees back to the dictatorships - mostly in Africa - from which they fled. In addition, those opposing the Oz task force say, Jews who themselves vainly sought refuge during the Holocaust should be doubly sensitive to the plight of refugees.
Among those making their voices heard now against the Oz efforts are numerous organizations representing the refugees, as well as political figures – with the latest being Education Minister Gideon Saar.
In its first three weeks of operation, the Oz task force had, as of this past Thursday, questioned 600 people and arrested 400. Some 120 foreign workers, as well as 50 Palestinian Authority residents who were in Israel illegally, have been deported. Another 90 are in the final stages of deportation, with police arranging for flights out of the country for them.
Encouraging Voluntary Return
Issuing the report on the Oz unit's activity, the Interior Ministry stressed that the unit was not primarily designed to enforce immigration law, but rather encourages the voluntary return of illegal immigrants to their home countries. So far, the Ministry said, over 700 illegal immigrants have requested assistance from the unit in getting home. According to sources in the Ministry, 64% of those detained so far are from Sudan and Eritrea, and most have applied for refugee status, claiming they cannot return home due to dangerous political conditions.
Organizations representing foreign workers, such as Kav La'oved, have organized protests outside the Knesset and homes of politicians. According to Kav La'oved, the majority of the workers detained by Oz are asylum seekers and cannot be deported.
Dr. Meir Margalit, in charge of the foreign worker issue in the Jerusalem municipality, wrote to Oz commander Tziki Sela that the municipality did not want Oz operating inside city. "The foreign workers are our brothers, and your people are not wanted here," Margalit wrote. "We host them in the best Jerusalem tradition as human beings, and we do not persecute them for bureaucratic or administrative reasons."
On Saturday night, Education Minister Gideon Saar added his voice to the protests against the deportations. With the Oz unit gearing up to increase its activities next week, Saar asked Interior Minister Eli Yishai to instruct Oz to lay off illegal immigrants whose children have grown up in Israel. "Many of these children were born in Israel, grew up in Israel, and study in the Israeli school system. Their identity is an Israeli one," Saar said, "and they know nothing of the language and culture of the country their parents left."
The Education Minister added that he was not opposed to the deportation of illegal workers in general. The work of the Oz unit "is important to Israel's society and economy, but removing illegal workers must be done with consideration for humane values."
Beginning next week, Oz will begin implementing its "Hadera-Gedera" policy, in which foreign workers will be allowed to work or live only in the north or south – and not in the center of the country. Illegal workers who are caught in the sweep will be deported. According to estimates by organizations opposing the deportations, some 1,500 children of families who have been in the country for years illegally and who grew up here are likely to be sent to their countries of origin in the sweep.