Hundreds of African illegal immigrants on Monday began a protest march to Jerusalem after fleeing a detention centre in the south where they were being held, according to an AFP correspondent.
The group, all men, could be seen marching northwards along a highway near Lahav junction in southern Israel, holding up signs reading: "Recognize us as refugees" and "Holot (detention) facility is a prison," the correspondent said.
A spokeswoman for Israel Prisons Service told AFP that 282 inmates who were being held at the Holot detention facility had not shown up for the evening lockdown on Sunday night.
She said they had made their way to Be'er Sheva, more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, where they spent the night at the central bus station in freezing wintry conditions.
The sprawling detention facility opened its gates for the first time on Thursday with 484 illegal immigrants from Africa taken there, the IPS said. It is open during the day but inmates must return for a night lockdown. The center was initially designed for up to 3,300 people, but can be expanded to hold as many as 11,000.
Speaking to public radio, Israel Population and Immigration Authority head Amnon Ben Ami said they could be arrested 48 hours after failing to show up for the Sunday evening lockdown.
Under legislation passed on December 10, illegal immigrants entering Israel can be held for up to a year without trial. It was the latest in a series of measures aimed at cracking down on the numbers of African migrants entering the country illegally, which Israel says poses both a security and demographic threat.
The new law amends earlier legislation which allowed for immigrants to be held for up to three years without trial that was overturned by the Supreme Court in September.
Residents of southern Tel Aviv, as well as those of other cities like Eilat, say they have been suffering from endless harassment, fear and violence perpetrated by the many illegal Eritrean and Sudanese infiltrators who enter Israel to find employment and come to live in their working-class neighborhood. Residents say they are terrified of leaving their homes and have begged the government to take action.
The bill faced considerable controversy in the Knesset, however, with both Leftist MKs and activist groups claiming the law was a violation of human rights.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said on Monday that it and other rights groups were renewing efforts to appeal the bill, and had filed a petition against the new law. "The organizations claim that the new amendment does not abide by the principles set forth by the court's September 15 decision to overturn the previous amendment to the law, and is in many ways more severe than the nullified amendment," it said.
MKs behind the legislation reiterated earlier this month that the infiltrators are violating immigration laws, and that the waves of migrants had presented a major security risk to Israeli citizens.
MK Miri Regev (Likud) stated, “Residents of southern Tel Aviv and Eilat also have human rights," and echoed concerns about Israeli security made by Likud MK Gidon Sa'ar. Crime has skyrocketed in those areas since 2011.