JERUSALEM-- About 150 African migrants Tuesday protested Israel’s policy of detaining people illegally in the country, saying they are refugees seeking freedom and human rights.
The protesters outside parliament had made their way to Jerusalem after leaving a new detention center in southern Israel over the weekend. They described their act as a “walk for freedom and humanity” and held placards reading, “We are refugees, not criminals.”
Israeli law allows authorities to detain African migrants without trial for a year before moving them to what is known as an open detention facility in a remote area called Holot. They are required to check in several times a day and must return at night.
Several hundred left the detention center and did not return, knowingly violating the rules and risking arrest. Some of them had been transferred to the new center after having been jailed for 18 months.
Israeli authorities eventually broke up the demonstration and returned the protesters to the detention center.
The new law, finalized last week, must be upheld, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday, adding that “the infiltrators” can reside at the special center or return to “their home countries.” He called the problem a “strategic threat” to Israel’s identity and future.
The bill was passed after the Supreme Court this year struck down a previous law that allowed Israel to jail migrants for three years without trial.
Rights groups including Physicians for Human Rights, the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel and the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel have petitioned the high court to have the new law thrown out as well.
Reut Michaeli, chief executive for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, said the new law “robs people of their freedom and jails them in a facility falsely described as open.”
The government offers only two ways of addressing the African migrant issue, “lock them up or throw them out,” and neither is the solution, Michaeli said.
The issue boils down to one thing, Michaeli said: “The state doesn’t want to take in these people who are not Jews, and are black.”
Conservatives do not deny the demographic concern.
“If we want to pass a bill that Israel is no longer a Jewish state, open the borders and naturalize all migrants, fine,” deputy minister Faina Kirschenbaum sarcastically told Israeli radio.
[For the record 8:17 a.m. PST Dec. 19: An early version of this post incorrectly identified Reut Michaeli as a spokeswoman for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. She is chief executive.]
Sobelman is a special correspondent in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau.