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MIDEAST: Israel Divided Over ‘Illegal’ Children

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

TEL AVIV, Nov 2 2009 (IPS) - “Migrant workers bring with them a profusion of diseases – hepatitis, measles, tuberculosis, AIDS and drug addiction: Our critics can be as sanctimonious as they like, but unless we stop the wave of migrant workers, the whole character of the State of Israel, its Jewish character, will be under threat.”

The resort by Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai to a blatant racist stereotype is the latest outburst in an increasingly heated public debate about the fate of migrant workers whose permits have been revoked because they had children while working in Israel.

Israelis are grappling emotionally with the fate of the 1,800 children born in their country to foreign workers and now under threat of deportation along with their parents.

Yishai’s unsavoury, but carefully chosen, language in a prime-time Channel 2 TV interview on Saturday night played out against the backdrop of an entirely different score in the run-down south Tel Aviv area where many of the quarter million “illegal” foreign workers reside.

To the sounds of African drum beats and protest rap songs, and in the presence of the city’s liberal mayor Ron Huldai, volunteer groups who help the migrant workers inaugurated a 3,000-volume library in 16 languages, ranging from English through Spanish to Amharic and from Thai through French to Hindi. Hebrew is prominent too.

“This is a joyful event,” said Ron Levkovitch from the Moked hotline for foreign workers, “but we can’t afford to ignore the ominous clouds that hang over those children – that the government might decide even tomorrow to send them out of the country, though these kids were born here and have no other homeland but Israel.

“They talk of these children being ‘illegal’,” Levkovitch went on. “There’s no such thing as an ‘illegal child’ – you simply don’t deport children.”

Many Israelis support that view. In their collective memory is etched the fate of more than a million Jewish children during World War II when no country was ready to give them refuge from the Nazis.

Many others patently do not agree. Like their interior minister, they believe that the Jewish character of the state should be the prime existential matter.

Arguments against allowing the children to stay range from that offered by one caller to a radio phone-in show that “first we should look after our own children”, to the dismissive comment of a middle-aged bystander at a recent demonstration on behalf of the foreign children, “If we allow them to stay, they’ll become a fifth column – we have to rid ourselves of them.”

In July, the Israeli interior ministry set up a special ‘Enforcement Unit’, Oz (strength), to track down and summarily deport “illegals”.

The government charged the enforcement unit with the goal of reducing by 20,000 the number of illegal foreign workers in the country, and by 100,000 at the end of 2013. But, a recent internal Oz report said it had only brought about the expulsion of 669 workers since beginning operations, with another 2,500 having left voluntarily.

The simmering problem of how to handle the overall influx of migrant workers burst into public consciousness this past summer around the question of the “Israeli” children.

They study in the regular government school system, speak an unaccented Hebrew and read it fluently. Many say they see their future as being linked inextricably to the country.

Before the start of the school year, under mounting public pressure, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shelved for three months a tentative decision to expel the children and their parents.

On Sunday, it again decided not to decide, leaving the painful situation unresolved. Netanyahu confined himself to saying that the dilemma would be handled with “a decision that is part of an overall plan.”

In addition to the more than quarter million “illegals”, some 150,000 foreign workers are in the country on special work permits (that represents more than 5 percent of Israel’s population which stands at a little over 7 million).

Workers are brought into the country under contract by specialised Israeli firms for jobs in construction and agriculture and as care-givers. In contrast, most “illegals” work in hotel and restaurant services and as domestic cleaners.

“Part of the problem is the government’s revolving door policy,” Nir Nader from the Ma’an NGO which acts on behalf of foreign workers, told IPS. “Big economic interests are in play: the manpower companies earn a fortune when paid by workers abroad applying for a time-bound permit. When the contract expires or is revoked, the companies cash in again with a fresh influx of workers.”

That’s how the issue of the children came about, explains Ron Levkovitch. “A couple is brought here legally to work and then does the most natural thing – they have children. But their permits are revoked, they remain on illegally, and the children are left facing an uncertain future.”

The row about what to do cuts across traditional political boundaries. Livnor Livnat, the Sports and Culture Minister, a close confidant of Netanyahu, said at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, “It’s absolutely inconceivable that Israeli society would act against children in this way.”

Yishai countered that he would never allow illegal aliens “to cynically use their children” to bypass immigration procedures.

To avoid a political crisis with Yishai who heads the ultra-orthodox religious party Shas, a key ally in his governing coalition, Netanyahu seems to be opting for a repeat shelving of the conundrum, at least until the end of the school year next summer.

Like most western countries, Israel has never devised a cohesive policy regarding its migrant population. Although the issue has been an integral part of the country’s social agenda only for the past decade or so, successive governments have learnt little from the ineptitude of western countries. On the other hand, Israel now offers no fresh insights into what has become a global developed-developing world issue.

At the newly dedicated library in south Tel Aviv, Tamar Schwartz of the Mesila NGO said, “We’ve put up a nice little project. I only hope it’ll be a place where people will come to read and exchange books, not where Oz squads will come to make arrests.”

Grace A. is ten. (Her parents came 11 years ago to take up jobs in Tel Aviv. “Please, don’t publish our surnames,” her mother requests). Grace has taken down from the shelf one of the Harry Potter books. It’s in Hebrew. “I read English okay, but my Hebrew is much better. My parents have told me a lot about Ghana. I’d like to go to Africa one day, but just for a visit. This is home.”

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