TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel said on Monday it had started rounding up African migrants in the first stage of a controversial "emergency plan" to intern and deport thousands deemed a threat to the Jewish character of the state.
Israel Radio reported that dozens of Africans, mainly from South Sudan, had already been detained in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, including mothers and children.
"This is only a small group of the infiltrators," Interior Minister Eli Yishai said. "I'm not acting out of hatred of strangers but love of my people and to rescue the homeland."
The goal is to repatriate all the estimated 60,000 African migrants, whose growing numbers are seen by many Israelis as a law and order issue and even a threat to the long-term viability of the Jewish state.
Illegal migration, and the pool of cheap labor it provides, is a common headache for developed economies. Israel is grappling with its own special ghosts as it tackles the problem.
For some in Israel, built by immigrants and refugees, internment and deportation are bad solutions that may damage the international image of the country needlessly.
They say rounding up members of a different racial group and holding them in camps for deportation may invite allusions to the Nazi Holocaust, however unfair such comparisons may be, and betrays Jewish values.
About 500 Sudanese men held an orderly protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday against expulsion, the solution chosen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after two months of heated debate over how to handle the flow of migrants.
"We are refugees, not criminals," the Sudanese chanted, in a retort to allegations that Africans prey on Israeli citizens, following high-profile rape allegations.
Many Sudanese, including hundreds who escaped from conflict and humanitarian disaster in Darfur, have been in Israel for several years, living in legal limbo without formal refugee status, but peaceably, they say.
Now they are caught up in a wave of hostility towards blacks in general, focused on a poor area of south Tel Aviv where they congregate.
"We're being called a cancer and an AIDs virus on the Israeli people, by politicians in the Knesset," said protest organizer Jacob Berri. He accused government right-wingers of racist incitement and inflammatory language.
The number of migrants crossing into Israel over the Sinai desert border has accelerated since 2006. It ballooned last year when revolution distracted Egypt's attention from policing Bedouin people-smugglers operating in the Sinai peninsula.
Israel has now built a high fence along the frontier.
"My policy with regard to the illegal infiltrators seeking work is clear," Netanyahu said in a May 29 speech. "First of all, to stop their entry with the fence and at the same time to deport the infiltrators who are in Israel."
He warns of Africans "flooding" and "swamping" Israel, threatening "the character of the country". Emergency measures to reverse the influx will include "detention facilities with thousands of units", Netanyahu said last week.
Berri said the South Sudanese number about 700. They know when they are not wanted and will leave, he said. But their refugee status must first be assured by the United Nations, and third-country resettlement programs established.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Israeli human rights and activist groups back the Africans. But rightwing and religious parties say that if they are not stopped today's 60,000 will become 600,000 in a few years, in a population of 7.8 million.
Poor south Tel Aviv residents say affluent north Tel Aviv Jews can afford to be liberal, because the Africans are not in their back yard. An opinion poll last week showed 52 percent of Israelis agree that the Africans are "a cancer".
"They've come here to rape and steal," one Israeli woman shouted at a small but ugly anti-migrant demonstration earlier this month in south Tel Aviv. "We should burn them out, put poison in their food," said an elderly man.
Netanyahu urges restraint. "We are a moral people and we will act accordingly. We denounce violence; we denounce invective. We respect human rights," he said, but added: "Israel cannot accept "infiltrators from an entire continent".
The term "infiltrators" is also used by authorities to describe armed Palestinian militants.
Voluntary deportees will get financial assistance.
"Whoever comes forward will get his grant ... from the moment you come to immigration authorities and say you will pack up, from that moment you will be given an opportunity to pack up, and the grant of 1,000 euros," Yishai said.
The first planeload is expected to leave Israel next week.