Israel's parliament on Tuesday approved harsh new penalties on illegal migrants and Israelis who help them, passing one of several controversial measures designed to stanch the flood of Africans seeking sanctuary from poverty and conflict.
The bill makes it possible to imprison illegal migrants for life over property crimes and detain them for up to three years without trial. Anyone caught helping migrants could face prison terms of five to 15 years.
Critics deplore the new law and say it is an unconstitutional trampling of human rights. They accuse the government of failing to formulate a coherent, humane policy on illegal migration that would address an issue that has become increasingly urgent over the years.
Africans began trickling into Israel through its porous southern border with Egypt's Sinai desert after Egyptian security forces violently quashed a demonstration by a group of Sudanese refugees in 2005. The number of migrants surged as word spread of safety and job opportunities in the relatively prosperous Jewish state. The government estimates 50,000 Africans have illegally entered Israel since.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called the swelling number of illegal migrants a "national scourge," voted for the bill. His spokesman, Mark Regev, called the legislation part of a "multitiered strategy to deal with the challenge of illegal immigration to Israel." He would not comment on critics' concerns about the new law.
Lawmaker Amnon Cohen, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he sponsored the bill "to defend Israeli society."
"Go to south Tel Aviv and you'll see people there living in fear," Cohen said. "Anyone who wants to steal a wallet from a person, or a box of goods from a store or a bike from a private garden just does whatever he wants. If we don't put an end to this, the issue will not stop."
Migrant advocates contend the Africans are bona fide refugees and should be granted asylum. They accuse the government of ignoring the retribution most of the migrants face should they return home.
In a commentary Monday, retired Judge Boaz Okon, the legal affairs analyst of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, said the new bill gives authorities "unlimited license to employ terror against anyone who reaches Israel."
The influx has touched off a national debate in a country that grew out of the Nazi genocide of Jews.
Some believe the migrants are an economic and social burden and fear their mounting numbers will dilute Israel's Jewish character.
"If we don't put an end to the phenomenon of infiltrators, all of Israel's social systems will collapse," Netanyahu's Cabinet secretary, Tzvi Hauser, told Israel Radio.
Others say the Jewish people, because of their history of persecution, must be especially accommodating of others escaping persecution or conflict.
Dov Hanin, a communist lawmaker, said the law was "problematic and illegal."
"This law contradicts Israel's obligations according to international law, it goes against the human norm of helping refugees running for their lives, and it flies in the face of the Jewish principles of honoring the stranger among us," Hanin said.
Israel already has repatriated hundreds of Africans and Netanyahu has said he would explore the possibility of repatriating others when he visits Africa this year.
Last month, the Cabinet voted to finance a $160 million program to finish building a 150-mile (250-kilometer) border fence along the Egyptian border and expand detention facilities to hold thousands of new arrivals. Employers who hire illegal migrants now face stiffened fines of up to $18,000.