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Israel to build border fence with Egypt

Israel’s prime minister has ordered the construction of two massive fences along the long and porous southern border with Egypt, saying he wants to stem a growing flood of African asylum seekers and to prevent Islamic militants from entering the country.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement the structure would help preserve Israel’s Jewish majority, while providing a layer of protection along an open border with an area suspected of having an al-Qaida presence.

Protection from migrants, militants

“I decided to close Israel’s southern border to infiltrators and terrorists after prolonged discussions,” he said in a statement.

“This is a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel. Israel will remain open to war refugees but we cannot allow thousands of illegal workers to infiltrate into Israel via the southern border and flood our country,” he said.

Earlier, the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak echoed that statement.

The two fences will cover nearly half of the 250-kilometre border.

One section will be near the Red Sea port of Eilat. The other will be in southwest Israel, near the Gaza Strip town of Rafah.

Government spokesman Mark Regev said government ministers approved the plan on Sunday evening.

He said a date hasn’t been set for construction and it is unclear how long it would take to complete the fences.

The project is expected to cost about $US400 million, according to local media reports.

The structure would come in addition to a massive fence surrounding the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, as well as a separation barrier that snakes along parts of Israel’s more than 680-kilometre frontier with the West Bank, biting into chunks of the territory as it runs, drawing both Palestinnian and international condemnation.

Fence rooted in Israel’s security concerns

Egypt has its own fence along Gaza’s southern border, and is reinforcing the area with underground metal plates to shut down tunnels used to smuggle goods and weapons into Gaza.

The planned Egypt fence, like the West Bank and Gaza barriers, is rooted largely in Israeli security concerns.

Some regional observers say reflects a walled in mentality that Israel and its leaders have developed.

The military began planning the fence in 2005 after Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip, fearing that militants would freely travel to Egypt and sneak into Israel.

These concerns were underscored in early 2007, when a Gaza suicide bomber sneaked into Eilat through Egypt.

African migrants influx adds momentum

But the massive influx of African migrants into Israel in recent years has given the project added momentum.

UN officials and human rights workers estimate some 17,000 to 19,000 people have poured into Israel through the southern border since 2005, most of them from Eritrea, Sudan and other war-torn African countries, searching for a better life in Israel’s relatively affluent Western-style society.

Most of them live in crowded slums in Tel Aviv or Eilat, where many work as dishwashers and hotel bellboys.

Israel’s social service system under strain

Amnesty International’s Israel director Itay Epstein said the organisation recognises that “Israel can’t secure its borders but we must assure that whatever instruments are put in place they comply with international law and the obligations Israel has towards the refugees and asylum seekers.”

The new arrivals have created a dilemma for authorities. On one hand, they strain Israel’s social service system, and officials fear they could upset the country’s demographic mix, possibly tilting it away from a Jewish majority.

About three-quarters of Israel’s seven million citizens are Jewish.

On the other hand, Israel is a country created in large part as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution, and many feel they cannot turn their backs on the Africans, believing the government must be more sensitive to their needs.

Israel requested Egypt tighten its border patrols.

Amnesty International says Egyptian security forces have killed 39 people, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, trying to cross into Israel between 2008 to mid-2009.

More updated figures were not immediately available. Both countries have been criticised by human rights groups for their approach to the problem.

Egypt agrees to border fence

In Cairo, Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said his government had no objections to the fence, as long as it is on Israeli territory.

Security and crime concerns have also prompted Israel to erect the fences.

Israeli officials frequently issue warnings urging citizens to avoid travel to the neighbouring Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

The area is believed to be a stronghold for al-Qaida-inspired extremists who have aligned themselves with lawless Bedouin tribes in the area.

In 2004, a total of 32 people were killed in a pair of hotel bombings in the Sinai.

Smugglers use the porous area to traffic women into Israel’s prostitution trade, and it’s also a main conduit for drugs entering the country.

But its many walls illustrate Israel’s sense of isolation.

The West Bank barrier in particular has sparked international criticism because it frequently juts into the West Bank, drawing accusations that Israel is using it to gobble up land claimed by the Palestinians.

There are also fences separating Israel from Lebanon and parts of the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed after seizing the Syrian territory in the 1967 Mideast war.