After years of deliberations, the Israeli government has decided to build a border fence along its border with Egypt. The fence is meant to keep out terrorists, but the more immediate reason is to stem the flood of African refugees into Israel.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu authorised a plan presented to him by the Defence Ministry to spend NIS 1.5 billion on a fence between Israel and Egypt.
Besides a few short fences near the Gaza Strip to the north and Eilat in the south, most of the border, over 300km, is not fenced.
While the IDF and the police have been urging the government for decades to finance the building of a fence to prevent terrorist infiltrations and the smuggling of arms, drugs and human beings, the expense proved too prohibitive.
The security forces had to make do with mobile patrols and surveillance systems.
What has changed the official policy is the huge increase in the number of African refugees crossing the border illegally — by some estimates, around 1,000 each month last year alone.
Mr Netanyahu was frank about the reasons this week when he said that the decision to build the fence was “strategic. Our objective is to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel.
“We will stay open to those who are fleeing persecution but we will not allow tens of thousands of illegal workers to flood the country.”
In the first stage, the existing fences near Eilat and Rafah will be extended and new surveillance systems will be installed. The government is also planning legislation that will enable it to prosecute employers using illegal workers.
Israeli human rights groups have called upon the government to ensure that the rights of the refugees will not be infringed. Israel has been grappling for the past decade with the issue of guest workers, their number estimated now at around 400,000, and the addition of tens of thousands of African refugees over the past few years has exacerbated the problem.
The new fence will be built on the Israeli side of the border and is expected to be approved by the Egyptian government as well.