If passed, a court override bill could have dramatic consequences. “It [would be] basically the end of constitutional protection of basic rights in Israel,” Alon Harel, professor of law at Hebrew University, told +972 Magazine earlier in April. “Having a parliamentary system without a judiciary is basically a dictatorship of the executive branch.”
Human rights advocates also warn that a court override bill would put the rights of the country’s Arab population and other minority groups at risk and set Israel up for a constitutional crisis.
With the ability to override the High Court, the Knesset could, in theory, pass a new law to allow for the mass deportation of the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon reportedly said that while he is opposed to a broader court override bill, he is in favor of a bill that would “solve the problem of the infiltrators,” using the derogatory label Israeli politicians have given to the African asylum seekers.
The High Court and successive right-wing governing coalitions have been engaged in a back-and-forth over the legality of the Holot facility and various attempts to deport the African refugees for several years. The High Court would order Holot closed, then the government would alter the criteria for detention and the amount of time detainees could be held without violating the Court’s rulings. A court override bill would end this back-and forth in the government’s favor, potentially freeing it from the Court’s previous rulings – giving the government carte blanche to deal with the refugees.
Asylum seekers and an Israeli activist outside of Saharonim after Israel released 207 asylum seekers imprisoned for refusing deportation. April 15, 2018. (Oren Ziv / Activestills.org)
The Israeli government’s mass deportation plan began to fray in March and eventually fell apart last week. The Israeli government informed the High Court last Tuesday that the plan had collapsed after it failed to broker a deal with a “third country”— first Rwanda, then Uganda — that would accept refugees deported from Israel by force.
Earlier in April, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a deal with the UN, only to cancel it hours later due to pressure from the Israeli Right. Under the UN deal, the UNHCR would have resettled 16,250 African asylum seekers in Western countries; Israel would have granted legal status to a portion of the asylum seekers that remained.
Massive anti-deportation rallies across Israel and around the world, investigative work by activists and journalists (including work by +972), international pressure on the Rwandan government, and strategic lawsuits challenging the details of the government’s plan all played a role in preventing the mass deportations from happening.
For the time being, asylum seekers and human rights advocates are watching Israel’s next moves with caution. Asked what’s next in the struggle for the rights of the refugees, Elad Cahana replied, “We need to see what the government decides to do.”
In the absence of the mass deportation plan — under which asylum seekers were given a choice between deportation and indefinite imprisonment — Israeli policy has roughly reverted back to what it was prior to the announcement of the plan last December. African asylum seekers must renew their visas every two months, businesses that employ them can be fined, and the government seizes 20 percent of their paychecks — which it returns to them only if and when they leave Israel.
The Israeli government will continue to operate its “voluntary return program,” through which some 4,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers left to Rwanda or Uganda between 2013 and 2017. A special +972 Magazine investigation found that the overwhelming majority of those refugees deported to Rwanda or Uganda received no formal status or the ability to work — which Israel promised they would receive — and were forced out of the country.