JERUSALEM -- Israeli lawmakers grappled on Tuesday with new questions of how to deal with the tens of thousands of migrants from Africa who have entered the country illegally, now that Israel's Supreme Court has overturned a law allowing the government to detain migrants and asylum seekers for up to three years without trial.
A panel of nine justices ruled on Monday that the law, which came into effect in June 2012, violated Israel's Basic Laws on human dignity and freedom. The court ordered the government to examine every detainee's case within 90 days and to release any who are not the subject of deportation proceedings.
About 60,000 Africans have entered Israel since 2005, a vast majority of them from Sudan or Eritrea. The government said more than a year ago that it would step up efforts to deter, detain and deport the migrants, as residents mounted protests in areas where the new arrivals were concentrated, like south Tel Aviv.
About 2,000 African men, women and children are in detention facilities in the desert near the Egyptian border.
The court decision has reignited an emotional public debate about the fate of the migrants. The government says that while some of them are genuine refugees from war-torn areas, most are really economic migrants seeking work. Government ministers have argued that the migrants threaten the Jewish character of Israel.
Sudanese and Eritreans are afforded blanket protection in Israel and cannot be deported, in line with international conventions. But the Israeli government has been working on plans to have them leave voluntarily, either to return to their countries of origin or to resettle in other countries. Human rights activists say that repatriation is not voluntary when the alternative is spending three years in jail.
Applications for refugee status have piled up, and few have been approved. Oded Feller, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, one of several human rights groups that jointly petitioned the Supreme Court, said that 90 percent of the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers had not yet been checked to see if they qualified, and that Israel had little interest in hurrying the process.
Among other measures meant to block the human flow, Israel has almost completed construction of a steel fence along its border with Egypt, a project that took on added urgency as the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula deteriorated. Government figures say that only 34 illegal migrants, known here by the Hebrew word for infiltrators, crossed that border in the first half of 2013, all of whom were quickly detained. In the same period of 2012, 9,570 people crossed, and most of them reached Israeli cities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the drop-off one of the main achievements of his government. "At a time when many countries in the world are dealing with the phenomenon of illegal migration, we have blocked it, and last month not even a single illegal migrant crossed our southern border," Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement after the court ruling.
Miri Regev, a lawmaker from Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party, told the Hebrew news site Ynet on Tuesday that the migrants were "criminals," and that the Supreme Court ruling had created a "heaven for the infiltrators and hell for the residents of south Tel Aviv."
Last year, the atmosphere in south Tel Aviv became explosive as residents complained of rising crime and held protests that turned violent. Some stores run by African migrants were damaged and looted.
Ms. Regev has been outspoken about wanting to rid Israel of the African migrants, and she said that a new law would be passed "to return as many infiltrators as possible to their countries of origin and, yes, to keep them for at least a year in some kind of facility."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.