TEL AVIV //Israel yesterday deported 120 South Sudanese and said it plans to expel hundreds more in coming weeks as part of its plan to oust tens of thousands of illegal African asylum-seekers from the country.
The expulsion of the South Sudanese has drawn extensive media attention because it involves the biggest group of illegal migrants - some 700, according to activists' estimates - to be deported in recent years by Israel within a period of a few weeks.
The government's move also appeared aimed at winning public support because it comes just weeks after tensions erupted between Israeli locals and Africans in Tel Aviv and amid hardline rhetoric by top politicians that the Africans' presence threatens Israel's Jewish character.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, insisted yesterday that the deportations would be carried out "in an orderly and dignified manner" and pledged more expulsions. "Today, the government will begin the operation to repatriate illegal work infiltrators to their countries of origin," he told his cabinet in publicised comments.
The deportations have become controversial because activists say they include some 450 children - many of them born in Israel and speaking Hebrew fluently - that are being sent to a nascent country ridden by poverty and malnutrition.
The mood was tense among the South Sudanese last week, as many hid indoors to avoid arrests and anxiously waited for a knock on their doors as immigration authorities rounded up more than 200 people in the last 10 days.
Israeli television footage showed handcuffed African men and women weeping as they were detained.
Activists said Mr Yishai ordered some 20 South Sudanese children who were under court-ordered separation from their parents because of abuse and neglect to be reunited with their parents in prison ahead of deportations.
Venus Mahroum, a nine-year-old South Sudanese who attends a Tel Aviv school, speaks flawless Hebrew and knows little of the Juba Arabic - a South Sudanese dialect of Arabic - spoken by her parents, said returning to South Sudan would be "sad". As she sat on the worn sofa in her Tel Aviv apartment and played with a mobile phone, she said: "I prefer to stay here and speak Hebrew. It looks scary there from what I see on television."
Duop Lulone, a 24-year-old South Sudanese who worked for the last six years cleaning a hotel spa in southern Israel, was arranging beds in the spa last week when hotel staff asked him to leave because of the court's decision.
Mr Lulone had escaped South Sudan a decade ago after being jailed along with his father, who was then killed by security forces while still in jail.
He said he decided to voluntarily depart Israel because there appeared to be no choice, and was resolved to face up to possible violence at home. "I don't know my future, but I know that I am going to the place where I was born. And if there is a war, I will go and fight together with my people."
South Sudan, a nation of about 8.6 million people which seceded from Sudan almost a year ago, has some of the worst health and education statistics in the world following decades of conflict and economic neglect. Furthermore, violence in recent months has flared between Sudan and South Sudan along their contested border, raising fears of an all-out war.
Until this year, South Sudanese illegal migrants were under a so-called blanket protection - along with those from Eritrea and Sudan - that shielded them from deportations from Israel. In early June, an Israeli court ruled that the South Sudanese migrants' lives are no longer at risk in their home country.
The South Sudanese are part of about 60,000 Africans who have made dangerous desert treks to cross Israel's porous border with Egypt in recent years. Eritreans and Sudanese make up the bulk of these newcomers but are unlikely to be deported any time soon because the United Nations views their return as endangering their lives.
Many of the migrants say they are seeking asylum from wars and dictatorships, but Israel claims they are looking for better livelihoods.
Activists have accused the government of launching the expulsions to win popular support and shift media attention away from economic troubles.
For Eli Yishai, the ultra-Orthodox interior minister who has led the deportation efforts, the issue may also be a bid to deflect attention from a damning report by Israel's comptroller due out this week.
The report is expected to pin particular blame on the interior minister for the government's handling of a 2010 fire near the city of Haifa. The blaze killed 44 Israelis and forced thousands out of their homes.
Israel has offered South Sudanese compensation - a one-time grant of US$1,300 per adult (Dh4,775) and $500 per child - to voluntarily depart. Those who will not go willingly will be detained until they can be forcibly deported.
According to Sabin Hadad, a spokeswoman of the interior ministry, 500 have already accepted the offer. She added that a second flight is being planned for next week. "We tell them to go willingly because, in any case, they'll be deported," she said.