- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 12, 2010

JERUSALEM | 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said 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 Qaeda presence.

“I decided to close Israel’s southern border to infiltrators and terrorists after prolonged discussions,” Mr. Netanyahu 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.

The two fences will cover nearly half of the 150-mile 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 Sunday evening. He said a date hasn’t been set for construction and it is not clear how long it would take to complete the fences.

The project is expected to cost about $400 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 400-mile border with the West Bank, biting into chunks of the territory as it runs. 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 security concerns, along with efforts to keep illegal migrants out, Israel says.

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.

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

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