JERUSALEM - Israeli authorities detained dozens of African migrants in predawn raids early Monday, in the first major step toward what leaders say will be deportation of 4,500 people who have entered the country illegally.
The arrests were the harshest move yet against migrants, reflecting growing concern about the effect on Israel of tens of thousands of Africans who have sneaked into the country across the porous Egyptian border in recent years.
Israeli leaders have grown increasingly alarmed by the influx, calling it a burden and threat to the country's Jewish character.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said 55 people, including 45 from South Sudan, were rounded up in Monday's raids, which took place in several towns across the country. More raids were planned in the coming days, she said.
In the Red Sea tourist town of Eilat, Channel 10 TV showed images of migrants quietly piling suitcases and belonging in the back of a police truck before being driven away.
The crackdown came in the wake of a landmark court decision last week that cleared the way for the expulsion of 4,500 migrants. The order applies only to people who come from nations that have friendly relations with Israel, mostly from the newly established state of South Sudan.
These people, however, represent only a small percentage of the estimated 60,000 Africans now in Israel. Some claim asylum, while others are simply looking for work in a relatively prosperous country.
Because many are from Sudan, an enemy of Israel, and Eritrea, a country with a flawed human rights record, the line between refugees and economic migrants is blurred. Therefore, Israel has quietly allowed most migrants from those two countries to stay without processing their asylum applications.
The continued arrival of the Africans, and the legal uncertainty, have spurred action. Israel is racing to build a fence along its Egyptian border to halt the influx, and it has begun work on a huge detention centre in its southern desert. The government has begun imposing penalties on businesses that employ unauthorized immigrants, and this week, it announced that in addition to the detention centre, it plans to build a tent city to hold 20,000 new arrivals.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who oversees immigration policy, told Army Radio that the first group of South Sudanese, about 100 people, will be sent home next week.
"We, the Jewish people, are sensitive to every refugee. But refugees only," he said. "We cannot allow ourselves to flood the country with infiltrators and migrants."
The wave of migration has set off a heated debate in Israel. Many here believe that Israel, founded as a refuge for survivors of the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, has a special responsibility to help those in need.
Others say Israel is under threat. A series of rapes and other crimes blamed on migrants has fueled an angry backlash among Israelis.
The government has offered cash incentives to those who leave voluntarily and says others will be expelled by force.
"It's clear to everyone that we either return everybody home or give up on the Zionist dream. There is no other option," Yishai said, urging illegal migrants to turn themselves in and take the incentives to go home.
Many of the migrants have concentrated in impoverished neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv — an area with so many migrants that Israelis have dubbed it "little Africa." After several years in the country, many of the migrants have learned Hebrew, found jobs and are sending their children to Israeli schools.
A South Sudanese woman who identified herself as Victoria, speaking Hebrew, told Israel TV that she would respect the order.
"We want to go back now. We don't want any trouble," she said.