Israel finishes bulk of work on fence along border with Egypt
Barrier with Egypt designed to curb influx of illegal migrants from Africa
Two years after construction began, Israel has finished the bulk of the work on a fence along its border with Egypt.
Closing off the rambling, 225-kilometre desert border would prevent the "unfettered flow of illegal infiltrators, the smuggling of drugs and weapons", said the Ministry of Defence, which oversaw the US$400 million engineering challenge.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised successful efforts to curb the illegal entry of migrants from Africa, reduced from more than 2,000 a month last January to fewer than 40 last month.
Stopping the migrants is one aim of the fence, which is up to six metres high and includes multiple layers of barbed wire, communications equipment, a patrol road and asphalt track. It is similar to portions of the barrier that seals off the occupied West Bank from Israel, though that includes sections of concrete wall.
Early last year, Netanyahu said Israel would build a similar fence along the desert border with Jordan.
The government claims that all African migrants entering Israel illegally in recent months have been placed in detention facilities before reaching Israeli cities, where an estimated 60,000 migrants and asylum seekers - widely called "infiltrators" - already live. "Just as we have stopped infiltration into Israeli cities, so too we shall succeed in the next mission, repatriating the tens of thousands of infiltrators to their countries of origin," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu recently appointed Hagai Hadas, a former Mossad official, to oversee repatriation efforts.
The influx of African migrants, most of whom have slipped across the Egyptian border, has became a divisive social and political issue, as Israelis from already disadvantaged areas express resentment over their neighbourhoods being taken over by foreigners and politicians warn of a demographic threat.
The volatile situation has boiled over on several occasions in recent years, with demonstrations calling for the deportation of the Africans and extremists committing hate crimes, including firebombings at migrants' houses last spring.
In recent days, tension and emotions have again run high in the neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv after the arrest of a young man from Eritrea suspected of raping an 83-year-old woman. Several hundred residents rallied against the Africans, encouraged by conservative political activists.
Israel holds national elections in three weeks and two political parties have made it a key issue in their campaign.