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Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Monday, 22 February 2010

Israel's immigrant children fight deportation

Noah Mae plays with friends
Noah Mae (second from left) dreams in Hebrew, but does not know the Philippine language Tagalog

By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jerusalem

Five little girls giggle and scream with delight as they chase each other round the playground, their pigtails flying as they run.

The girls' parents come from the Philippines, Thailand and Sudan but they sing, shout and chat together in Hebrew.

Like her friends, bright-eyed, eight-year-old Noah Mae was born in Israel. This is her home, she says.

I've come to meet her at a community centre run by the Israeli Scouts movement in southern Tel Aviv.

She proudly shows me her schoolbook, where she got top marks for her Hebrew writing and spelling.

Here parents might come from the Philippines but she feels truly Israeli. Hebrew is the language she dreams in, she tells me.

Pressure groups

But Israel's government now wants Noah Mae to leave. Here it's illegal for migrant workers to have children.

Hundreds of families face expulsion from Israel this summer. More than 1,000 children, including Noah Mae, expect to be deported at the end of their school year.

Noah Mae with mother Emily
'Mama,' she said to me, 'I am Israeli. I was born here and I will stay here.'
Emily Cabradilla
Mother of Noah Mae

Noah May's mother, Emily Cabradilla, together with a number of Israeli pressure groups, is trying to fight the government's plan to include the children in a crackdown on illegal immigrants.

She said it broke her heart when she heard the news. "Noah Mae has never been to the Philippines. How can I tell her she's going home? She hardly speaks a word of Tagalog.

"She says she won't leave Israel. 'Mama,' she said to me, 'I am Israeli. I was born here and I will stay here.'"

But laws in Israel make it extremely hard for people to stay, to become citizens, if they are not Jewish.

Right from its birth, Israel called itself the Jewish State. This is a country built for and built by immigrants from all over the world but with a key common factor - a Jewish heritage.

According to Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, controlling immigration is largely about preserving Israel's Jewish character.

His government intends to deport all illegal immigrants by 2013 and also to drastically reduce the number of legal foreign workers in Israel.

In the face of some public opposition to the government's policy, Israel's Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Eli Yishai, accused Israelis of being hypocritical and sanctimonious. "Don't they [the foreign workers] threaten the Zionist project of the State of Israel?" he asked.

Mr Yishai caused an outcry in the autumn when he accused migrant workers of bringing with them "a profusion of diseases: hepatitis, measles, tuberculosis, Aids and drug (addiction)".

And the plan to deport the children proved so controversial the government has delayed it from last summer until the end of the 2010 school year.

'Like a stranger'

A new immigration police force - the Oz Unit - now patrols Israel's streets as part of the government crackdown. We accompanied a team of policemen around the old central bus station in southern Tel Aviv.

The teeming, narrow pedestrian alleys here reveal a social world rarely seen in Israel. Here Chinese men sell cigarettes and children's clothes, Sudanese refugees hawk CDs and DVDs while Philippine and Thai women share a joke on a street corner.

Israel increased the number of work permits it issued to South East Asian workers in particular after the start of the second Palestinian uprising.

Israeli police check immigrant ID cards in Tel Aviv
Many Tel Aviv migrant workers look uncomfortable as the police approach

They've taken the place of Palestinian workers; Israel's government severely restricts their permits and presence in Israel for security reasons, it says.

Everyone here looks uncomfortable as the police approach.

Commander Igal Ben Ami says he doesn't enjoy deporting people who have made friends and have a life here but he says he has to follow orders.

"Look around this part of town," he says, listing to me dozens of nationalities who hang out here, especially at night.

"This is an Israeli street, a Jewish street, but I feel the stranger here."

Mr Netanyahu says Israel will always open its doors to refugees from war-stricken countries but will not let thousands of foreign workers "flood the country".

History of persecution

While his government speaks of the need to expel non-Jewish migrant workers and their children born here, it sponsors organisations that encourage Jewish people from all over the world to move to Israel.

Mark Rosenberg,Nefesh B'Nefesh
Especially in the shadow of the Holocaust, many Jews chose to come and live here
Mark Rosenberg
Nefesh B'Nefesh

Israel insists this has nothing at all to do with racism. Most here feel having a Jewish state is important considering the Jewish people's long history of persecution.

Mark Rosenberg works for Nefesh B'Nefesh, a group that encourages Jews to move to Israel.

He explains that Israel offers citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent, because under the Nazis anyone with a Jewish grandparent was eligible to be murdered in the gas chambers.

"Especially in the shadow of the Holocaust, many Jews chose to come and live here - 85% of the country is Jewish. The idea is that this nation is a homeland where Jews can be free."

But the children of foreign workers in Israel say they know no other home. Israeli governments used to turn a blind eye but no longer.

'Punished'

Young Israeli campaigner Rotem Ilan heads the Children of Israel organisation.

She says children like Noah Mae are being punished for a crime they didn't commit.

The fact that they were born in Israel is Israel's responsibility, she insists.

It allowed the children's parents to come here.

Her organisation is one of a number of NGOs organising protests against the children's deportation.

"For 20 years Israeli governments have turned a blind eye to these children. They are now part of the fabric of this country. They go to school here. They celebrate the same holidays as us. If there is something we [Jews] have learned from our history is that you must not, you cannot deport children."

Israel's government did not respond to our requests for an interview.

Noah Mae and her friends hope politicians may yet change their minds and let them stay.

And how will she feel if they don't?

"Bad," she said sadly. "I love Israel."



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