Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday highlighted the dangers of an uncontrollable influx of African migrants to the Jewish state while vowing he would act to resolve the issue.
The phenomenon of "illegal work infiltrators" is "very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity," he told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting.
If Israel did not prevent illegal African migrants from entering, the current "60,000 illegal infiltrators could easily grow to 600,000 illegal infiltrators.
"This would inundate the state and, to a considerable degree, cancel out its image as a Jewish and democratic state," Netanyahu said in remarks relayed by his office.
Official figures for 2011 showed there were some 52,487 illegal African immigrants in Israel by the end of the year, but the statistics do not differentiate between refugees and economic migrants.
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Some are asylum seekers fleeing persecution, while others are economic migrants. Many of them from Sudan and Eritrea. Almost all of them sneak across the border from the Egyptian Sinai and end up living in the run-down neighbourhoods around Tel Aviv's central bus station.
The heated debate over the rising tide of African nationals arriving in Israel was highlighted last week by the indictment of a young Israeli on charges of arson after he threw Molotov cocktails at migrant homes in south Tel Aviv.
And on Friday, police said they had arrested three Eritrean nationals in connection with the rape of a 15-year-old girl.
Over the weekend, the issue dominated the Israeli press, with news channels hosting pundits and airing the frustrations of residents of Tel Aviv and the southern Red Sea resort town of Eilat, also a key destination for arrivals from Africa.
Netanyahu said the first need was "to build a physical barrier" referring to the 250-kilometre (155-mile) fence that Israel is constructing along the Egyptian border.
He also vowed to "severely punish" those employing illegal immigrants and that Israel would ensure the "physical removal" of the migrants, without specifying how.
At the start of the year, Netanyahu said he was planning to visit several African capitals to discuss the issue of immigration, but so far no such plans have been made public.