Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the state attorney's office to answer claims that tough legislation enabling illegal migrants to be detained without trial for up to three years is unlawful.
A court statement said Chief Justice Asher Grunis gave the government until April 30 to answer a petition by rights groups which say that interning asylum-seekers at risk in their home countries breaches Israeli and international law.
The amendment to a 1954 law, originally intended to deal with Arab militants trying to infiltrate the Jewish state, was passed by Israel's parliament last January, as part of efforts to curb the flow of people sneaking across its desert border with Egypt, the majority of them economic migrants from Africa.
"Approximately 2,000 people who entered the country over the last few months are currently being detained under the law, including dozens of children," said a statement Tuesday from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), one of the six petitioners.
"The vast majority of the detainees are citizens of Eritrea and Sudan, whose citizens, according to the government’s own directives, cannot be deported due to the threat to their lives.
"The petition claims that both Israeli and international law prohibits the detention of immigrants if it is not for the purpose of deporting them," ACRI said.
In 2012, Israel launched a crackdown on what it said were 60,000 illegal immigrants from Africa, rounding up and deporting 3,920 by the end of the year, while building a hi-tech fence along the border with Egypt.
The government said that while 2,295 people crossed the border illegally in January 2012, only 36 got across in the first part of December.
Rising tensions over the growing number of illegal immigrants exploded into violence in May when a protest in south Tel Aviv turned ugly, with demonstrators smashing African shops and property, chanting "Blacks out!"