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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel approved a plan on Sunday to hold and deport thousands of illegal migrant workers whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a "threat to the character of the country".
In remarks to the cabinet, Netanyahu said thousands of migrants who have entered Israel mainly through Egypt in past years would be housed at a special holding facility, due to built in Israel's southern Negev desert.
"We must stop the mass entry of illegal migrant workers because of the very serious threat to the character and future to the state of Israel," he said, adding Israelis who gave them work would face severe fines to make their employment unviable.
Established as a Jewish state in 1948, Israel welcomes Jewish newcomers, most of whom receive automatic citizenship, but policies toward non-Jewish migrants are more restrictive.
The cabinet approved the plan under which the state would control the migrants' movement until they are deported.
Netanyahu said however that migrants fleeing persecution would be allowed to stay.
"We do not intend to stop refugees fleeing for their lives, we allow them in and will continue to do so," he said.
Israeli officials have insisted on setting up the camp despite sensitivities over comparisons with Nazi concentration camps where Jews were held and killed.
"We must find a humane solution to look after the workers who will be lose their jobs and we must therefore provide shelter, food and health services until they are deported," Netanyahu added.
Last week Israel began work to construct a barrier to seal off part of the border with Egypt's Sinai desert from where many of the migrants enter the Jewish state.
The project that includes both a physical barrier and electronic surveillance to secure 140 km (88 miles) of the 250 km border should take over a year to complete at a cost of 1.35 billion shekels (about $370 million), the Defence Ministry said.
Israeli officials have yet to say how many migrants would be sent to the facility, expected to be built at or near the site of a former prison camp for Palestinians deep in the desert.
The plan is to have an "open" holding centre, officials said, but as it would be in a largely uninhabited desert area far from the nearest town it was not clear how they could travel to and from the camp, or how often.
Eyal Gabai, director-general of Netanyahu's office, said last week that over 35,000 migrants had entered Israel in the past few years and that in 2011 Israel could expect to see up to 20,000 migrants enter illegally.
Israel has brought in tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews including many rescued from famine in the early 1980s.
Israel has also permitted the limited employment of tens of thousands of foreigners in recent years in such fields as farming, construction and care for the elderly and infirm.
Legislation restricting their numbers provoked strike action by farmers last week. They complain that without Asian helpers, mainly from Thailand, their costs will become prohibitive.