Israel to Absorb 6,000 Ethiopians This Year

By maintaining a steady flow of 100 or more immigrants per week, Israel plans tobring in approximately 6,000 Falas Mora from Ethiopia this year – up from 2,000 a year in 1999 and 2000 – according to Jewish Agency sources.

The accelerated immigration from Ethiopia, which began last September, is the consequence of a trip to that country in the spring of 2000 by then-interior minister Natan Sharansky, who established a new system to check the eligibility of those applying to come to Israel under the Law of Return. Sharansky made it possible for the necessary background checks on the Falas Mora – Jews or the offspring of Jews who converted to Christianity in the past but have returned toJudaism – to be carried out by a special team from the Interior Ministry workingin Ethiopia, rather than in Israel (as had previously been the case).

As a result, between 8,000 and 10,000 of the people who have applied to immigrate have been approved.

Now, however, budgetary constraints have caused a bottleneck in Israel. Deputy Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein recently complained that the Finance Ministryhas failed since December to relay funds to his ministry. A special meeting on the problem was held on May 8 in the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also holds the absorption portfolio, but the issue was not resolved.

The cash crunch is all the more pressing because of the tense social and economic situation in Ethiopia – as evidenced by the recent riots at the University of Addis Ababa. Still, at the insistence of the Ethiopian government,which prefers to have the Israeli immigration program retain a low profile, no plans are afoot to airlift immigrants to Israel, along the lines of Operation Solomon 10 years ago. Even a plan to send a delegation of Israeli journalists toEthiopia to cover the new immigration effort was scrapped on the advice of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Immigrants from Ethiopia are no longer being settled temporarily in mobile-home camps, as they were for much of the 1990s, when immigration from the former Soviet Union was also at an all-time high. All of them are now being sent directly to hotels or hostels, most of which are private enterprises. Ironically, the upside of the Al-Aqsa Intifada – which has delivered a severe blow to the tourist industry in Israel – is the freeing up of ample accommodations for these newcomers. The guest house at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, in the Upper Galilee, for example, has recently been converted into a hostel forEthiopians.

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