Some 100 Ethiopian immigrants protested in the capital on Monday against the looming evacuation of their absorption center in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion.
The scheduled evacuation, set to take place is less than two months, is the result of a decision by the owner of the land, the Jewish Agency Employees’ Pension Fund, to sell it to private individuals. Three years ago, it was revealed that the agency had transferred the land to its pension fund in place of money that it owed.
The concerned parties reached an agreement at court that gave the tenants three years to evacuate.
Those three years are almost up, but the lawyer who represents the absorption center tenants, Nadav Haetzni, has appealed to the court for another three-year extension, arguing that promises to provide the tenants with permanent housing solutions have, for the most part, not been fulfilled.
The agency has offered to move the elderly to other absorption centers in cities such as Beersheba and Kiryat Gat, but they object to being uprooted from where they have built their lives and where their families reside.
“They need to have state-funded apartments,” Haetzni said.
On Monday, protesters marched from the High Court of Justice to the Finance Ministry and ended at Wohl Rose Park, opposite the Knesset.
They waved banners with slogans such as: “We won’t leave without a solution,” “You only want us for the army and for elections, apart from that we’re not equal?” and “Stop the racism, stop the discrimination.”
“For years they have been lying to us brazenly,” campaign leader Galagay Tepra said in a statement.
“All the promises that were made in the agreement have not been implemented, and now we are being expelled from the only place that is considered our home. The biggest chutzpa is that the Absorption Ministry is not answering us. Nobody is bothering to answer us. We will not agree to be second-class citizens. We will fight until the end.”
According to the Immigration Absorption Ministry, it acted in accordance with the 2014 agreement to operate the absorption center for a period of three years, to stop accepting new immigrants to the center and to continue offering permanent housing solutions to those tenants who are eligible.
The ministry said in a statement that it “does not wish to continue to operate it for a long period of time unnecessarily. This is because, by its very nature, the absorption center is a place for temporary housing for those living there.” The ministry noted that at the end of the three-year period, two-thirds of the absorption center will be unoccupied.
“It is important to emphasize that the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption cares for the entire eligible immigrant population, and there will be no situation where eligible immigrants will be thrown into the street. The office and the Jewish Agency have alternative solutions for the remaining immigrants at the absorption center,” the statement said.
But the tenants say the majority of them have not been offered permanent solutions, and Haetzni argues that there is no urgency to evacuate the building since the process of selling the property was frozen when he went to court over the Jewish Agency’s handling of the land, accusing it of corruption.
Jewish Agency spokesperson Yigal Palmor told the Post that thus far “the court has found no evidence of criminal or suspicious handling of the sale, but we’ll wait until the verdict.” The Finance Ministry, he added, had forced the pension fund to sell some of its real estate, as it had surpassed its quota.
Responding to Haetzni’s argument, he opined that: “Three years from now, people will still stay there and say the same.” He added that all Ethiopian olim receive the same benefits, and no exception should be made for the Mevaseret Zion tenants.
“There’s no reason why the state should tell them or find them where to live,” he said of those who are not entitled to social housing, as the elderly and single parents from low-income households are.
But the tenants say that they can’t make ends meet and are in need of support from the state.
“This is a social circle that needs more assistance. They [the Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency] need to show more flexibility,” Haetzni said. “They need some kind of plan to enable them [absorption center tenants] to stand on their own two feet.”
Tepra, 43, has been at the absorption center for 13 years. He works as a cleaner, and told the Post that, like many of his friends, the minimum wage he earns is not enough to live on.
Worku Abie, 26, works for the Israel Post. With his salary, he also needs to support his wife, who is currently studying education. He has lived at the absorption center for seven years. “Believe me, if I had the means to rent my own place, I would have done it years ago,” he said.
According to the Jewish Agency, there were 644 people living in the center in May and by August, that number will reach 455, after the others have moved to other homes. Of those left, the agency says there are 81 families, 147 singles and 20 elderly.
The agency also categorizes 42 residents of the center as trespassers, saying that they entered the absorption center without authorization.
Palmor also shared an internal document with the Post, showing that 14 of those registered as tenants of the absorption center, don’t actually live there, but, rather, live abroad or elsewhere in Israel.
“Maybe they can present one or two people, but we are talking about 650 people,” Haetzni responded, disputing the agency’s numbers. He said he was at the absorption center a day earlier and saw hundreds of people there, half of whom he estimated are elderly.
“Since they [the Jewish Agency] don’t have good answers, they are trying to find ways to paint them in black,” he said.
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