The streets of Addis Ababa turned into a scene straight out of the intifada Wednesday, according to an Israeli eyewitness of the deadly rioting that has rocked the Ethiopian capital for two straight days.
"Most of the main junctions were blocked. There were a lot of stones and tires on fire. I saw at least seven or eight public transit buses burned out. They looked like after a terror attack. And there were a lot of soldiers, a lot of police and two or three tanks," Ori Konforti told The Jerusalem Post from Addis Ababa. "It looked like the intifada."
Konforti stressed that "there is no link between the political events in Addis Ababa and the Falash Mura story," but he said the turmoil could set back the process of bringing the Falash Mura to Israel.
Konforti, who heads the Jewish Agency's delegation in Ethiopia, took in the scenes of destruction when he left his office in the Israeli embassy early in the afternoon after schools asked that children be picked up and kept safe at home. Most embassy staff followed suit, though officially the embassy wasn't shut. The Foreign Ministry said it was monitoring the situation carefully but currently had no plans to evacuate personnel.
Konforti said that he had no trouble reaching his home despite the blockaded intersections, because the normally congested streets were cleared off all traffic as public transportation shut down and people sought refuge indoors. By nightfall the city was "quite quiet," he told the Post, "but we don't know exactly what will be tomorrow."
Police killed at least 23 people and wounded dozens more in the protests against Ethiopia's disputed parliamentary elections, hospital doctors and health workers said. As far as Konforti knew, no Ethiopian Jews or Falash Mura were hurt in the violence.
The main clashes occurred in the central market and piazza, which are relatively far from the embassy and Falash Mura compound. Around 15-20,000 Falash Mura - or Ethiopian descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity and have since returned to Judaism - in Ethiopia are waiting to immigrate to Israel. Some 4,000-6,000 of them currently reside in the capital.
An Israeli delegation is set to arrive next week to finalize arrangements with the current government to double the rate of immigration from the current 300 per month. That trip could be jeopardized if the unrest continues. And while the plane to Israel departed as usual Tuesday night with 70 new immigrants aboard, takeoffs could be affected should roads and offices be closed, Konforti said. He added, though, that he did not expect long-term problems.
Yohannes Yenehun, however, is very worried about the safety of Jews in his native Ethiopia and their ability to come to Israel now.
"The Jewish people in Addis Ababa are hoping to come to the Holy Land. They are praying now," said 22-year-old Yenehun, who left his father behind when he made aliya three months ago. "It is clear that now, since they live in Addis Ababa, which is in violence, they will be affected by the problems there because they can't move, they can't get food. If they come out of their homes they could be shot."
Yenehun was himself a member of a student group allied with the opposition Coalition for Ethiopian Democracy Party before he came to Israel. He had planned to finish his studies and come to Israel in four of five years, but then scores of his fellow activists were arrested this summer.
"I was afraid of the situation there," he said. "The situation made me come here now."
Neither Yenehun nor Konforti said they were surprised by the eruption of violence, and warned that it could spread to other cities, including Gondar, where most of the Falash Mura live.
Though Yenehun agreed with Konforti's estimation that the Falash Mura would not be in any special danger, he said that they supported the opposition more than the current government because the opposition had promised to allow dual citizenship for those who make aliya. Currently, they must forfeit their Ethiopian citizenship when they move to Israel.
Yenehun also worried that the Ethiopian political climate might change to the detriment of the Falash Mura, but Konforti said he expected no great shift.
"This is the main point we have in common," Konforti said of the two governments. "Both the Israeli and Ethiopians want to put this story [of the Falash Mura] to an end." He said that delays in implementing the government's decision to double the immigration rate of Falash Mura, which should have gone into effect in June, were due to "legal, technical things. We are absolutely in the 90th minute."
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev said that Israel had good relations with Ethiopia, and was staying out of its political process.
He described the embassy as "relaxed" Wednesday, and noted that the only instructions issued to embassy employees were to "act a bit more carefully."
The ministry issued a statement saying that it was following the situation closely, and that at this time there were no plans to evacuate embassy personnel.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrived in Israel in June 2004 for a three-day visit that signaled a strengthening of ties between the two countries. That visit, the first by an Ethiopian prime minister since Israel and Ethiopia established diplomatic ties in 1989, followed a visit by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to Ethiopia in January 2004.
Information Minister Berhan Hailu said the figures of civilian deaths in the clashes were exaggerated, and counted 11 civilians and one police officer killed, and 54 officers and 28 civilians injured.
He said the government was "sorry and sad" for the violence, but he blamed it on the main opposition party. He said it was demonstrators who had burned several buses and destroyed four houses, but that calm was being restored to the city of 3 million people.
The violence followed clashes Tuesday between protesters and police that killed eight people and wounded 43 others. Those renewed clashes erupted after 30 taxi drivers were arrested Monday for participating in demonstrations against the May 15 parliamentary elections - a vote seen as a test of Meles's commitment to reform.
The elections gave Meles's Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front control of nearly two-thirds of parliament. Opposition parties say the vote and counting were marred by fraud, intimidation and violence, and accuse the ruling party of rigging the elections.
Herb Keinon and AP contributed to this report.