ETHIOPIAN RESIDENTS at Mevaseret Zion 370.
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
The State Comptroller should investigate the closure of the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion and its sale to private developers, Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee chairman Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid) said Monday.
The land on which the largest absorption center in Israel, with over 1,000 residents, stands in the community near Jerusalem, and was bought with donations to the Jewish Agency, which transferred its ownership to its workers’ pension fund.
The Immigration and Absorption Ministry rented the center since 2009 with a lease that ends this year.
The Jewish Agency pension fund is selling the land for a minimum of NIS 295 million to build a 14,000 m. apartment complex.
“We ask the state comptroller to check how this happened,” Razbozov said at a heated committee meeting on the topic. “The immigrants who arrived here are not furniture that can be moved from place to place.”
Razbozov vowed to stop the absorption center’s sale to “real estate sharks” and any harm to immigrants.
MK Nissim Ze’ev (Shas) brought an advertisement from a local Mevaseret Zion newspaper calling for people to buy apartments at the site of the absorption center.
“How can it be that the tender is announced and the apartments for sale are advertised on the same day? Someone cheated,” Ze’ev said.
According to MK Pnina Tamnu-Shata (Yesh Atid), “this trick has no precedent in a country that stands for immigration.”
“I don’t want to believe that someone here is trying to make a buck on the backs of the immigrants,” she said. “I call on the new immigrants: Don’t let them evacuate you! I’m with you, strengthening you.”
MK Mordechai Yogev (Bayit Yehudi) called for the police to investigate, saying the incident is borderline criminal and even worse than the Holyland corruption case, for which former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison.
“If the absorption center closes, we need to be sure that none of the immigrants leave without somewhere to go,” Yogev added.
Mevaseret Zion Immigration & Absorption Committee Member Jeremy Saltan pointed out that “the land was donated by American Jews to the Jewish Agency, not for a real estate project. Now the land has switched hands to their pension fund, they are looking for a minimum of NIS 295m. for the property.
“Something doesn’t smell right, it is possible we are talking about ‘Holyland: The Sequel,’” he said.
Saltan also responded to Immigration and Absorption Ministry representatives who said they do not have open slots in other centers and there is no plan to build new ones.
“What does it say about the State of Israel that we are closing down the largest absorption center in the country? What are we going to do with the impending aliya from the Ukraine and France?” he asked.
Mevaseret Mayor Yoram Shimon said the municipality will do all it can to ensure the immigrants aren’t harmed, but at the same time it has an interest in making a change.
Association for Ethiopian Immigrants director-general Ziva Mekonen-Dagu responded: “The absorption center was always the garbage can of Mevaseret. The municipality never provided it with any services and always alienated it.”
Jewish Agency deputy director-general Ayelet Shiloh Tamir said the immigrants should leave the center gradually to permanent housing, as their right to live in the center runs out.
No representatives of the pension fund attended the meeting, but Tamir said it is an independent body whose members are Jewish Agency retirees, and is responsible for the pensions of its members.
“Donors gave for our activities but also for our salaries,” she said.
Jewish Agency director-general Josh Schwartz said “the good of the immigrants is a priority for us and we will make sure that every immigrant who has the right to live in the absorption center gets alternative housing.”
According to Schwartz, the Jewish Agency owns half of the stock, but does not control the fund as it only holds two of nine seats on the board of directors.
“When is the last time you read the Jewish Agency’s mission statement?” MK Itzik Shmuly (Labor) asked. “You say you care about the workers, but then you ignore the immigrants. You should fight the Finance Ministry, not the immigrants.”