Avital: Urgent airlift needed due to Somali conflict

Fighting between Ethiopians and Somalis may pose risk for Falash Mura and Ethiopian Jews.

somalia violence 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
somalia violence 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Worried the current conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia could directly affect Ethiopian immigration to Israel, the Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs is to meet Monday to discuss growing concern over the Falash Mura and Ethiopian Jews still in Ethiopia, who could face problems getting here if the fighting intensifies. "[Labor MK Colette] Avital, a member of the committee, has called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim to bring all waiting and eligible Ethiopians to Israel," said a spokesman for Avital. "Due to the conflict, there is an urgent need to bring in all of those olim who were supposed to be here under former prime minister Ariel Sharon's plan to complete [Ethiopian] immigration by 2007," he said, adding that Israel didn't have "specific numbers or times, but they will come in groups. It could be 300 or it could be 1,000." Avital's spokesman explained that some standard aliya procedures might be circumvented because of the perceived urgency of the situation. However, even a possible crisis has not eradicated concern over an influx of Ethiopians into Israel. Some Jewish groups, as well as Ethiopian government organizations, do not favor a mass exodus. While current government policy admits some 300 Ethiopians into Israel a month, advocacy groups have been calling for Jewish aid services to be extended to an additional 8,000. "The fact that there is a lobby to open the issue of bringing in more people, whether or not they are Jewish, could add to the already sensitive issue within the Ethiopian community, which is already divided between those who kept their Jewish faith back home and faced persecution and those who have converted to Judaism once they arrived in Israel," a source familiar with the situation told The Jerusalem Post. Of the 110,000 Ethiopians in Israel, 25,000 to 35,000 are Falash Mura (Ethiopians who converted to Christianity under duress). There has to be a distinction between humanitarian repatriation and extending Israeli citizenship to those who claim it as their birthright, the source argued. This was the issue when Menachem Begin brought in Ethiopians with the intention of repatriation, the source disclosed. "The Jewish Agency implements government policy on who is eligible [to make aliya]," said Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz. "[Ethiopians] come in under the Law of Entry, and the Jewish Agency is mandated to bring them. We're continuing business as usual." Despite Avital's calls to act swiftly, the view that the current Ethiopian-Somali situation presents a crisis for Ethiopians is not shared by everyone. "Is the conflict dangerous for Ethiopian Jews? No," said Isaac Kfir, a Horn of Africa expert at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. According to Kfir, the Union of Islamic Courts, Somalia's Islamist insurgency movement, was as yet not unified, with many operatives fleeing into the Arabian Peninsula or the Sudan. He added that the conflict appeared to be shifting south into Kenya and away from Ethiopia. As far as Monday's scheduled Knesset committee meeting on the question, Kfir added that "the Knesset might use [the conflict] as an excuse to bring in more Ethiopian Jews, which would be great, but it is unlikely that the Ethiopian Jews face any immediate dangers."