Flights for stranded Israelis delayed

Georgia yet to give authorization for planes to take off; Jewish Agency receives dozens of aliya requests.

russian tank cool 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
russian tank cool 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Two special flights scheduled to leave Georgia on Monday have been delayed, leaving some 260 Israelis stranded in the war-torn region. The flights were called off by the airline's insurance company. A flight back to Israel is tentatively scheduled for Friday, but due to dangerous flying conditions, Arkia Israel Airlines will most likely not be able to fly, Arkia director-general Avi Nakash told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "Until the situation changes, meaning there is definite cease-fire and no hostilities, we cannot fly there," he said. "We are planning on getting [the Israelis] back somehow. We don't yet have a definite plan, but we are working on it." As the fighting which began last week continued, with bombs falling in the vicinity of the Tbilisi International Airport on Sunday, all flights to and from Georgia were canceled. "The fighting took everyone by surprise and we were booked solid until the end of December," Nakash said. "But unfortunately, we can't fly for the time being." If Arkia's insurance company continues to prohibit the flights from taking off, the company plans to bus passengers to Turkey in a 10-hour ride on Friday, from where they will be able fly to Tel Aviv. Nakash said that while most governments had taken steps to evacuate their citizens from Georgia, the same could not be said of Israel. "The government has not made any effort to get [Israelis] out," he stated. However, Eddie Shapira, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman for the Russian media, said the ministry was working to get the Israelis still in Georgia out, either by air or by land. He told Israel Radio that most of the Israelis were in Tbilisi and none of them were in the conflict zones. One of the stranded Israelis, Moshe Dahan, told Israel Radio that refugees who had fled the conflict zone had tried to get into his hotel. Meir Zorovsky, touring Georgia with a group, insisted that although the fighting had yet to reach the capital, the atmosphere among the group was very bad. "All roads to the north are blocked - we are stuck here," he told Walla News. Zorovsky's wife, Orly, said that anxiety had kept her up all night. "The sirens just don't stop. Every few minutes, someone from the group gets a worried phone call from home. We just want to go back to Israel and ease the tension felt by our loved ones," she said. According to the group's guide, as long as the Foreign Ministry only issued a general warning and not an immediate call to Israeli citizens to leave the region, there was no reason to return. On Sunday, Russian bombing prompted the Jewish Agency to evacuate 200 Jewish residents of Gori to Tbilisi. Another bomb fell on Gori early Monday morning, where three or four Jewish families had remained to secure their homes, according to Alex Katz, director of the Jewish Agency department that deals with the Former Soviet Union. "At the moment it is quiet," he said. "But the situation is very sensitive." On Monday, Katz traveled to Gori with Bashu Mansharov, the head of the local Jewish community, in order to meet with the families that had stayed in the area and offer them support and an option of evacuation. "The families in Gori stayed there because their lives are there, their homes are there, and they want to stay," Mansharov said. "[The Jewish people] have faith, but they are scared." Amidst all this, a flight arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport Sunday night carrying eight new immigrants from Georgia, who had arranged to make aliya before the outbreak of violence. Katz told the Post that the agency had received dozens of aliya requests from Georgian Jews, some from Gori, where about 200 Jews live, and others from Tblisi, where 90 percent of the country's estimated 9,000 to 12,000 Jews reside. "I am going to stay here for as long as it takes to help the Jewish community. That's our job, to support Jewish communities around the world and assist them in making aliya," Katz said in a phone interview as he was on his way back to Tbilisi from Gori. He also said that a large Russian force was hunkered down about 15 kilometers from Gori. "No one is sure if the Russians will come into Gori, but people are certainly wary of it," Katz said. "At this point, there have been bombings throughout Gori, but no ground assault. I didn't see a lot of shelters there, but many houses are protected, some people are using their basements and wine cellars as bomb shelters." Meanwhile, Jewish Agency hotlines set up on Saturday continued to ring as people from Georgia and Israel passed on information about conditions, family members and Israeli tourists in Georgia. The numbers are: Israel: (02) 620-2202; Georgia: +995-32-98-7091. Abe Selig and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.