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Interruption in Ethiopian Aliyah Arouses Concern in Israel and U.S.

A sudden interruption in the flow of Ethiopian Jews to Israel has aroused concern among some Israeli and American Jewish officials.

Ethiopian Jews had been arriving here at the relatively high rate of about 1,000 a month since the start of the year. But last week, for the first time since early November, not one planeload of Jews from Ethiopia landed in Israel.

The Jerusalem Post on Monday quoted an unnamed source “closely involved with bringing Ethiopian Jewry to Israel” as saying that Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam halted the departure of Jews as a ploy to get military equipment and gasoline from Israel.

The article said Mengistu needs the war materiel for his army, which has suffered several costly defeats in recent clashes with rebel forces now said to be within 300 miles of the capital.

But the Post also quoted the political counselor at the Ethiopian Embassy here, who denied charges Mengistu was playing his “Jewish card” to extract needed military supplies from Israel.

“We are not selling people, not letting them go in exchange for anything,” he said. “We are letting them go as part of a program of reunification of families, as a humanitarian gesture.”

He said any interruption in the departure of Jews would be only for “technical reasons.”

Foreign Ministry sources in Jerusalem concurred that the delay was only technical and suggested waiting a few days before drawing conclusions. The sources said Addis Ababa is experiencing severe shortages that are making the transportation of Jewish emigres very difficult.

“There is not enough fuel for military vehicles there, let alone planeloads of Jews,” an Israeli official said.

FATE UNCERTAIN IF MENGISTU FALLS

But officials at various Jewish agencies in New York indicated the problem may be serious. One official said Ethiopian immigration authorities had suddenly gotten more exacting about the type of paperwork required to process immigrants.

And in Washington, the Bush administration reportedly was asked by Israeli officials and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to raise the problem with Ethiopian officials.

The flow of olim from Ethiopia has been an on-again-off-again affair since it resumed in March 1990, a few months after Ethiopia reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel it severed during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

About 2,000 arrived between March and May 1990, but the outflow was suddenly halted last summer. It resumed last November, after Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir sent a special envoy, Uri Lubrani, to Addis Ababa.

The Ethiopian government said on Nov. 1 that all Jews were free to leave for Israel and pledged their movement would not be interrupted. That pledge appeared to be holding until the flights to Israel came to a halt last week amid the deteriorating situation in the capital.

Ethiopian Jewish leaders here have expressed fear that Jews still in Ethiopia may be in serious danger if rebel forces overrun Addis Ababa. The rebels blame Israel for arming Mengistu.

Most of the Ethiopian emigres arriving here are reuniting with family members brought to Israel by the clandestine airlift from Sudan in 1984, known as “Operation Moses.”

It was halted by the Sudanese authorities early in 1985 because of leaks to the media. “Operation Moses” brought an estimated 10,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

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