JERUSALEM (Mar. 24)
A planeload of 220 Ethiopian Jews landed in Israel on Friday, raising hope here that the unexplained interruption of emigration from that country in recent weeks has ended.
The olim were the first to arrive from Ethiopia since the beginning of the month. Jewish Agency officials expect another 600 to arrive before Passover, which begins this Friday evening.
The immigrants landed at 9 a.m. local time, having left Addis Ababa the previous day on a regularly scheduled Ethiopian flight to Rome. They transferred there to an El Al flight to Tel Aviv.
The latest arrivals included many children and elderly people decked out in their traditional white garb.
There were emotional reunions at the Ben-Gurion Airport. One passenger, a youth of 17, was reunited with his parents whom he had not seen for 10 years.
The immigrants were taken to an absorption center in Acre. Uri Gordon, head of the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department, said several new centers would open in the next few months to accommodate Ethiopian olim.
In Washington, the State Department called the resumption of Ethiopian Jewish emigration a “positive development.”
“We call upon the Ethiopian government to make it possible for all Ethiopian Jews who wish to emigrate to do so without further delay,” Richard Boucher, the department’s deputy spokes-man, said Friday.
A mystery still surrounds the abrupt halt of Ethiopian aliyah around March 1 after weekly flights had brought about 2,000 Jews from Addis Ababa since the beginning of the year.
ISRAEL’S BROKEN ‘PROMISES’ CITED
The Ethiopian government is currently facing stiff military opposition from rebels forces seeking to wrest control of the country, and it was rumored the flights were originally halted as a way to pressure Israel into supplying Ethiopia with much-needed weapons and fuel. This was dismissed by both Israeli and Ethiopian officials.
Ethiopian officials insist that the regime of Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam regards Jewish emigration as a purely humanitarian undertaking to reunite families.
Israeli officials accepted the official Ethiopian explanation that “technical difficulties” were responsible for a temporary suspension of flights, but they did not elaborate.
An aide to Mengistu reiterated that overriding humanitarian considerations prevail. But in an Israeli army radio interview over the weekend, he accused Israel of reneging on certain “promises,” which he did not specify.
Kassa Kabede, a senior aide to Mengistu who studied in Israel and speaks Hebrew, referred to “promises which Israel made in the past and has not honored.”
He added, however, “We carry out the family reunion program on a purely humanitarian bests without any connection to anything else.
The position of the government of Ethiopia is that this will continue even if you (Israel) do not carry out your promises.”
Kabede said reports that his government was trying to extract weapons from Israel were in themselves blackmail. He said he hopes “all this blackmail stops.”
He blamed the interruption of aliyah on Jewish Agency officials, who he said had not filed the requisite forms properly. They filled out the forms in Addis Ababa indiscriminately without interviewing family members in Israel, he claimed.
Mengistu’s aide flatly denied reports that the government has been drafting young Jews waiting to emigrate.
“We are a country of 50 million people, and we do not need these people for the army,” he said. “We understand their desire to go to Israel and be reunited with their families.” The estimated number of Jews remaining in Ethiopia ranges from 15,000 to over 18,000.
(JTA staff writer Aliza Marcus in New York contributed to this report.)