LOD, Israel (Feb. 16)
The familiar scene at Ben-Gurion Airport, where bedraggled immigrants stream off an airplane with Israeli flags waving in the background, was repeated with an unusual twist Tuesday: Instead of Jewish immigrants from Russia, the newcomers were Moslem refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The 84 Moslem refugees are to stay in Israel temporarily until the fighting subsides in Bosnia and they are able to return home.
“I hope the Israelis will accept us,” said one of the refugees, 22-year-old Asmir Mecic. “I think they will, because they know what we have been going through. During World War II they lost everything. Just like us.”
Although the refugees were originally supposed to be hosted by two Israeli Arab villages, Arab leaders withdrew support for the plan at the last moment on Sunday and denounced the airlift as a “publicity stunt.”
Despite the controversy, the Israeli government decided to go ahead with the humanitarian operation and gave the refugees a red-carpet welcome.
More than 50 journalists and photographers, as well as government officials, greeted the refugees as they disembarked from a jet marked, appropriately enough, “Air Liberte.”
The plane, which flew from the Croatian capital of Zagreb, was chartered by the European Jewish Congress and the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France.
Carrying their most precious possessions — a few bags and several sleepy children — on their shoulders, the refugees were taken to the airport’s absorption hall, where Jewish immigrants are usually processed.
The exhausted refugees, at times overwhelmed by the questions and camera flashes, were then greeted by Minister of the Environment Yossi Sarid, who spearheaded the airlift.
GOVERNMENT SCRAMBLES FOR HOUSING
While the absence of a single representative of the Israeli Arab community was somewhat embarrassing to the government, Yosef Hadass, director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he was unperturbed by the opposition.
“Though it’s a shame the leaders are not here, a few told me privately that they now regret their decision,” he said. “I hope some compromise can be worked out.”
An Israeli Arab committee comprised of community leaders withdrew its longstanding support for an airlift on Sunday.
“We have reached the conclusion that this is an operation aimed at improving Israel’s image, which has been tarnished by the Palestinian deportations,” committee member Ahmed Tibi explained.
The Arab leaders said they would not absorb the refugees into their villages, as they had promised, leaving the government scrambling to find a place to house the newcomers.
At the last minute, the government leased a field school from the Society for the Protection of Nature, where the refugees will remain if the Arab leaders do not reverse their decision.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Israeli Arab committee said that it would convene later this week to discuss the issue further.
Relieved to be in a safe place, the refugees remained oblivious to the controversy.
Mecic explained that he was “simply grateful to be here.”
Asked whether he knew anything about Israel, he admitted, “I know that there are problems between the Palestinians and the Jews, but I understand that things are better now than they were a few months ago.”