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After months of delay, Israel speeds up aliyah of Kwara Jews

NEW YORK, June 15 (JTA) — Ariel Sharon was late for his appearance before the Zionist General Council meeting in Jerusalem this week. When Israel’s foreign minister arrived to the meeting on Tuesday, he explained that he had just come from a meeting with numerous government officials to discuss the immigration and absorption of the remaining Kwara Jews from Ethiopia. This week the Israeli government sprang into action on the question of Kwara Jews after a year of promises to expedite their aliyah, or immigration, to Israel. On Monday, outgoing Premier Benjamin Netanyahu directed his government to move more quickly in bringing the Kwara Jews to Israel. Although Israel recognizes their Judaism, the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 Jews from the Kwara region in northern Ethiopia had been omitted from official rosters of Ethiopians eligible to emigrate during the early 1990s. Israel closed down its Ethiopian operations last year, and many of the remaining Kwara Jews — along with 15,000 or more Falash Mura, whose Jewishness Israel questions — gathered near the Israeli compound in the Ethiopian town of Gondar in the hopes of being granted permission to make aliyah. They had been cared for by humanitarian relief workers, but recently more Kwara Jews have relocated from their villages to the compound in Gondar, where living conditions are dismal. In a June 9 letter to Netanyahu, Sallai Meridor, the incoming chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel — which is responsible for the absorption of Jews in Israel — cited the “dire circumstances” in appealing for an accelerated process of determining which of the emigrant hopefuls could make aliyah. As of April, fewer than 100 Kwara Jews had been brought to Israel, despite promises from Israel’s absorption minister in February to begin bringing 200 or more per month. Israel’s interior minister has now reportedly ordered his staff to process the immigrants at the rate of 1,000 per month. According to several sources, the current goal is to bring all of the Kwara Jews who wish to make aliyah to Israel in three to four months. Meanwhile, several Israeli ministries have agreed to send medical aid and food from Israel to the compound in Gondar and to make the logistical and financial preparations necessary to absorb the group. A spokesman for the Jewish Agency said the applications of 1,000 Kwara Jews have already been processed and that they are currently being moved from Gondar to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. From there, they will begin to fly to Israel as early as next week, he said. Others monitoring the situation more conservatively look to the next two to four weeks before flights begin. In his remarks Tuesday, Sharon said there would not be an airlift of Kwara Jews, as there had been for Ethiopian Jews in previous evacuations to Israel. Earlier this month, Sharon had proposed such an airlift. But Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Ariel Kerem, said Monday that a publicized airlift could provoke the Ethiopian government, which considers the Jews of Kwara to be Ethiopian citizens, according to a report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. The Jewish Agency spokesman said that one sign of things to come is the agency’s preparations to accommodate 2,000 Kwara Jews in absorption centers around the country — in addition to the center already opened in Mevasseret Zion, which has space for 1,000 people. Those pressing for movement on the issue hailed the latest developments. “Everything is in place,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, whose Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews donated $500,000 to fund additional Israeli staff to process the Kwara Jews’ applications. “There is the government decree to bring them. There has been enough pressure on the Interior Ministry to facilitate the process, and the funds for their staff are available,” Eckstein said by telephone, adding that his group had pledged another $1.5 million to fund the Kwara Jews’ transportation and to provide for some of their basic needs once they arrive in Israel.