LONDON (Jun. 23)
Israel is dismissing as “nonsense” a report that it traded arms for the release of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia.
The report from London says that the group of 76 Jews from the Kwara region in the north of the country who arrived in Israel on Tuesday came as part of an operation linked to Israel’s delivery of a military package to Ethiopia.
An outline of the arms-for-Jews deal was slated to be published in the June 24 issue of the weekly newsletter Foreign Report, which is published in London.
Avi Granot, the minister of information at the Israeli Embassy in Washington who served as ambassador to Ethiopia from 1995 to 1998, called the report’s allegations “much nonsense.”
He flatly denied that Israel is engaged in any arms deal with Ethiopia, which is in the midst of a war with neighboring Eritrea.
“There is no justification” for the report because in recent years, the Jews have “never been blocked by the government of Ethiopia,” he told JTA.
“The problem with Kwara Jews has never been with the Ethiopian government, but with the slowness of the [Israeli] Ministry of the Interior processing of their requests,” Granot said, adding that additional staff have been assigned to Ethiopia to expedite their emigration.
This month the outgoing Netanyahu government announced that it would step up the immigration of Kwara Jews after months of stalling on the issue. The estimated population of 3,800 Kwara Jews is expected to leave by the end of the year.
Advocates for Ethiopian Jews who have closely followed their progress say they have never heard any indication that Israel had to pay a price for allowing the Jewish emigration.
Some of these activists speculated that it was possible that Israel would engage in military deals with Ethiopia, but they said that a Jews-for-arms trade was “highly unlikely,” given Ethiopia’s policy of free emigration.
Indeed, a huge airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews was brought to Israel in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon. Since 1992, a trickle of Ethiopian Jews and Falash Mura — who claim Jewish heritage, but whose Jewishness is not recognized by the Israeli government — have been leaving for Israel.
The Kwara Jews were left behind during Operation Solomon due to internal leadership struggles. While 3,500 Jews from Upper Kwara managed to make aliyah soon after, the Jews from Lower Kwara remained.
In November 1998, a group of American advocates for Ethiopian Jews met with Israeli government officials to implore them to expedite the processing of immigration applicants who had made their way to the urban centers of Gondar and Addis Ababa. They also called for immediate immigration of the Kwara Jews.
At that time, the Israeli government stated its commitment to bring the Kwara Jews out, a pledge that was reiterated periodically until this month, when Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon called for an airlift and the acting chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sallai Meridor, called upon the Netanyahu government to act.
The idea of an airlift was rejected out of sensitivity to the Ethiopian government, officials say, and now emigrants are being flown to Israel on regular commuter flights to Tel Aviv.
Records kept by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry indicate that the total immigration to Israel from Ethiopia from November 1998 to April 1999 was 444 people, only 158 of whom were Kwara Jews. The rest were Falash Mura approved for immigration.
According to the sources, anywhere between one-quarter and one-half of the recent transport of 76 people were Falash Mura, many of whom have relatives in Israel.
A Jewish Agency official, however, said as far as he knew there were no Falash Mura on the flight.
According to Foreign Report, “It was only in November 1998, after pressure from the Jewish community in the United States, that the Israeli government started to negotiate with Ethiopia about the Kwara Jews.”
The negotiations were reportedly conducted in Ethiopia by senior Israeli Defense Ministry and Mossad officials after the Ethiopian government had initially rejected appeals from Israel and the United States to allow the Kwara Jews to emigrate.
The result of the negotiations, the report said, was an agreement that would allow the Kwara Jews to leave in exchange for an Israeli commitment to deliver ammunition and missiles, as well as to upgrade Ethiopian Air Force MiG fighter planes, many of which are currently grounded.
The report said the deal would have a decisive influence on the outcome of the current border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which has already cost tens of thousands of lives. It is also expected to impact heavily on Israel’s strategic posture in the Middle East.
Eritrea, a strategic ally of Israel in the Horn of Africa, currently allows Israel to maintain a presence on the Dahlak islands in the Red Sea, apparently to serve and supply Israel’s naval fleet, including submarines, in the area.
The fleet is said to be nuclear-armed and to constitute Israel’s second strike force.
Granot countered, however, that “because Israel is a friend of both Ethiopia and Eritrea it has expressed its hope that the conflict will be resolved quickly, but has clarified in no way will it intervene in any way, shape of form against any of the sides.”
(JTA Correspondent Douglas Davis in London, Staff Writer Julia Goldman in New York and Washington Bureau Chief Matthew Dorf contributed to this report.)