Jews caught in Russia-Georgia conflict

Georgian Jews emigrating from their war-torn country arrive at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel on Aug. 10, 2008.  (Abe Selig)

Georgian Jews emigrating from their war-torn country arrive at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel on Aug. 10, 2008. (Abe Selig)

MOSCOW (JTA) – Russian and Georgian troops continued to fight a pitched battle Monday that has spilled beyond the borders of South Ossetia and toward the Georgian city of Gori, where Jewish relief organizations continued to make contact with local Jews.

More than 200 Jewish residents fled the Russian bombardment over the weekend. More have decided to leave amid fears that the Russian army is advancing toward them.

Jews on either side of the conflict zone expressed starkly contrasting impressions of the battle as the war-weary Caucasus region weathered its latest conflagration – Russia’s largest use of force outside its borders since 1989.

On Aug. 8, Russian tanks and soldiers poured into South Ossetia, a breakaway republic that fought a war for independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Russia said it was protecting its citizens and peacekeepers from a Georgian attempt to secure the capital, Tskhinvali.

Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had made the reunification of Georgia with its breakaway republics a central plank of his campaigns as he cultivated close ties with the West, sending soldiers to U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as seeking entry to the NATO alliance.

Saakashvili’s distance from Russia chafed at then-President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Moscow holds little love for the poster child of democracy in the former Soviet sphere.

Jews are caught on both sides of the conflict.

Alex Katz, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s liaison to the former Soviet Union, visited Gori on Monday and met with the few holdouts in the city closest to the Ossetian border. He said Russian troops were nine miles north of the city.

Katz visited with a community leader, Vissarion Manasherov, trying to convince the stragglers to leave the area and offering them a chance to immigrate to Israel. One family agreed, and another decided to remain in Gori, he said. A third family could not be found.

“The situation is tense now – very, very tense,” Katz told JTA. “We are used to this as Israelis, but it is a very complicated situation now.”

During his conversation with JTA, Katz’s vehicle was fleeing Gori with a convoy of Georgian soldiers on the way back to the republic’s capital of Tbilisi. The convoy passed a hospital with long lines of wounded soldiers, Katz said.

Gori had been used as a staging ground for Georgian troops during their initial offensive on Tskhinvali.

Most of the more than 200 Jewish refugees who have made their way to Tbilisi are staying with relatives and friends there. Between 10,000 to 12,000 Jews live in Georgia, mostly in the capital.

Speaking from a central planning room in Israel, Jewish Agency spokesman Alex Selsky said more than 60 people had applied to make aliyah at the agency’s behest. A group of eight emigres arrived Sunday night in Israel from Georgia, but their relocation already had been planned, he said.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has a 10-person team in the region dispensing food and other humanitarian aid, as well as assisting those fleeing the war-torn areas.

The JDC, which assists 1,500 elderly and 735 children at risk and their families in the region, has deployed additional workers to tend to the elderly in areas most affected by the fighting. It also is working with the local Jewish community to absorb and provide assistance to the estimated 100 Jewish refugees who left Gori for Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, the government of Israel is also sending two consular representatives to Tbilisi, according to the Jewish Agency.

Arkia Israel Airlines said Monday it could not fly out 100 Israeli nationals waiting to leave Georgia because the airport radar had been bombed beyond function, Ha’aretz reported.

The airline is working to reroute passengers through Azerbaijan, another pro-Russian breakaway republic on Georgia’s border with the Black Sea.

Georgian troops withdrew Sunday from South Ossetia, a pro-Russian de facto state since 1992. Russia has issued passports to South Ossetian citizens for years and served as a peacekeeping force in the region.

Before wave after wave of ethnic conflict shook the foundations of Tskhinvali starting in 1992, there was a growing Jewish community of more than 2,000 people in the city of 30,000.

That number has dwindled to about 15, said Mark Petrushansky, the chairman of the Jewish community for Vladikavkaz, the closest Russian population center to the conflict zone.

Petrushansky said he visited Tskhinvali last month and spoke with community leaders. He has not been able to find any members of the community since the fighting broke out Aug. 8, though Petrushansky said that at least one prominent member was in Moscow with family.

Leaders from South Ossetia and Abkhazia have sought recognition of the initial assault on Tskhinvali as genocide.

According to estimates from the Georgian and Russian governments, the death toll in the conflict is near 2,000, though there has been no independent confirmation of the numbers.

Russia television has broadcast near-constant footage of wounded Ossetians while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew from the Olympic Games in Beijing directly to Vladikavkaz to meet with refugees.

Petrushansky said he saw television footage of a Jewish child he knew from a local school fleeing Tskhinvali with her grandmother to Russia. Incensed, he placed the blame on Georgia and Saakashvili for starting “this horrible massacre.”

“The American agencies are broadcasting and we’re watching these lies meant to manipulate people,” he said by telephone Monday.

Russian media have portrayed Saakashvili, the Columbia University-educated president who has courted U.S. favor and sought Georgia’s membership in NATO, as a puppet of the West. They have broadcast a loop of his interviews with Western news organizations such as CNN and pronouncements from his presidential desk in English.

Petrushansky also had heard reports that Israel had provided weapons and military training to Georgia, which he likened to Germany under Hitler.

“Why is Israel helping Georgia? I’m so embarrassed about this,” he said. “This is a war against Jews and they don’t even understand it.”

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz cited an anonymous senior defense official who said Israel feared that further aid to Georgia would provoke Russia into providing more advanced weaponry to Iran and Syria. Israel has sought to distance itself from Georgia since the conflict began.

Israel has a longstanding defense relationship with Georgia and over the years has sold rockets, night vision and aerial drones to the former Soviet republic. A drone that was shot down by Russian forces in the breakway republic of Abkhazia earlier this year came from Israel.

In contrast, soldiers and citizens in the midst of the fighting in northern Georgia have expressed a sense that the United States betrayed them by not providing more support as the conflict unfolded.

They see Russia’s actions as heavy-handed, a return to the Soviet mentality in which neighbors are either puppets or enemies.

“Russia is in the middle of an act of aggression against Georgia,” said Gregory Brodsky, the Jewish Agency’s emissary to Tbilisi. “The attempt to take Abkhazia and Ossetia is obvious to the whole world as an attempt to create anew the Russian empire.”

Russian planes bombed targets across Georgia on Monday, including bridges, roadways and military facilities on the outskirts of Tbilisi, Brodsky said.

In Abkhazia, Russian forces have demanded that soldiers in the Georgia-controlled regions lay down their weapons – a sign that Russia may be ready to open a second front in the war.

The Abkhazian capital Sukhumi is home to some 120 Jews who are no stranger to tanks and rebel armies prowling across the hilly seaside region, though the capital is on the coast far from where border skirmishes would take place.

Alexander Glusker, the chairman of Sukhumi’s Jewish community, told JTA that he and his fellow Jews are “Abkhazian patriots,” though he shrugged at the possibility of Abkhazian independence in the near future. He said he had seen too many wars, three or four at last count, to become too excited.

“Russia will never let Georgia join NATO, and this is why we have the conflicts and the bombs in our South,” he said. “We know there is tension in the mood but we’re used to it. It’s nothing. I think that everything will be civil before too long.”

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