Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other cabinet ministers were on hand at Ben Gurion Airport Sunday to greet a group of 90 Jewish orphans who fled Ukraine after Russia invaded last month.
El Al, Israel’s largest airline, said the flight was part of a special operation to rescue some 300 Jews from the fighting in Ukraine.
The airline said Ukrainian-speaking staff were on board the flight to assist. Some of the orphans have family members who are still in fighting areas, it added.
Bennett, who was accompanied by Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, entered the aircraft to welcome the children, introducing himself to one boy by saying, “I am Naftali, prime minister of Israel. Would you like to come into Israel?”
“We are now seeing children immigrating to Israel. It is the most moving thing there is,” Bennett told media at the bottom of the steps from the plane as the children disembarked.
He later tweeted that he had told the children, “You are safe now, you have reached safe shores.”
90 ילדים מבית הילדים בז'טומיר נחתו עכשיו בישראל. התרגשתי לקבל את פניהם ואמרתי להם – אתם בטוחים עכשיו, הגעתם לחוף מבטחים.
כשעמדתי לצד גילת בנתב"ג צפיתי בילדים נכנסים בשער. ראיתי בעיניים שלהם את התלאות שעברו. pic.twitter.com/hMc9q5ndwM
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) March 6, 2022
קבלת פנים לעולים החדשים מאוקראינה
ראש הממשלה @naftalibennett נפתלי בנט מקבל את פני העולים החדשים בישראל.
ברוכים הבאים ???????? ???????? ????????????????@EL_AL_ISRAEL @HakerenLeydidut pic.twitter.com/HCNdJ44Yc4
— שמעון ארן شمعون آران (@simonarann) March 6, 2022
The children fled the city of Zhytomyr and with the help of local Chabad groups last week crossed the border to Romania and then stayed in the city of Cluj-Napoca, the Walla news site reported. From there they flew to Israel. Chabad, a Hasidic organization that works to maintain Jewish life around the world, has branches in both Ukraine and Romania.
Roni Shabtai, Israel’s consul in Romania, told Walla last week that the children, the eldest of whom was around 12 and the youngest just 2, walked 400 meters through the snow in below-freezing temperatures in order to cross the border.
He said Israeli officials, including himself, met the orphans at the border.
“Some were in buggies and carriers, and that is how they went in the snow until we met them,” Shabtai said.
The KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund is paying for the newcomers to stay and enjoy activities at a field school outside Jerusalem for a month.
Earlier, at the weekly cabinet meeting, Tamano-Shata said she expected tens of thousands of people to immigrate to Israel in the coming months in light of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We are trying to offer the best possible conditions to Jews and those eligible [to immigrate] under the Law of Return,” she said. “We are not [even] asking them to come with visas.
“The main, massive absorption [of the immigrants] will be for the long term, and we are working on this now. I expect tens of thousands of Jews to arrive in Israel in the coming months,” she said.
Ronen Cohen, the director of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, told Army Radio on Sunday evening that 400 refugees had landed in Israel in the previous six hours.
The Jewish Agency, which facilitates immigration to Israel, said it has already received thousands of immigration requests from Ukraine over the past week and a half, since the start of the Russian offensive, far more than it normally receives over the course of an entire year. Israeli officials have predicted a similar jump in immigration from Russia.
Last week, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said the government was preparing for a wave of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Russia.
Over the weekend Bennett traveled to Russia for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Israel tries to mediate an end to the conflict.