The escalating battle between Ethiopia’s government and the leaders of the country’s northern Tigray province on November 12 claimed its first victim from Gondar’s Jewish community: Girmew Gete, 36.
Gete, who had been waiting with his family to immigrate to Israel for 24 years, is survived by his partner and their 4-year-old daughter.
He had enlisted in the Amhara regional army to earn money for his impoverished mother and siblings, who left their village to be close to the Jewish community center in Gondar City with the dream of immigrating to Israel and reuniting with Gete’s 84-year-old grandmother.
Gete had taken leave from the army, returned to the family in Gondar and then left for the border area between Tigray and Amhara (Gondar falls within the latter) to undertake seasonal agricultural work.
While he was working on a tractor, the army also put him in charge of a small amount of weapons.
According to his cousin Markachew Woldie, 27, who spoke to The Times of Israel from his college near the southern city of Ashdod, Gete was ordered to join others from the district to help defend the border area against Tigrayan incursions.
“The Tigrayans entered the area where he was working,” Woldie said. “They shot large numbers of soldiers and civilians, including him. He died on Thursday morning.”
Although it has deep roots, the current conflagration, now almost two weeks old, is part of a power struggle that dates back to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s accession to power two years ago.
Abiy ended the country’s state of emergency, freed political prisoners and made peace with neighboring Eritrea, which earned him a Nobel Prize. In a further pro-democracy move, he also broke up the party that had ruled the country for nearly 30 years — a party that had been dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, even though Tigray accounts for just six percent of Ethiopia’s population.
The TPLF refused to join Ahmed’s Prosperity Party and in September held its own parliamentary elections, which the national government deemed illegal.
On November 4, Tigrayan security forces attacked the headquarters of the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s Northern Command in Tigray, prompting Addis Ababa to order retaliatory airstrikes.
Thousands of Ethiopians have fled to Sudan and hundreds have reportedly been killed in the fighting.
Could conflict spread to Amhara, where most Jews live?
The border area between Amhara and Tigray has long been disputed by the two regional states and there are fears that the fighting there could draw Amhara into the violence.
On Friday night, the TPLF launched rockets at two airports in Amhara, one of them serving Gondar City, where three-quarters of the Ethiopians waiting to come to Israel are based.
“The situation in the camp in Gondar is really serious,” Woldie said. “I talked to my brother there yesterday. The rocket that fell on the airport has created a lot of stress and people are scared something will hit them too. The Tigrayans are fighting hard and they’ve threatened to fire more rockets at Gondar. Lots of young Ethiopians are being killed, and some fear that the Ethiopian government will order a general military call-up, which could include some of the young men waiting to make aliyah [immigrate to Israel].”
“It’s very scary for me to see what’s happening to my family from afar,” Woldie said. “I’m all torn up inside.”
Despite reassurances by the Ethiopian prime minister that the conflict would be over soon, the attacks have continued.
On Saturday, Tigray fired three rockets into Eritrea.
Interior Ministry had a ‘change of mind’ days before immigration
The mothers of the late Girmew Gete and of Markachew Woldie are sisters. The sisters are among nine children (one of whom has died) born to their mother, Ereebebu Shibesh. Ereebebu was allowed to immigrate to Israel just under 18 years ago within the framework of the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews and their offspring.
Now 84, she has been living in an absorption center in the southern city of Kiryat Gat ever since. On festivals, she is joined by relatives who came to Israel in 1984 as part of Operation Moses. Otherwise, with her entire immediate family bar Woldie still in Gondar, she is totally alone.
“Grandma’s life is one of constant suffering,” said Woldie, adding that Gete’s death has sent her into shock. “He was her shepherd when he was small. She helped to raise him and after all her children got married and moved out, he lived with her. I waited five days to tell her the news.”
Woldie, who spent most of his youth in and around the Gondar Jewish community center, said that six families — including Gete’s and his own — were granted permission to immigrate to Israel in 2014 through the Law of Return.
“We were due to come on December 17, 2014,” he recalled. “We had sold everything, had received our vaccinations and had a week to go before traveling by bus to Addis Ababa to board the plane for Israel. Then they [the Interior Ministry] changed their minds and said we didn’t qualify for the Law of Return. Since then, everything has been frozen. But we won’t rest until the wrongs done to our family have been corrected and we can all be with grandma, who is already very old.”
Having airlifted the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews in the 1990s, successive governments have been split over the status of the “remnants of Ethiopian Jewry,” pejoratively known as Falash Mura, who converted to Christianity.
This is despite rulings by senior rabbis that Jews forced to convert to Christianity were unquestionably Jews in every respect.
Governmental indecision has ripped families apart, with some in Israel and others waiting endlessly in Ethiopia.
5 years since Israel vowed to bring over all those left
On Monday, Ethiopian-Israelis celebrated the annual Sigd festival during which the community renews its covenant with God and the Torah.
The previous day marked five years since the government passed Decision 716 (in Hebrew) to bring all those still waiting to come to the Holy Land — subject to various criteria — within five years.
Since then, only 2,257 Ethiopians have been airlifted to the Jewish state, in dribs and drabs, according to Jewish Agency figures.
Some 8,000 to 9,000 remain in Ethiopia, in Gondar and Addis Ababa.
Poverty and malnutrition have increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and the fighting is only adding to the pressure.
Falling between the cracks
In September, the government announced its decision to bring 2,000 Ethiopians to Israel by the end of January, saying that was what budgets allowed.
But for Woldie and his family, that has not brought hope. They have fallen between the cracks. For the Interior Ministry, they meet neither the criteria for the Law of Return, nor those of more recent government decisions. The family insists that the ministry has made a bureaucratic mistake and that it qualifies for the former.
Tired of the endless submission of requests to immigrate and persuaded by a sponsor to come to Israel, Woldie fulfilled his dream by boarding a plane to Tel Aviv a year ago.
“They [the Interior Ministry] canceled my visa — although that didn’t reach the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa in time for them to prevent me from getting on the plane,” he said, in fluent Hebrew. “When I reached Tel Aviv, they stopped me and kept me waiting for 18 hours until a lawyer got me released. They’ve tried to deport me three times, and the lawyer has got the order canceled three times. Thankfully, my sponsor and many others have helped to pay the legal fees.”
Once the authorities agreed to let him study in Israel, Woldie joined a college course to become a professional fitness trainer.
But he is under no illusions.
“Once I’ve finished studying,” he said, “they’re supposed to send me back. But I hope that in the meantime, the Population and Immigration Authority will recognize our right to immigrate.”