Ministers voted on Sunday to okay the immigration of thousands of Ethiopians who have been waiting for years to fly to Israel, many spending the period in transit camps.
The decision came amid rising calls from leaders and members of Israel’s Ethiopian community to swiftly bring over those still waiting to emigrate as a civil war in the country heats up.
However, recent operations that brought over relatively small groups of Ethiopians have been dogged by claims that some have no Jewish ancestry or have committed war crimes.
Those included in the proposed plan have first-degree relatives in Israel and were eligible to immigrate under a 2015 government decision, under which 9,000 people who have first-degree relatives in Israel and had arrived in camps in Gondar or Addis Ababa by 2010 would be brought to the Jewish state.
Some 4,000 Ethiopians were brought to Israel following the 2015 decision, but reports indicate the number of those waiting to leave has since swelled from 5,000 to around 8,000.
They will be brought to Israel “in the near future,” pending instructions from the Health Ministry, according to the approved plan.
The government also called for appointing a special overseer for the project who will lead a joint team from the interior and immigration ministries to prepare recommendations on the rights of those still waiting to immigrate who do not have first-degree family members in Israel.
Immigration Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said in a statement following the decision that “today we are correcting an ongoing injustice done to those waiting for their immigration to be approved from as early as 2015, but not implemented in previous governments.”
The Jewish Agency of Israel, along with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), said in a joint statement that they applaud the decision and that the Agency will immediately begin work to facilitate the immigration of the expected arrivals.
“This government decision will put an end to the suffering of many families who will finally be reunited after years of waiting to make aliyah,” said the acting chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency, Yaakov Hagoel, using the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel.
The JFNA said it will raise $5 million to support the immigration process.
“Today’s announcement is an exciting and important step to reunite families and strengthen the Jewish people,” Jewish Federations of North America chairman of the board of trustees Mark Wilf said in a statement.
Tamano-Shata and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked agreed earlier this month on the plan to bring the remaining would-be immigrants to Israel, after reports that Tamano-Shata had threatened to quit over the issue.
Channel 13 news reported a claim at the time that those slated to be brought to Israel were in no immediate, concrete danger due to their Jewishness. But there may also be a doubt as to whether they are all Jews, after Hebrew media reports said that dozens of Ethiopians participating in the secret operation may have misrepresented their Jewish ancestry and exaggerated the danger posed to them.
Members of the community involved in the effort denied the accusations, according to Channel 12 news, which also published an assessment from the National Security Council claiming that there was no urgency to the airlift efforts.
Of the Ethiopian community members still waiting to come to Israel, many thousands live in the Tigray region, at the heart of the conflict.
Others, who left their villages years ago, eke out livings near the Jewish community centers in Gondar City and Addis Ababa. Many have been waiting for decades to immigrate.
“We must continue to bring them over to Israel quickly,” President Isaac Herzog said earlier this month.
While Ethiopian Jewish immigrants from the Beta Israel community are recognized as fully Jewish, immigrants from Ethiopia belonging to the smaller Falash Mura community are required to undergo Orthodox conversion after immigrating. The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Some 30,000 of them have immigrated to Israel since 1997, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Because the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falash Mura to be Jewish, they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return, and therefore must get special permission from the government to move to Israel.
Further complicating the effort, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed alleged in a phone call with Bennett earlier this month that Ethiopians brought to Israel in recent months included officers involved in war crimes, a report has said.
Channel 13 cited a security source involved in the matter saying at least four officers among the over 2,000 people brought to Israel over the past year are suspected of taking part in rebel massacres in the Tigray region.
Months of political tensions between Ahmed’s government and the Tigray leaders who once dominated Ethiopia’s government exploded into war last November.
Following some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict, Ethiopian soldiers fled the Tigray capital, Mekele, in June. Facing the current offensive by Tigray forces who are approaching Addis Ababa to press Ahmed to step aside, the prime minister declared a national state of emergency with sweeping detention powers last Tuesday.
The Tigray forces are also pressuring Ethiopia’s government to lift a deadly months-long blockade on their region of around 6 million people, where basic services have been cut off and humanitarian food and medical aid are denied.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.