Ministers expedite immigration of 5,000 Ethiopians to Israel as conflict worsens

Immigration and interior ministers agree to airlift people claiming Jewish descent and with first-degree relatives in Israel as crisis escalates in African country

In this photo from the Jewish Agency, Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (left) and then-Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog (center) greet 119 new immigrants from Ethiopia at Ben Gurion Airport, May 21, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem)
In this photo from the Jewish Agency, Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (left) and then-Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog (center) greet 119 new immigrants from Ethiopia at Ben Gurion Airport, May 21, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem)

Immigration Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tuesday they agreed to accelerate the stalled immigration of 5,000 Ethiopians claiming Jewish descent, amid intensifying fighting in the African nation.

Those included in the agreement have first-degree relatives in Israel and were eligible to immigrate under a 2015 government decision, under which 9,000 people would be brought to the Jewish state.

There had been a reported suspension of a planned airlift of 800 people following what was said to be a “difficult” meeting Monday between Shaked and Tamano-Shata, according to Channel 13 news.

The Haaretz daily said Tamano-Shata, who herself is of Ethiopian descent, threatened to quit her post if no more people were airlifted.

There are thought to be 7,000 to 12,000 Ethiopian community members still waiting to come to Israel, many of whom 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.

Pressure has been ramped up on Israel in recent weeks to bring thousands of members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community to Israel, as an insurgency by Tigray rebels intensified and neared the capital Addis Ababa.

“We must continue to bring them over to Israel quickly,” President Isaac Herzog said last week.

Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog (2nd-R) and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (C) greet Ethiopian immigrants arriving at Ben Gurion Airport on March 11, 2021. (The Jewish Agency)

The Channel 13 report claimed that those slated to be brought to Israel were in no immediate, concrete danger due to their Jewishness. But there may also be doubt as to whether they are all Jews, after Hebrew media reports said Sunday evening 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.

Ethiopian Immigrants arrive in Israel as part of Operation Tzur Israel, March 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Since fighting broke out a year ago, over 2,000 Ethiopian Jews have been brought to Israel in state-run operations, among them a group of 61 who needed ministers to sign off on their immigration because they are not part of the Jewish community, claiming only Jewish roots.

Though the plan to spirit them to Israel was put together during the tenure of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was the cabinet of his successor Naftali Bennett that signed off on it, the Haaretz daily reported.

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 in a phone call with Bennett that Ethiopians brought to Israel in recent months included officers involved in war crimes, a report said Monday.

Channel 13 news 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.

People who fled the violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region wait to receive food at the May Weyni secondary school, hosting displaced people as an IDP camp, in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, June 19, 2021 (Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

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.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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