Israel will approve the immigration of some 1,000 members of the Falashmura tribe from Ethiopia to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers on Monday.
“I have decided that approximately 1,000 community members — whose children are already here — must be brought to Israel,” Netanyahu said at a ministerial committee for the integration of Ethiopian immigrants according to a statement from his office.
The prime minister said he had instructed Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to draft a government decision on the matter.
Netanyahu told ministers it was “not a simple decision” citing unspecified “other ramifications,” a likely reference to the debate in Israel over tribe members’ Jewishness.
He stressed that only tribe members with family already in Israel would be included in the decision.
The Falashmura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago.
There are approximately 8,000 tribe members in Ethiopia with close relatives in Israel who are waiting to immigrate.
It was not clear what would happen to the remaining 7,000 people.
Alisa Bodner, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Ethiopian community, called Netanyahu’s decision an “incredible disappointment.”
Because the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falashmura to be Jewish, they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return and therefore must get special permission from the government to move to Israel. Critics fear that tens of thousands of Ethiopians could claim eligibility.
The community counters that the process for immigration approval is poorly executed and inaccurate, dividing families. At least 80 percent of the tribe members in Ethiopia say they have first-degree relatives living in Israel, and some have been waiting for 20 years to immigrate.
In November 2015, the government unanimously adopted a plan to bring the remaining Ethiopians to Israel by 2020. But the plan faltered within months when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement it because the NIS 1 billion it said was needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget.
In 2017, the Finance Ministry launched the first step of the plan, allocating funds for 1,300 to emigrate to Israel. All 1,300 arrived in the country just before the end of that year, on flights sponsored by the International Christian Embassy as part of its program to support Jewish immigration to Israel.
The plan was thrown into doubt again this year after the government passed the 2019 state budget with no allocation for Ethiopian immigration. The immigration and its funding reportedly is slated to be discussed at a future inter-ministerial meeting; no date has been set.
About 135,000 Ethiopian Jews currently live in Israel. Some 22,000 of them were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991.
AP and Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.