Ethiopians sent into an Israeli minefield

Immigrants are being sent to religious Jewish settlements, reports Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
IN THE middle of the Jewish settlement of Ofra on the West Bank there are strange new arrivals. Some of the women wear flowery dresses and carry their babies on their backs. The men have skullcaps, but do not speak Hebrew. They are Falash Mura, Ethiopian Christians who say they were once Jews and plan to reconvert.

They arrived last month in Israel from Addis Ababa and the government immediately bussed 140 to Ofra, a settlement of religious Jews built on land captured by Israel in 1967.

"It is a provocation of the government done to show to the settlers that [Benjamin] Netanyahu wants settlements rather than the peace process," said Addisu Massala, the only Ethiopian member of the Knesset. "People are taken from the airport to the occupied territories. Everyday they ring me up to say they don't want to be there." He says the Ethiopians want to be in Tel Aviv or Haifa, where many have relatives and it is easier to get jobs.

The Ethiopians seem to sense that they have arrived in a political minefield. Dessalegne Gessese, 58, and fully Jewish, spent 29 years of his life as a tax inspector in Addis Ababa before he arrived in Ofra. At first he says he would prefer to live in Haifa on the coast, but after a conversation in Amharic with other Ethiopians he changes his mind and says he does not mind where he lives: "I don't care if it is Hebron or Gaza so long as I am here. I am a free Jew in my own country."

This is what the settlers of Ofra want to hear. Along with three other settlements in the occupied territories they are taking the Falash Mura in return for a government subsidy. They are also making an ideological point at the very moment Mr Netanyahu is in Washington, discussing a limited Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. They are not only increasing the number of settlers, but demonstrating that, for the new immigrant, Ofra is as much part of the land of Israel as Tel Aviv.

The Falash Mura themselves look cheerful. Most come originally from northern Ethiopia. Exactly when and why they converted to Christianity is not clear. Professor Stephen Kaplan, head of the African Studies Department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said: "Without being too cynical about it, up to 20 years ago there were clear advantages to being a Christian in Ethiopia; but in the last 20 years there has been a clear advantage in being Jewish."

About 70,000 Ethiopians have come to Israel since 1984, but the Falash Mura, whose Jewish origin was questioned by previous Israeli governments, remained behind. Most trekked from the north of the country and have lived near the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa for the past seven years. Nobody knows how many more there are in the Ethiopian countryside.

Ami Bergman, who helped them with food and medical assistance on behalf of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, thinks there may be another 15,000 Falash Mura.

They are friendly people, with beaming smiles, who wave at anybody they do not know. Oren Tagait, an Ethiopian Jew already living in Israel, who is teaching the children basic Hebrew, says: "Their main problem is getting used to our food." Yaakov Alamo, also an immigrant from Ethiopia in the past and now a maintenance man at Ofra, said: "At first everything is a little hard bit, but they are an accommodating people." He admits that some of the newly arrived immigrants do not know they are in a settlement.

The settlers are sensitive to the accusation that they are manipulating the newly arrived Ethiopians. As we were asking Mr Gessese how he felt about being in a settlement in the occupied territories, Michal Finkel, a community co-ordinator in Ofra, said: "It is journalists asking questions who make the problems. He doesn't care where he is. It wasn't his decision to come here." She says, rightly, that the government made the decision to send the Falash Mura to Ofra.

Yossi Shturm, spokesman for the Jewish Agency, which organised the immigration of the Ethiopians, says only 1 or 2 per cent of them are being sent to the settlements. He said: "Most want to live in Israel because it is easier to get jobs and they are closer to their relatives."

Their numbers are minuscule compared with the 155,000 Jewish settlers and 1.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank. But by sending the Falash Mura to Ofra, the Israeli government makes two points: it wants to increase the number of settlers on the West Bank and it will treat it as part of Israel.

Addisu Massala says the Israeli government is exploiting the Falash Mura to further the ends of its "political ideology". He says they are in a uniquely vulnerable position. Despite their skullcaps they have not yet converted - they would say reconverted - to Judaism. He insists that, despite their smiles, the Ethiopians in Ofra "are very much afraid".