Bosnian Muslims find haven in Israel

IN A bizarre twist in Israel's process of 'in-gathering', a lost tribe of Muslims was yesterday welcomed on to Jewish soil. Nearly 100 Muslim refugees from Bosnia arrived to take up Israel's offer of asylum, pending the end of hostilities in their homeland.

But they did not arrive to find all was sweetness and light. The Israeli gesture has caused uproar among Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians, who accuse the government of staging a cynical propaganda stunt to draw attention away from the December deportation of some 400 other Muslims, alleged Hamas supporters.

It was primarily the timing of the Israeli offer that embarrassed leaders of the 700,000-strong Israeli-Arab community. For several months mayors of Israeli- Arab towns campaigned for Bosnian Muslims to be allowed into Israel, but were rebuffed. Now, they say, Israel has accepted 84 refugees just when it needs to improve its international image, ahead of the first visit to the region by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.

'We have 400 Palestinian Muslims deported. In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians are being killed and watching their homes blown up. All this ugliness on our doorstep only makes us believe the offer to Bosnian Muslims is a gimmick,' said Walid Sadik, an Israeli-Arab leader and member of the left-wing party, Meretz.

Earlier this week the Israeli- Arabs said they would not, therefore, be associated with the arriving Bosnians. As a result the Bosnians are spending their first few weeks on a kibbutz.

Yesterday, however, with assurances from Bosnian authorities that Israel's gesture was welcomed by them, the Israeli-Arabs promised to help assimilate their fellow Muslims. 'Now they are here, whether it was for public relations or not, we will offer solidarity. We will visit them regularly starting next week when Ramadan starts,' said Mr Sadik, referring to the start of the Muslim month of fasting.

But the question is: how easy will assimilation be? The Bosnians belong to a different Islamic tradition than Israeli-Arabs. Bosnian Muslims are European Slavs who in the 12th century belonged to a Christian sect. In the 14th century, under the Ottoman Empire, they converted to Islam.

The Bosnian Muslims will not be staying forever: they have signed an agreement to go home when the war ends in Bosnia.