Israel to take in 8 000 Ethiopians
Jerusalem - The Israeli cabinet on Sunday voted to bring to the country some 8 000 Ethiopians who claim Jewish descent, saying they are living in conditions of disease and hunger.
"There are about 8 000 women, men and children living in the most severe humanitarian conditions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet session.
"We have a moral commitment as Jews, as the People of Israel, to find a solution."
Israel began bringing Ethiopia's Jewish community to Israel in 1984 under the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to all Jews. That operation was largely completed by 1991.
Sunday's decision refers to another group, known as the Falash Mura, who are not considered to be Jewish and therefore are not eligible under the law.
They are the descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, many of them under duress, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of them have relatives among the Ethiopian Jewish community living in Israel.
While awaiting permission to resettle in Israel many of them moved into a squalid compound in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, where Jewish groups provide them with some social services.
Critics fear that tens of thousands of Ethiopians could claim connection to this group, many of them just seeking better financial conditions.
But Netanyahu said he hoped Sunday's decision would provide a humanitarian solution and end the claims.
Netanyahu said the proposal under consideration would bring 600 Falash Mura to Israel during the initial months of its implementation, followed by around 200 each month over the following three years.
Once all the camp's 8 000 residents have been brought to Israel it would be shut and immigration ended, hopefully preventing more camps from springing up.
"The government of Israel seeks to resolve this problem because there is indeed a complex humanitarian crisis there and so as to avoid the creation of additional refugee camps in Ethiopia," Netanyahu said.
Officials said American Jewish groups working in the Gondar compound had agreed to end their work if these 8 000 would be brought to Israel and the groups would be replaced with an Israeli quasi-governmental agency that would deal with immigration requests on an individual basis.
Israel organised its first airlift - known as Operation Moses - of 15 000 Ethiopians in 1984. Tens of thousands more were flown in during Operation Solomon in 1991. Some 100 000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel.
Previous attempts to bring in limited numbers of Falash Mura and end the claims of the community have failed after the camps filled up again with new applicants.