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The government must reexamine the eligibility for immigration of thousands of Falashmura and allow an additional 1,500 to move to Israel, the High Court of Justice ruled last week.

This decision constitutes a serious blow to the government's plan to end immigration by the middle of this year of members of this community, who claim Jewish ancestry despite conversion to Christianity over the years.

"Justice has been done," said Avraham Nagosa, who heads an umbrella organization for Ethiopian immigrants. "We said they haven't finished and that they need to check whether there are more people who meet the criteria. We asked only that they do the basic thing of checking them. This High Court decision is the beginning, and ultimately all the 8,000 [Falashmura] left will be checked."

However, the Interior Ministry downplayed the decision, saying: "The High Court accepted the state position not to open the lists. Nonetheless, it said the state would do well to determine whether there is room to expand the list of eligibles to 17,000. It is not an order, and the state was asked to announce within three months what it has decided. The matter has been transferred to the cabinet secretary for a decision."

The government decided a year ago that by June, 2008 it would stop bringing over Falashmura and close its offices in Ethiopia.

The Foreign Ministry representative in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, who was responsible for investigating the eligibility of Ethiopians seeking to move to Israel, was recalled to Israel a few weeks ago.

Some 1,400 Falashmura in Gondar have already received approval to move here, and that group will be immigrating at a rate of 300 a month.

Ethiopian organizations in Israel, and their supporters the world over, have criticized the government plan to bring the Falashmura immigration to an end, arguing that there are more than 8,000 members of the community in Gondar who meet the government criteria for immigration.

In response to a High Court petition on the matter, filed by representatives of the Falashmura, Justices Ayala Procaccia, Miriam Naor and Edna Arbel issued an interim verdict last week stating that the government must allow an additional 1,500 Falashmure to immigrate because the government said in 2004 that there were 17,188 potential Falashmura immigrants, but only 14,620 have received permission to move here.

Government hurdle

One hurdle that the High Court decision puts before the government and Jewish Agency representatives in Ethiopia is that they won't be able to begin the process of completing the immigration operation, as planned, because it will now continue through the end of the year.

A delegation of top officials from the government and Jewish organizations had been slated to travel to Ethiopia in two weeks to begin the process, but that mission has been delayed for now.

Another problem is that it will be quite difficult for the Interior Ministry to approve the immigration of 1,500 people without examining the eligibility of all 8,000 remaining Falashmura in Gondar.