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The Interior Ministry will close down its operation in Ethiopia in another two weeks, after signing the last aliyah permit for Falash Mura who are eligible to immigrate to Israel.

According to the ministry, some 1,500 eligible Falash Mura are still in Ethiopia, and all are expected to arrive here by next June. But Ethiopian immigrant associations claim that there are at least 8,500 others who are eligible to immigrate under the government's criteria.

The Falash Mura are Ethiopians of Jewish descent whose ancestors converted to Christianity. They are not Jewish according to Jewish law, but in 1999, under pressure from local Ethiopian immigrant groups and American Jewish organizations, the government agreed to bring them to Israel. They are currently arriving at a rate of about 300 per month.

In late 2006, however, the government decided to bring the remaining Falash Mura here and wind up its operation in Ethiopia within a year.

According to the government's immigration criteria, which are based on a halakhic ruling by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, a Falash Mura must be able to prove their maternal ancestral line is Jewish for seven generations back, have a first-degree relative who is already in Israel and promise to undergo a pro forma conversion upon arrival. Over the last year, the Interior Ministry has refused immigration permits to some 3,000 applicants.

This has outraged Ethiopian immigrant groups. "There are 8,500 people who left their homes and villages and came to Gondar [where the Israeli representatives are based] in the hope of immigrating to Israel," said Avraham Negusa, who chairs these groups' umbrella organization. "These are people who have parents, siblings and children already living in Israel. And now, along comes the interior minister and changes the policy."

Both the Interior Ministry and the Jewish Agency, in contrast, charge that these 8,500 people are merely the tip of an iceberg comprising tens or even hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians who want to immigrate to Israel, and if the government were to accede to their demands, the flow would be endless. Israel has absorbed some 30,000 Falash Mura over the last decade despite having no legal obligation to do so, they said, and the time has come to put a stop to the matter.

Jewish Agency officials also charged that the process is vulnerable to corruption, and in many cases, visa applicants have bribed Ethiopians already in Israel to claim them as first-degree relatives.

In addition, the government accuses American Jewish groups that promote Ethiopian immigration of pressuring Israel to keep absorbing more Falash Mura solely in order to preserve their own raison d'etre. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, addressing the Jewish Agency's board of trustees last month, said bluntly: "We will not bring in more Falash Mura. If the [American Jewish] organizations want to help them so badly, they should bring them to the U.S."

American Jewish groups are divided on the issue. The Joint Distribution Committee, which runs a clinic in Gondar, sides with the government. The United Jewish Communities, which in the past had pressured the government on this issue, has since softened its stance, and officials in Jerusalem believe that it, too, will fall in line.

But the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) is more confrontational. "We don't make decisions for the Israeli government," said Joseph Feit, one of its leaders, "but according to the halakhic rulings of Israel's chief rabbis, and according to opinions by the three religious streams here in the U.S. [Orthodox, Conservative and Reform], the Jewishness of the 8,500 Falash Mura remaining in Gondar should be recognized. Nor would it surprise me if there are more Jews in the villages of Ethiopia."

NACOEJ has already decided to continue its operation in Ethiopia even after the government closes up shop.

Israeli Ethiopian immigrant groups are planning protests in Jerusalem next week. Several Knesset members also object to the government's decision, and have asked the state comptroller to examine the issue. The cabinet largely sides with Sheetrit, but Ethiopian groups are hoping for support from Shas leader and Industry Minister Eli Yishai.