Although the cabinet decided a year ago to bring the last of the Falashmura from Ethiopia to Israel at a rate of 200 a month, an interministerial committee with responsibility for the operation has decided to reduce the rate to 110 a month.
There are currently more than 4,500 Falashmura - descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity - who have registered to immigrate to Israel and are waiting in a refugee camp in Ethiopia's Gondar province. According to a report by a parliamentary delegation from Israel that visited the camp in September, conditions for the prospective immigrants are harsh.
"The delegation met with thousands whose immigration applications have been approved and who are waiting to immigrate to Israel, visited their homes and found that these are people who live in the most difficult housing conditions, [and suffer from] hunger, poverty and a shortage of food, water, clothing and severe health problems. The children in the compound suffer from malnutrition, weak immune systems, and other illness due to their extended stay waiting for aliyah after leaving their homes and villages," the report, which has not been made public previously, states.
The initial cabinet decision provided for 200 immigrants a month, but also allowed the interministerial committee to reduce the pace of immigration to a minimum of 110, if such a step was deemed essential. The committee contends that immigrant absorption centers where the Falashmura would be received are full, and ordered the pace of immigration of the Ethiopians to be reduced starting within a week.
Haaretz has learned, however, that the Jewish Agency, which operates the absorption centers in Israel, currently has available space for about 800 immigrants. Several absorption centers are closed completely. The Finance Ministry, for its part, said the committee decision to curtail the immigration was unanimous and that incentives have been provided to help Falashmura currently in absorption centers to find permanent housing and thereby free space in the absorption centers.
The Immigrant Absorption Ministry said the reduced pace of immigration is consistent with the budget available. "Following organizational changes instituted at the absorption centers that were closed, it is not possible to reopen them at this time," the ministry added.
Members of the Falashmura community who are already living in Israel expressed anger at the reduced pace. "I have been waiting for four years for my older children to immigrate from Gondar and now I will have to wait another year?" complained Yasir Ingida, 39, who lives with his second wife and their three children at an immigrant absorption center in Mevasseret Zion. "Living apart from your family is like living in the dark. We're very worried and don't know what to do. I talk to [the children in Ethiopia] almost every day. Their life there is very difficult and they are living on the money that we earn here. Instead of saving for a mortgage, I am sending the money to Gondar," he stated.
The decision by an interministerial committee also angered donors in the United States, who have provided funding to run the refugee camp in Gondar and to help support the immigrant services for the Falashmura in Israel. "We are conducting a special campaign to raise $7.5 million to fund the operations in Gondar," the Jewish Agency's Josh Schwartz told the Knesset's Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs last week, "and our donors have expectations that the operation will be concluded based on the original timetable in the cabinet decision, meaning by March of 2014.
Schwartz also said that the Jewish Agency is prepared to bring up to 200 immigrants a month from Ethiopia next year, too. Therefore, he said, if the government decides to revert to the original pace of the operation, the Jewish Agency can meet the demand.