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Principals of three private Orthodox schools in Petah Tikva that refuse to enroll immigrant children from Ethiopia said yesterday they would not attend a hearing in the office of Education Ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani today.

The principals of Lamerhav, Daat Mevinim and Darkei Noam continue to refuse to take immigrant children from Ethiopia into their schools, despite the Education Ministry's threat to pull their funding.

The principals argued yesterday that the issue should be addressed with the other private schools in the city, including two ultra-Orthodox ones.

If all the private schools were invited to discuss the issue, the three principals would come too, they said.

"If the Education Ministry insists on equal enrollment of immigrant children from Ethiopia, then the remaining Orthodox [private] schools in town should also be part of it," one of the principals said.

Sources close to the principals said the ministry's threat to pull their funding was empty.

"What would the ministry do with hundreds of pupils who would not be able to go to school [if the ministry stops funding the religious schools]?" a source said.

Education Ministry officials said that if the schools' representatives fail to report to the hearing today they would be giving up their right to make their case before measures are taken against them.

Ministry officials have said in recent days that if the schools persist in their refusal to enroll the immigrant children they would be hit by sanctions. The sanctions could include, in addition to stopping all ministry funds, revoking these schools' licenses.

The three schools, although they are private, are mainly funded by the Education Ministry and the Petah Tikva municipality.

"We will not allow racist provocations, even if they are couched in all kinds of pretexts," Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said Tuesday.

In the last two days, municipal officials reached an agreement with the private schools to enroll immigrant pupils in "special classes" from second to sixth grade. The schools would test the children's achievement after a year and a half and then decide where each child would be placed.

On their part, the schools undertook that they would all take part in enrolling the children from Ethiopia.

But the ministry rejected the proposal. "Special classes are a kind of small ghetto for pupils of a certain origin," Sa'ar said.

"The schools must enroll all the children," he said at the Knesset's Education Committee session yesterday. "We will not accept excuses and behavior reeking of racism."

If the private schools persist in their refusal to enroll pupils of Ethiopian origin "we will find solutions for the pupils and take the strongest measures we can [against those schools]. Our message is clear and unequivocal."