Foreign Ministry Seeks to Evacuate Georgian Jews

Some 100 Israelis currently in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi are expected to return to Israel today or tomorrow on Georgian Airzena flights, the Foreign Ministry said yesterday.

Another 80 have tickets on the Arkia flight that was supposed to leave Tbilisi on Friday, but Israel is trying to find a way to get them out of the country earlier - especially since no foreign airlines are flying to Georgia in any case.

Altogether, between 250 and 400 Israelis are now in Georgia, mainly businessmen and tourists. The ministry said that as far as it knows, none have been hurt in Georgia's fighting with Russia.

Also yesterday, Absorption Minister Eli Aflalo met with Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski and Foreign Ministry officials to discuss the situation of Georgia's approximately 12,000 Jews. They agreed that Jewish Agency emissaries should assist any Georgian Jews who wish to move to Israel, and that such immigrants will receive an extra year of standard immigrant benefits such as rent subsidies and Hebrew lessons.

Most of Georgia's Jews live in Tbilisi and other areas where there is currently no fighting, but about 200 live in the war zone. Of these, most have already been located by the Jewish Agency, and about 50 have asked to immigrate. Israel will try to bring them here in the next few days.

As for getting the Arkia passengers out of Georgia, the main idea currently under consideration involves moving them overland to Armenia, and then to Turkey, from where they would fly to Israel. Arkia CEO Gad Tepper said that his company is willing to pay for this, but insists that the convoy be escorted by a security officer from the Israeli embassy who knows the route, because no one from his company does.

He also told Haaretz that if this plan fails, Israel should send air force planes to rescue the passengers.

"Western countries extracted their citizens this past weekend," he said. "I'm not seeking guilty parties, but the Israelis need to be rescued."

Three other proposed plans have already been rejected: moving the Israelis overland directly to Turkey, which was nixed because the route passes through an area that Russia is bombing; moving them overland via Azerbaijan, which was nixed because the necessary visas are unavailable; and transferring them to Airzena, which was nixed because of fears that Russian jets might attack the planes.