Israel Plans to Airlift Tens of Thousands of Ukrainian Jews

‘We will fill up the planes, come back to Israel, and then fly back again and pick up more refugees,’ Jewish Agency deputy director general Yehuda Setton explained

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomes migrants fleeing the war in Ukraine at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel, in March.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomes migrants fleeing the war in Ukraine at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel, in March. Credit: Hadas Parush
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Israel is gearing for a major airlift of Ukrainian Jews who have fled to bordering countries, leaders of the Jewish Agency announced on Wednesday.

“If all goes well, we will bring tens of thousands to Israel in the coming year,” said Yaakov Hagoel, acting chairman of the Jewish Agency, in a press briefing conducted via Zoom. Hagoel arrived in Poland on Tuesday to oversee preparations for bringing growing numbers of Jewish refugees from Ukraine to Israel. Many of these refugees are being housed in shelters in Warsaw, after having crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border near Lviv.

“Instead of hundreds a week, there will be thousands of immigrants from Ukraine each week,” said Hagoel. “And instead of people waiting for planes, we will have planes waiting for people.”

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The acting chairman said he would be returning to Israel on Wednesday night on a plane with 150 refugees from Ukraine. Another 100 Jewish refugees from Ukraine were scheduled to arrive on a separate flight from Romania.

On instructions from Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Agency removed its envoys from Ukraine several days after the Russian invasion. Hagoel said that the government had agreed for them to return to Ukraine starting Thursday. Having envoys back on the ground, he said, would help the aliyah operation run more smoothly.

Yehuda Setton, deputy director general of the Jewish Agency, said Israel would charter flights to Poland, Romania and Hungary to pick up the Jewish refugees stranded at Ukraine’s borders. Because Moldova’s airspace is still closed, refugees who have crossed into that Eastern European country will, he said, have to make their way to Romania to board the flights.

“We will fill up the planes, come back to Israel, and then fly back again and pick up more refugees,” he explained.

Setton, who is in charge of the situation room set up to handle this new wave of aliyah from Ukraine, said the Jewish Agency also planned to station envoys at other points along Ukraine’s borders where large numbers of refugees could be found so as to begin assisting them as soon as possible.

Last year, about 3,000 immigrants from Ukraine arrived in Israel, and in the past decade, a total of 51,000 have immigrated. And estimated 200,000 Ukrainians are eligible to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship under the Law of Return.

Hagoel said that the Jewish Agency was also seeing rising interest in aliyah among Russian Jews. On Tuesday night, close to 400 immigrants from Russia landed in Israel on two separate flights.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, roughly 2,000 immigrants have arrived in Israel from these two countries. In most cases, they had already been approved for aliyah before the war erupted. Their flights, however, were moved up because of the new situation on the ground.

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