Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Israel resumes airlifts of Jewish Ethiopians

Falush Mura arrive at Ben Gurion airport, 19.01.10 (Photo: Brian Hendler, Jewish Agency)
Many of those who have been allowed to enter already have relatives in Israel (Photo: Brian Hendler, Jewish Agency)

Israel has restarted an immigration scheme for Ethiopians of Jewish descent after halting it for more than a year.

Eighty-one new immigrants arrived on a flight from Ethiopia to Tel Aviv early on Tuesday morning.

It is the first flight since August 2008, when Israel said it planned to end the immigration scheme.

The Falash Mura community converted to Christianity under pressure in the 19th Century. Some 8,000 still in Ethiopia want to emigrate to Israel.

The scheme was halted in 2008 after the arrival of the last of some 20,000 people the Israeli government agreed to allow entry in 2003.

But campaigners have continued to press for those still waiting - many in poor conditions in transit camps - to be allowed into Israel.

Ethiopian Jews being airlifted to Israel
Many Jews were airlifted to Israel in 1991

Israeli officials have been checking their cases individually, a process which has proven difficult in the past because of histories of intermarriage with Ethiopia's Christian majority, and a lack of records.

The Jewish Agency, which facilitates the immigration, said the 81 were the first of 600 people who had already been determined to be eligible to come to Israel.

It said it expects another 2,000 people to be allowed to come to Israel within the next year.

Ethiopia's last remaining Jewish community, the Falash Mura trace their roots to the biblical King Solomon.

But they are not eligible to enter Israel under the Law of Return, which guarantees a place in the country for every Jew, because they have largely been unable to prove they are Jewish.

Ethiopian Jews who kept their faith throughout centuries of adversity were flown to Israel by the thousands in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The last mass immigration was in 1991, when Israel organised a dramatic airlift of 15,000 people who had fled fighting at the end of Ethiopia's civil war.

Correspondents say Ethiopian immigrants remain one of the poorest sections of Israeli society.

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