TEL AVIV, Feb. 16 (JTA) -- Three years after Israel decided to bring the remaining Falash Mura in Ethiopia to Israel, the number of Ethiopians petitioning for aliyah continues to grow.
The question now is figuring out who among the masses of people waiting to emigrate meet Israel´s criteria for aliyah.
That has made finalizing the number and names of those qualified to immigrate to Israel the key element to the closing the chapter on three decades of Ethiopian aliya.
There have been problems finalizing that list, however, and as a consequence Ethiopians have continued to exploit the situation to try to get a free ticket out of Africa. That, in turn, has made closing the list all the more difficult.
"I cannot tell you how many are on the list," acknowledged an official from Israel´s Interior Ministry, which is charged with determining who is eligible for aliyah. "Right now, we estimate that 85 percent of those waiting in Gondar are eligible, and 40 percent of those waiting in Addis Ababa are eligible. But we just don´t know for sure."
The Interior Ministry says it will have a final list of eligible Ethiopian emigres by the end of 2006; previously, officials had said the list would be ready by June.
Until a few months ago, there was only one Israeli Interior Ministry official in Ethiopia conducting the background checks to determine whether an estimated 20,000 petitioners actually were the relatives of Ethiopian families already in Israel. Now there are three.
Critics say the Interior Ministry´s slipshod and slack management of the verification process has left the door wide open both for abuse of the system and for endless additions of Ethiopians claiming Jewish ties.
"It´s important for me to convey that something illogical has been happening here for years," said Ori Konforti, the senior Jewish Agency for Israel official in Ethiopia. "The Ethiopians are playing us, and they´re a lot better than us at this game because it´s their home turf."
As a result of the problems, well-meaning American Jews have been maneuvered into supporting even more Ethiopian aliyah, Israeli taxpayers have had to foot the bill, and some Ethiopians with legitimate Jewish links have been forced to wait in Ethiopia for years in squalid conditions, uncertain whether their dream of reaching Zion will ever come true.
Christian Ethiopians pay Ethiopians in Israel to say they are their relatives, background checks sometimes are conducted with little more than a couple of phone calls, and Israel´s Interior Ministry has yet to compile a final list of names of those eligible to immigrate.
"We want to know names," Konforti said. "Don´t tell me we have 15,000 people, and let´s start the operation. Give me 15,000 names. I think if we don´t close the list we may well still be here in another 10 years."
"When we started to campaign we were told that we were going to get a list," lamented Joel Tauber, national chairman of the Operation Promise campaign. "A continual aliyah would challenge the resources of the system and take money away from other live-saving programs we do."
It´s difficult to estimate how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia.
In 1999, an Israeli government census headed by David Efrati counted 26,700 Ethiopians with legitimate claims to immigrate to Israel. Since then, roughly 18,000 Ethiopians have made aliyah, according to the Interior Ministry official, who asked not to be identified.
But rather than there being close to 9,000 remaining, this official says there are 19,000 left.
The Interior Ministry spokeswoman in Israel says there are 13,000 potential olim, or immigrants. Jewish Agency officials in Ethiopia say they are dealing with 15,000 people. Local Ethiopian community leaders say there are more than 17,000. American Jewish officials with aid programs in Ethiopia say the number may far exceed the 20,000-person cap the Israeli government decided upon a year ago. And Israeli scholars say the number may climb by the tens of thousands.
If Ethiopian aliyah is ever to end, some officials warn, some sort of arbitrary ending point will have to be set.
Members of an American Jewish delegation here this month honed in on the issues of eligibility and the compilation of a list as the critical issues left to resolve.
"It should go as quickly as possible," Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee said of the remaining aliyah. Referring to Operation Solomon, in which more than 14,000 Ethiopians were brought to Israel in the space of 36 hours, he said, "Let´s do another operation."
As long as eligibility remains an open question, there are opportunities for Ethiopians to exploit the system.
Mazal Rada, an Ethiopian-Israeli who was in Ethiopia´s Tigray province last week visiting her birthplace, told JTA she was propositioned by a stranger who offered to pay her to tell the Israeli authorities he was her husband.
"It´s preposterous. I was 3 when I left," said Rada, who made aliyah with her family in the early 1980s and now lives in Kiryat Gat. "I hear that guy tries to connect himself to all the Israelis who visit here."
Even average non-Jews in Addis Ababa and Gondar are aware of the opportunity to con their way to Israeli citizenship.
"I know people who got to Israel this way," said Kebede Ali, a taxi driver in Addis Ababa who readily admits he has no Jewish relatives. "If I could get out of Africa this way, I would also say I am a Falasha."
Once one family member gets to Israel, that person then can bring others -- and so on and so forth ad infinitum.
"One person like me who goes to Israel, he will get there and then say he has more relatives in Ethiopia, and at the next stage this will happen again and again,´´ Kebede said.
Some observers have asked why Israel doesn´t employ DNA testing to verify whether Ethiopians petitioning for aliyah actually are blood relatives of Ethiopian-Israeli citizens, as required for qualification under the Law of Entry. The Interior Ministry says the Israeli government has given authorization only to use interviewing and documentation to verify eligibility for aliyah, not DNA testing.
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