Israel under fire
Ethiopians make aliyah — into a war zone
IBIM, Israel – The explosion happened close enough to Stesyahu Alema to shake his apartment, where he sat with his wife and two of his five children.
But he didn’t flinch. None of them did.
“There are a lot of people with me, so I don’t need to worry,” Alema said. “I don’t worry.”
The Alemas were among 91 Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in Israel last week, just a day after Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense began. The new olim immediately were sent to the Ibim immigrant absorption center, a former aliyah youth village run by the Jewish Agency for Israel about three miles from the Gaza border. Other immigrant absorption centers were full.
During a visit on Sunday, two explosions rocked the area in the space of just a few minutes. The first, a rocket launched from Gaza into Israel, had prompted a warning siren, sending the Alema family into the reinforced room that doubled as their children’s bedroom. One of the Alema daughters slept through the echoing impact that followed.
The Alema family knew that bombs were falling all around them, but they didn’t know much about Israel’s five-day-old operation. They didn’t even know its name. They didn’t know about the senior Hamas officials that Israel had killed or about the frantic push for a cease-fire that day in Cairo.
What was clear was that their world had been turned upside down, having moved from a subsistence existence in a sleepy town in rural Ethiopia to the epicenter of an escalating conflict. And they knew when the siren sounded to get into the children’s bedroom.
Usually when a planeload of Ethiopian immigrants arrives at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the Ethiopians go through the same process as any other group of immigrants: They receive some food, temporary identity cards and health insurance, and some cash to see them through the month.
But when the Alemas landed, along with their health insurance, documents, and money they received a security briefing from the Jewish Agency, which helped facilitate their immigration.
Ethiopian families at Ibim this week did not seem preoccupied with the war next door. Children played in a yard outside their apartments, while parents became accustomed to amenities they never had in Ethiopia, like refrigerators and electric stoves. Some had never even slept in beds.
“In Ethiopia, we slept on the floor, on top of each other,” Alema said. His wife, Yikanu, added, “We had no light. We had leeches. That’s why we’re happy here.”
The Ethiopian immigrants didn’t venture far from their apartments in case an alarm sounded and they had to run back inside.
The group also avoided congregating: Instead of a communal Shabbat meal, each family remained in its apartment to eat the traditional meal with flat, thick injara, the pancake-like Ethiopian staple.
“Instead of dealing with them, trying to absorb them, I’m trying to explain the security situation,” said Moshe Bahta, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1980 and now runs Ibim. “I told them the Arabs want to throw us into the sea and we’re not ready to acquiesce. Since Israel was established, until today, there’s never been quiet — always war.”
Alemnh Yeshuas, another immigrant, said his apartment feels spacious enough, even if he can’t always leave it.
“We have four rooms in our apartment here, running water and a bathroom,” he said. One of his daughters had a faint blue cross tattooed on her forehead.
Bahta said that to give the immigrants a sense of normalcy, he “broadcasts security to them,” always remaining calm — even as rockets land.
“It’s OK to be scared, but don’t lose control,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to be tomorrow, but meanwhile we don’t panic. If you go into the reinforced room, nothing will happen.”
Yeshuas said any fear of rockets paled in comparison to the spiritual fulfillment he got from finally living in Israel.
“We’ve dreamed many years of getting to Israel,” he said. “The dream is realized and we’re very happy. I believe in God — God knows.”
Bahta said Ethiopians are used to thinking in terms of survival. “If you have food, good. If not, you die,” he said.
None of them would refuse an opportunity to move to Israel, he said. Many Ethiopians see Israel as a land of plenty and a way out of Africa’s desperate poverty. For many, aliyah is the realization of a lifelong dream.
“Every beginning is hard, but the hardship gets canceled out because of the happiness,” Bahta said. “You realized the dream. What, they shouldn’t come? There’s nothing like that. This will change their lives.”
JTA Wire Service
More on: Israel under fire
KFAR AZA, Israel – In some ways, Israel’s latest confrontation with Hamas looks like past conflicts in the Gaza Strip. Operation Pillar of Defense has left some key Hamas leaders dead, depleted weapons supplies, and hit more than 1,000 targets in Gaza.
“We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the terrorist organizations” in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at his Sunday Cabinet meeting.
But there are also some important — and more worrying — differences that Israel is seeing in Hamas this time around. The terrorist organization that rules Gaza is using more powerful missiles, with a range that can reach the Israeli heartland, and Hamas has closer and stronger allies at its side.
My dad told me last night that maybe if I write a good blog, this whole Hamas sending rockets over thing will end.
Not likely but I’ll try.
Things on my end of Israel — at least for me — have been very on edge. Suddenly every sound I hear I need to double think. I feel like a two year old telling myself, “Now, that’s a car alarm so sit back down and calm down.” And that whistle of wind, ya that’s wind.
A week ago I never thought it was possible for someone to jump from wind ... and then came this week.
The sirens wail.
Israelis run for cover.
And in America, Jews ask: How can we help?
To a large extent, they already have.
Of the more 850 missiles that Gaza fired into Israel in the past week, more than 300 were knocked down by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which was funded in large part with hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid. This has been a key legislative accomplishment of pro-Israel activists and legislators in recent years.
Sometimes it comes down to context, says Jeffrey Salkin, the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey director.
Noting the tendency of the mainstream American media to oversimplify events in the Middle East, Salkin said that “by and large, the American media has been appropriately sympathetic to the plight of everyday Israelis.” But, he added, “this is a complex situation and we have to make room for nuance.
“There are those in the media who appear to think that if it cannot be said in a tweet or a sound bite, it’s almost as if it’s not worth saying,” he said. “You cannot discern the truth about what is going on with Israel and the Palestinians in a few short sentences. I wish people had more patience to learn this very complex tale.”