WORLD

Opening the floodgates

Palestinians oppose Soviet Jewish immigration

MARY NEMETH February 26 1990
WORLD

Opening the floodgates

Palestinians oppose Soviet Jewish immigration

MARY NEMETH February 26 1990

Opening the floodgates

ISRAEL

Palestinians oppose Soviet Jewish immigration

Kira Nefedov left Leningrad last month to live in Ariel, a hilltop settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, north of Jerusalem. And like many of the nearly 100 other Jews from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who have immigrated to Ariel (population 6,200) in the past three months, Nefedov, a 36-year-old chemistry teacher now looking for work as a researcher, says that she is puzzled by the political storm surrounding the flow of incoming Soviet Jews. “It’s very nice here,” said Nefedov as she gazed over rocky hills towards the neighboring Arab village of Kifl Harith. “Politics? I left politics behind in the Soviet Union.”

But Nefedov and her compatriots have found themselves in the centre of a controversy that is threatening to undermine the balance of power in the entire Middle East. They are part of a massive wave of immigration to Israel that is

expected to bring about 100,000 Soviet Jews to the country this year. And some Israeli observers predict that as many as one million Soviet Jews will immigrate in the next decade—increasing the population by nearly 25 per cent.

Israeli officials say that less than one per cent of the Soviet immigrants want to settle on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean coast. But even that small increase to the Jewish population of 70,000 settlers already living in the two Israeli-occupied territories has prompted a storm of criticism from Arabs. Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the territories, which Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. They say that the increasing settlement by Jews represents a resurgence of Israeli expansionism. Last week, two separate Arab groups in the territories issued leaflets calling for increased attacks on Israelis to

protest the settlement of Soviet immigrants. “Burn the land under their feet,” one leaflet instructed.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir fuelled Arab concerns last month when he said that the massive wave of immigration “requires a big Land of Israel.” Many Arabs interpreted that comment as evidence of Shamir’s intention to eventually annex the occupied territories. Seeking to allay Arab anxiety—amid U.S. and Egyptian efforts to arrange Middle East peace talks—Shamir last week denied that he has any such plans. And he insisted that there was no government policy to direct newcomers to the occupied territories, although he added, “Every immigrant is free to choose his place of residence.”

The massive influx is occurring at a time of unprecedented democratic change in the Soviet Union. But Soviet Jews say that President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms have led not only to liberal emigration laws, but also to a resurgence of Russian nationalism and anti-Semitism. Last month, a group of Russian nationalists, shouting anti-Jewish slogans, burst into the Central Writers’ House in Moscow and beat some of the writers, many of them Jewish. And Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of the Judaic Studies Centre in Moscow said that such Russian nationalist organizations as Pamyat (Memory) are blaming the country’s more than two million Jews for the Soviet Union’s many social and economic problems. As the country’s economy continues to stagnate, he said, “someone has to be blamed, and often it is the Jews.”

The preferred destination for most Jews leaving the Soviet Union has been the United States. But last October, as the numbers of refugees continued to increase, the Bush administration imposed a quota of 50,000 Soviet refugees a year—diverting most of the exodus to Israel. According to the Jerusalem-based Jewish Agency, which is responsible for settling immigrants in Israel, 3,000 Soviet Jews arrived last November, 3,600 in December and 4,700 last month—compared with only 2,200 for the whole of 1988. “The number is not only big,” said Simha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency, “it’s rising every month.”

Many Israelis say that the increase has been good for the country’s morale because the birthrate among Arabs is so much higher than among Israelis. In fact, until recently, demographers have forecast that the number of Arabs under Israeli rule would outstrip the number of Jews early in the next century. There are now 3.7 million Jews and 650,000 Arabs living inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders— and 1.75 million Palestinians living alongside the 70,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied territories. However, the new Soviet immigrants will dramatically change the country’s demographic future.

Some Israelis contend that the influx will generate economic activity as well. “If you are going to spend $1 million on housing,” said the Jewish Agency’s Dinitz, “you are bound to create an economic incentive. And this will mean economic betterment for all.”

Still, some established Israelis, citing a nine-

per-cent unemployment rate and 20-per-cent annual inflation, say that the immigrants will depress the economy. And they express concern that they will be forgotten in the rush to accommodate the Russian Jews. The Oriental Jewish population, consisting of North African and Asian Jews, who make up most of the inhabitants of Israel’s co-operative villages and city slums, have borne the brunt of the current recession. Said Eli Ben-Menachem, an Indianborn Labor MP and union organizer: “The absorption of new immigrants is important for

all of us, but heaven forbid if we don’t know how to keep the balance in our order of priorities in the allocation of resources.”

Despite the alarm expressed by Arabs, the majority of the newcomers do not appear to want to live in the occupied territories. Said Yigor Khait, a 22-year-old student engineer from Leningrad: “I lived in a big city in Russia, and I want to live in a big city here too. We don’t know what will be the future of the territories.” Still, others, including 29-year-old pediatrician Naum Simanovsky, say that living

in the West Bank or Gaza Strip may be cheaper than in major cities, where a modest, threebedroom apartment can sell for $175,000. “We want a little house of our own,” said Simanovsky, who is married and has two young children. “It is impossible to find one at a price we could afford anywhere else.” He added: “We hope Jews and Arabs can live together, without stones. We are not religious, and we are not extremists.”

But many Palestinians living in the occupied territories say that settlers like the Simanovskys are a threat. Many Arabs saw the Palestine Liberation Organization’s decision in November, 1988, to recognize Israel’s right to exist as an acknowledgment that Israel was no longer bent on expansion. But the rise in Soviet immigration prompted the 46-member Islamic Conference Organization earlier this month to accuse Moscow and Washington of creating a dangerous situation for Palestinians. Said organization chairman Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed alSabah, the emir of Kuwait: “A flood of Jewish emigrants is flowing from the Soviet Union under flags of human rights and freedom of choice. This flood pours into Palestine, leaving its Arab inhabitants with no choice but to get out and disperse or drown.”

Dinitz insists that those concerns are unfounded. “If Israel is going to be stronger,” he said, “it will be more willing to make compromises because the margin of its security will be enhanced. The chance for peace will be enhanced.” But few Arabs are likely to agree. Despite assurances that few immigrants want to live in the occupied territories, the perception among Arabs of a confident and expansionist Israel is threatening to derail the alreadyfragile Middle East peace process.

MARY NEMETH with ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem, ROSEMARIE BOYLE in Moscow and HILARY MACKENZIE in Washington

ERIC SILVER

ROSEMARIE BOYLE

HILARY MACKENZIE