More than 100 refugees from the ethnically spawned violence in Kosovo arrived here Monday on a profoundly symbolic day, as Israel began its annual remembrance ceremonies for the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who greeted the 112 ethnic Albanian refugees at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, said events in the Balkans, although horrific, do not compare to the tragedy of the Holocaust in World War II, when 6 million Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis.
But Jews are perhaps especially moved by the plight of the Kosovars, Netanyahu told the newcomers, who arrived from Macedonia aboard a plane chartered by the semi-governmental Jewish Agency. Some appeared relatively cheerful; others, closing their eyes during the lengthy arrival ceremony, looked dazed or weary.
"We as Jews have a special sensitivity to suffering," the prime minister said. "When we see cars, trucks, trains, rows of refugees walking on foot, when we see the scared faces of children and their weeping mothers, we feel a special responsibility to get up and act."
Some Concerns About Nation's Offer Aired
As the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo intensified, Israel volunteered last week to take in the small group of refugees for at least six months, despite concerns by some Israelis about the state's providing even temporary shelter to non-Jews. Most ethnic Albanians from the Serbian province, including virtually all of the new arrivals here, are Muslims.
The government's offer followed widespread public criticism of the Netanyahu administration because of its initially lukewarm support for NATO's military campaign against the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. U.S. and NATO officials have accused Milosevic's army of forcing thousands of ethnic Albanians to leave their homes in Kosovo and flee into neighboring countries, and many are reported to have been killed.
Netanyahu has since expressed support for NATO's military operation and distanced himself from comments by Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who has refused to back NATO publicly and has expressed concern that Islamic "terrorist" groups are working among the Kosovars.
Many other Israelis are wholeheartedly behind NATO and in favor of helping the refugees--thousands of these supporters attended an outdoor benefit concert in Tel Aviv last week--and official Israel is catching up.
In the last week, the government and the Jewish Agency, which was created to encourage and support Jewish immigration to Israel, have airlifted more than 100 tons of food, medicine and supplies to Kosovo refugees in Macedonia and Albania. Perhaps most significant, an Israeli mobile hospital is serving the Brazda and Stankovac refugee camps in northern Macedonia, caring for the ill and delivering babies--at least seven so far.
It was through the hospital that many of Monday's arrivals came to be in Israel, they said.
Astrit Ruci, 24, a medical student from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, said he began chatting with the Israeli doctors and nurses in the camp and was delighted when they offered to let him help them in the hospital. Next, they suggested that he, his parents, brother and grandmother come to live in Israel, at least for a while.
"I saw they are good people," Ruci said just after his arrival, as his brother, Driton, dozed in a white plastic chair beside him. "They are like Albanians. We have the same problems of ethnic cleansing and genocide that they had in the Holocaust."
But many of the new arrivals seemed a little stunned by their tumultuous welcome.
Israeli journalists climbed over chairs and pushed cameras in the faces of dazed-looking children and tearful women. Netanyahu and other politicians running in the May 17 elections patted photogenic babies and thrust out their hands to be shaken as campaign aides snapped photos.
One of those arriving, Lamia Yahad, was singled out for mention by Netanyahu because her parents sheltered several Jews during the Holocaust and were recognized as "righteous Gentiles" by Israel. She pleaded with reporters and photographers to leave her alone.
Some Enjoy Attention, Chatting, Waving Flags
Other refugees seemed to revel in the attention. They chatted amiably with reporters and waved small Israeli flags for photographers. Several said they were glad to be anywhere distant from Serbian troops and NATO bombardments, but they confessed to knowing very little about Israel.
"We only know it is a big, beautiful country and the people are very friendly," said Shehide Ramadani, 18, who arrived with her parents and two siblings. "That's enough."
The refugees--members of 17 families--will be housed at a collective community in northern Israel for six months, then given the choice of remaining in Israel or returning home, if that is possible. Most said they hope to go back to Kosovo. In the meantime, they will receive housing, food, work permits, language lessons and free phone calls, among other benefits.
Not all Israelis are receptive to the idea of the refugees' taking up residence here. Radio talk shows in recent days have been filled with people expressing sympathy but arguing that taking in non-Jews will cause only problems for Israel.
"Let Iran save them, or Syria or Egypt," one man said in a fairly typical response to news of the refugees' imminent arrival. "We have enough Muslims here."