Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Israel Exploits Russia-Ukraine War to Attract New Settlers

A Ukrainian Jewish refugee on a flight to Israel
A Ukrainian Jewish refugee, who fled the war in her country, on a flight to Israel from the Moldovan capital Chisinau on March 17, 2022. GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP

This article was translated from Arabic.

Ali Noureddine

Israel employs the “law of return,” which not only enables Jews from all over the world to live in regions under Israeli control but also grants them citizenship immediately. Israel has counted on this law since its inception to legalize attracting and settling Jewish immigrants, a policy that has resulted in a gradual shift in demographic balances following Israel’s declaration as a state in 1948. Thus, Israel has relied on such immigrations to bolster the proportion of its Jewish settlers compared to the Palestinian population and preserve the state’s Jewish identity.

Organized Jewish immigration: A crucial part of Israel’s history

Israel tends to take advantage of severe military and security crises in places where Jews reside outside Israel by relocating members of the community to its territory and ultimately settling them for the long term. Moreover, successive Israeli governments have organized, either officially or through the Jewish Agency for Israel, numerous waves of the mass immigration of Jews to Israel without there being any military or security crises justifying such relocations.

Operation Bisat al-Rih, which saw the movement of 49,000 Yemeni Jews to Israel between 1949 and 1950, is one instance of a relocation scheme orchestrated by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Similar to Operation Yachin, which began in 1964 and involved the relocation of Moroccan Jews, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah saw the removal and relocation of almost 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel. Operation Joshua relocated Jews from Ethiopia in 1985.

In Israel’s history, such waves of mass immigration orchestrated by the government or by Jewish organizations have grown frequent and have even shaped its identity, which the government explicitly defends as a permanent national policy. Thus, it was not unexpected that Israel would view the conflict in Ukraine as just another opportunity to import people from Russia and Ukraine.

Israel needs such immigration now for a variety of reasons, including guaranteeing its labor requirements across the board and ensuring complete Jewish control over its land. Furthermore, Israel requires these immigrants to increase its illegal settlement activity, which is directly planned and carried out by the state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israel has orchestrated waves of immigration from Russia and Ukraine at various points throughout history. This experience makes it easier for them to operate there due to the historical lines of communication with the Jewish populations in these two countries.

The Jews of Russia and the partial mobilization

In 2021, 23,000 Russian Jews immigrated to Israel, accounting for 47% of all Jews who immigrated to the Jewish State in that one year. In defiance of court orders to cease activities, the Jewish Agency expanded its efforts in Russia, which helped to drive a substantial portion of Russian Jews to Israel. The fact that this organization specializes in connecting with Jews all around the world and organizing their official state-sponsored immigration to Israel must not be overlooked.

Israel was making significant attempts to entice immigrants from the Jewish community in Russia even prior to the start of the conflict in Ukraine. The partial mobilization announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, which involved sending over 300,000 Russians to the front lines in Ukraine, provided Israel with an opportunity. By offering an alternative for Russian Jews seeking to avoid the battlefield, Israel may increase the number of Jewish immigrants from Russia.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid contacted Am Shalom, acting director of the Israeli airline El Al, as soon as this partial mobilization was announced and requested that he increase the number of direct flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv in order to transport Russian Jews who sought to immigrate to Israel. This coincided with statements by Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who indicated that some 40,000 Russian Jews who met the conditions for immigration to Israel went to the Israeli Embassy in Moscow to submit applications. 

The Israeli Ministry of Finance and Immigration prepared aid packages to support Russian Jews who were just arriving in the nation while working to entice additional Russian Jews to relocate to Israel. Given the economic strains Russia is under and the widespread concern that its residents would be forced to join in Russia’s conflict in Ukraine, Israel has stepped up its attempts to encourage more Jews to move to Israel. Currently, there are over 165,000 Jews  in Russia.

Recent days have seen an extraordinary surge in the cost of plane tickets from Russia to Israel, reaching an all-time high of $6,700. This is due to the strong demand from sizable groups of Russian Jews attempting to relocate to Israel, causing a shortage of seats on flights to Tel Aviv. As a result, a number of Russian Jews have flown to neighboring nations in an effort to book flights to Tel Aviv, raising the cost of plane tickets in those nations as well.

The Jews of Ukraine and the Russian invasion

Israel welcomed between 3,000 and 4,000 Jewish immigrants from Ukraine a year between 2011 and 2021 as a consequence of the Jewish Agency’s intensive efforts throughout the nation to draw Ukrainian Jews to Israel. Thus, even before the war started, Israel had strong channels of contact with the Ukrainian Jewish community and saw it as a key source of Jewish immigration to Israel. Jews in Ukraine on whom the “Law of Return” would apply  number between 200,000 and 250,000.

Israel stepped up its efforts and started planning organized excursions to move Ukrainian Jews to Israel at the onset of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The Jewish Agency, the army, and the National Security Council in Tel Aviv participated in a government “contingency plan” that was employed to carry out these activities. Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, Israel has established highly ambitious objectives for this project, including examining the local capacity to eventually absorb all of Ukraine’s Jewish population, or more than 200,000 immigrants.

Israel has not yet released official numbers estimating the entire number of Jews from Ukraine who moved to Israel and are now eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. However, in an effort to increase the presence of Jewish communities there at the expense of Palestinian towns and cities, the extreme right has started creating plans to house all these immigrants in West Bank illegal settlements.

The West Bank Settlements Council has begun assembling specialized teams to accompany Jewish families from Ukraine and support their reintegration. The council has also stated its willingness to build many prefabricated homes in various West Bank regions in order to accommodate the imminent influx of Ukrainian Jews. It is crucial to emphasize that, as part of a deliberate Israeli policy to maximize the demographic effect, a number of newly arrived Russian and Ukrainian Jews have already made their way to the illegal West Bank settlements.

The law of return versus the right of return

Israel exploits its authority as a state to entice and settle a sizeable number of Jews from Russia and Ukraine by capitalizing on the conflict’s impacts. The Jewish State provides tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Jews the right to citizenship and resettlement under the guise of the “Law of Return,” but does not show the same courtesy to the millions of Palestinians who were forced to leave their lands during the Nakba of 1948.

The fact that Israel is exploiting Jewish immigrants impacted by the conflict by relocating them to illegal West Bank settlements, which will exacerbate the suffering of the indigenous Palestinian population, is of paramount importance. 

In this respect, Israel would have turned Ukrainian war victims fleeing their homes into a weapon to oppress another population. While the Ukrainians today are struggling to repel Russia’s invasion of their country, Israel has turned this occasion into an opportunity to perpetuate another occupation by expanding its settlements in the West Bank.

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