Israeli town welcomes fleeing Ukrainian Jews

Mr Ronen Plot, the mayor of Nof Hagalil, said the Israeli town will absorb as many people as they can. PHOTO: AFP

NOF HAGALIL, ISRAEL (AFP) - In a parking lot under his municipality office in northern Israel, Nof Hagalil mayor Ronen Plot juggled phone calls as volunteers unloaded blankets and clothes donated for refugees fleeing war in Ukraine.

"Nof Hagalil is built on immigration," said Mr Plot, 67, who arrived in Israel nearly 50 years ago from Moldova. "We will absorb as many people as we can."

After the Russian invasion began, Mr Plot posted on Facebook, inviting Ukrainian "olim", or Jewish immigrants, to his town and urging residents to pitch in.

"If a big immigration wave arrives, we'd be happy to take part in the Israeli effort," he wrote.

Under Israel's "law of return", anyone with at least one Jewish parent or grandparent is entitled to citizenship.

Among those responding to Mr Plot's invitation was Mr Chaim Gershman, who reached Nof Hagalil last Thursday (March 3) with his wife Ora and their four children. His mother Nelja, 60, arrived a day later.

Chaim and Ora Gershman left Ukraine for Israel under its "law of return". PHOTO: AFP

Mr Gershman said he had just one hour to pack, as Russian bombs fell on his community near Kyiv. He left wearing work clothes from fixing a faucet.

"At first, we didn't believe a thing like this will happen and we thought it was fake," said Mr Gershman.

He said when he arrived in Israel, he chose Nof Hagalil because of the mayor's posts. "I saw a man inviting, saying come to our city, we'll welcome you," he said.

Mr Plot said his community offers a familiar environment because more than half its 50,000 residents speak Russian.

Shops sell Belarusian herring and Georgian sparkling water, and street signs are translated into Russian.

The mayor said he located 600 empty hotel rooms and 300 vacant apartments to house the Ukrainians who are exhausted.

"They endured a lot of misery, they are hungry and tired and it's awful," he said.

The Gershmans fled the Kyiv-area town of Anatevka, built in the image of the fictional Jewish village made famous in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof".

Escorted by police, the family drove 17 hours to reach the Moldovan border, only stopping once for 10 minutes amid explosions.

"We left everything we had, our whole lives," Mrs Ora Gershman, 35, said.

Now, the family of seven sleep in two adjoining rooms in Nof Hagalil's Plaza Hotel. The children have enrolled in school, while the parents organise paperwork and search for permanent accommodation.

Volunteers in Nof Hagalil organise donations for refugees fleeing Ukraine on March 6, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has avoided forceful condemnation of Russia's invasion, stressing Israel's strong ties with Moscow and Kyiv.

Mr Gershman said he did not "understand how one can stay neutral when it is clear who the aggressor is".

"Putin has said they will only attack military targets but at the moment they are bombing without distinction," he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The authorities say as many as 100,000 "olim" and their families could arrive from both Ukraine and Russia, evoking an earlier wave of about a million people who immigrated from the collapsing former Soviet Union.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked estimated on Sunday that about 15,000 Ukrainians could reach Israel by the end of March, with 90 per cent unqualified for "return" rights. She said that was an impossible rate for the country of 9.4 million people.

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"We are the insurance policy for the Jewish people," Ms Shaked, of Mr Bennett's religious nationalist Yamina party, told Israeli public radio.

Israeli citizens who host non-Jewish Ukrainians who are not their immediate relatives must post a 10,000 shekel (S$4,145) deposit per traveller, returnable when they depart.

Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai wrote on Twitter: "Such a demand at this time is inhuman and immoral and prevents refugees fleeing the war and without family in Israel from seeking refuge here."

Ukraine's ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk told reporters on Monday that an agreement had been reached on deposits for non-Jewish refugees and thanked Ms Shaked, without providing specifics.

The arrival of Jews to Nof Hagalil touches a historical nerve.

It was built as a Jewish town in the 1950s on land appropriated from the neighbouring Arab city of Nazareth. Israel's founding prime minister David Ben Gurion aimed to "Judaize" the Galilee, which was inhabited mostly by Israel's 20 per cent Arab minority.

Arab citizens of Israel are the descendants of Palestinians who remained during Israel's 1948 war of independence, while more than 700,000 others fled or were forced from their homes. Israel has not allowed most Palestinian refugees to return.

With time, Arab citizens have moved into Nof Hagalil, and today they comprise about a quarter of its population.

One of them is Mr Saed Diab, 39, the banquet manager of the Plaza Hotel that is hosting refugees. He said he donated hand-me-down clothing for the new arrivals.

"I was in Kyiv on holiday just before the coronavirus. Nice city, good people," he said. "I'm sorry for what's happening to them."

Follow The Straits Times' live coverage on the Ukraine crisis here.

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