Bosnian Muslims escape to Israel but become focus of political struggle


February 17, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Eighty-four Bosnians escaped from the chaos of their country yesterday to the quarrels of the Middle East.

The Jewish state became what is apparently the first country in the area to take Muslim Bosnian refugees, though not without a twist of typical Mideast politics.

The refugees, families of men, women and children from 15 towns in Bosnia, are to sit out the duration of the Bosnian civil war in Israel. Israel Radio announced their arrival by playing the song "Stranger In Paradise."

The Muslims were supposed to stay in Arab villages with other Muslims. But the Muslim Arabs who originally thought up the idea boycotted their arrival, and the Israeli government was left to put the refugees up in a dormitory at a nature reserve.

The refugees professed to be pleased to have escaped their war-torn country -- "We were desperate every day, more and more," one said at Tel Aviv's airport -- but the Arabs and Israelis who brought them here are still bickering over the matter.

Seven months ago, Arab leaders conceived the idea of bringing Muslim children out of Bosnia and to their towns. Much of the Muslim Arab world has bemoaned the fate of the Bosnian Muslims but has done little more than complain about the lack of decisive Western action.

Sheik Raad Salah, mayor of the Israeli Arab town of Um el-Fahm, said the Israeli government did nothing with the proposal. In the past week, however, the Israeli environmental affairs minister, Yossi Sarid, unexpectedly told the Arabs that arrangements were being made to bring Bosnian families here.

The Arab leaders are suspicious that Israel is trying to improve its image after the worldwide condemnation of its deportation of 415 Palestinians in December. Sunday, the Israeli Arabs withdrew their support for the plan, reportedly after being urged to do so by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"I don't exactly understand the position of Israel's Arabs," said Ora Namir, Israel's labor and social affairs minister. "It is a political position . . . not a humane position."

The refugees arrived from Zagreb, the Croatian capital, where they have been living for several months. Initially, 101 Bosnians were to come, but 17 reportedly balked on hearing the objections of the Israeli Arab leaders.

They were met at the airport in Tel Aviv by Israeli officials and large blue-and-white Israeli flags, then bused to dormitories at a nature reserve near Haifa.

They will be housed five to a room at the dormitory for a month or more. The reserve, a quiet respite from the war they left, is near several of the Israeli Arab towns that proposed the initial invitation.

"We are delighted we are able to relieve somewhat the suffering of human beings who are victims of an awful and unnecessary war," Mr. Sarid said at the airport. "We would like to do more, much more, but unfortunately this is all a small country can do -- make a minute human gesture."

The Israeli Arab critics said the number of refugees made the Israeli move no more than a gesture for a country that has accepted more than 400,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Apparently, however, no other Arab countries have taken refugees, and most have sent only small amounts of aid to the Slavic Muslims.

Mayor Salah said the Arab leaders backed out of the arrangement because they were not sufficiently assured that Bosnia's Muslim leaders had agreed to it.

"We spoke to the Bosnians, and they told us they didn't know about this," he said yesterday. "Some even told us that they see no difference between this step and pure abduction."

That objection set in motion a flurry of efforts to obtain evidence of approval of the move. Monday, Israeli officials obtained a letter from the Bosnian government authorizing the airlift. They promised that all of the refugees would sign a statement saying their move was voluntary and that they would return at the end of the conflict in Bosnia.

But the Arab leaders said the letter was not signed by Muslim Bosnian officials and that they are unsatisfied by the assurances.

"We have reached the conclusion that this is an operation aimed at improving Israel's image, which has been tarnished by the Palestinian deportations," Ahmed Tibi, a member of the Israeli Arab Committee, said Monday.

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