The Minister of Aliyah is preparing to rescue and bring in approximately 200,000 potential olim from Ukraine, in case of a Russian attack.
Israel has a plan to rescue Jews and their relatives in case of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, senior government officials said earlier this week.
The operation includes rescuing them, bringing them to Israel and providing temporary housing. Details of the operation remain unclear, but all of the relevant government ministries and official organizations have been meeting regularly about creating the potential evacuation plan for many weeks.
As threats of a Russian invasion of Ukraine become more concrete, Ukraine’s Jewish community members have to decide if they are interested in leaving with the assistance of Jewish organizations and the Israeli government.
According to senior Israeli government officials, there are approximately 200,000 residents of Ukraine eligible to move to Israel under the Law of Return if they choose to. About 50,000 out of the 200,000 are Jewish according to Halacha.
Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (Blue and White) said she has instructed her ministry to prepare for a scenario of thousands of immigrants in the event of a Russian attack.
“We have no way to indicate at this moment how many potential olim will enter Israel at this point, but we need to be prepared,” she said.
When asked how many Ukrainian Jews are estimated to be interested in an immediate evacuation, Tamano-Shata said it could be “tens of thousands or just thousands.”
Even if a Ukrainian Jew wants to leave the country and not make aliyah, that would be possible because “the Jewish state was established in order to be a safe haven for Jews,” a senior Israeli official said. “Therefore, we do not differentiate between those who wish to make aliyah and those who are just interested in saving their lives.”
“We know that the second the first gun is shot, we’re going to be in a whole different ball game, and many more will be interested,” the official added.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has implored Israelis to leave Ukraine.
“Come home,” he said at the start of a cabinet meeting. “Don’t take an unnecessary risk. Don’t wait for the situation in which you’ll really want to return and it will already be impossible. Show responsibility for your own lives; leave Ukraine as quickly as possible and come home.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said according to intelligence assessments Israel has seen, mostly from the Americans, “there is a short window of time. We are telling Israelis to come back before things get more complicated.”
The Foreign Ministry last Saturday night issued a travel warning and called on Israelis to return from Ukraine immediately. There also are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Israelis currently in Ukraine. Among them, 6,450 registered with the Israeli Embassy in Kyiv to get updates, and the embassy is trying to reach the others. There are about 2,000 Israelis studying in Ukraine, most of whom are Arabs.
Ten flights to Israel left Ukraine last weekend, and were not full, and 32 more were planned.
Bennett said it remained unclear how the tensions on the Ukraine-Russia border would unfold.
“Like the rest of the world, we hope that the tensions will end without an escalation,” he said. “But it is our primary responsibility to be concerned about our citizens, Israeli citizens.”
Bennett and other relevant ministers and heads of government agencies held another meeting last Sunday evening about the situation in Ukraine, following discussions over the weekend, which resulted in ordering the IDF and Foreign Ministry to prepare for evacuations if necessary.
Asked in a press briefing why Israel has not taken a side in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Lapid said: “I may be more careful than other foreign ministers, but I have a problem that they don’t: Russia and Ukraine have huge Jewish communities, so we need to be careful.”
“Our stance is clear,” he said. “We need to prevent an armed confrontation between Russia and Ukraine… Israel is not involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and therefore is behaving cautiously.”
The Foreign Ministry sent the families of diplomats stationed in Ukraine back to Israel on February 13, but “in a country with 10,000 to 15,000 Israelis and 150,000 to 200,000 Jews, you cannot remove the diplomats, because we’ll need them,” Lapid said.
“We are proud that we are always there for Israelis in times of need,” he said. “It’s part of our mission.”
To that end, Israel has already discussed with Kyiv a contingency plan to open a second diplomatic office in Lviv to facilitate the evacuation of Israelis by land on Ukraine’s western border if necessary, Lapid said. Israel has discussed with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania the possibility of evacuating Israelis out through their countries.
*This article was current as of press time.
By Zvika Klein and