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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

10 Tunisian Jews move to Israel as unrest continues following popular uprising

JERUSALEM - Ten Tunisian Jews have moved to Israel because of the instability following the popular uprising in their home country, an Israeli official said Wednesday.

The Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body that handles immigration, said the Tunisians arrived in Israel on Tuesday and had requested citizenship.

Last week, a popular uprising ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power. Officials say 78 protesters and civilians died in the protests that forced Ben Ali to flee the country, many of them killed by police bullets. Looting and random violence have continued.

Although Jews have not been specifically targeted, Israeli leaders have expressed concern for the safety of the 1,500-member community, which is concentrated on the island of Djerba and in the capital of Tunis.

There has long been a slow trickle of Jewish immigration from Tunisia to Israel, but the number of new arrivals Tuesday was unique. Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said just 16 Tunisians immigrated in all of 2010.

In addition to the 10 who plan to stay permanently in Israel, 10 other young Tunisian Jews arrived Tuesday for a previously scheduled study program, he said.

Most of Tunisia's some 100,000 Jews left between the 1940s and the 1960s, fleeing a wave of violence and persecution that followed Israel's establishment. Around 800,000 Jews were forced from their homes in Arab countries in those years.

Most Tunisian Jews went to France and Israel. While the tiny Tunisian Jewish community's ties with the Muslim majority are generally good, a 2002 al-Qaida suicide bombing targeting a synagogue on Djerba killed 19 people, including 14 German tourists.

Silvan Shalom, an Israeli Cabinet minister and vice prime minister born in Tunisia, expressed concern this week that Islamist groups could take advantage of the chaos, and said Israel was following the situation in the country and particularly that of the Jewish community.

"I don't think they will face problems, but we have to take everything into account and get prepared if something will happen," he told the AP on Sunday.