Dec. 16, 2004
Shocked delight as Israel sends aid to Sudan refugees

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

In what Israeli officials are calling a first, Israel is sending some $20,000 in aid to Sudan to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis there.

On Wednesday, Israel joined with several US Jewish groups in sending $100,000 to support the International Rescue Committee and aid children in Sudan and Chad orphaned by the civil war in Sudan's Darfur region. Sudanese refugees and human-rights groups say government-sponsored Arab militias known as the Janjaweed are killing of tens of thousands of black Muslims in Darfur in a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Mohamed Yahya, a native of Darfur and founder of a group called Representatives of the Massaleit Community in Exile, said his countrymen were grateful for the assistance and astonished by its source.

"We have been taught for all our lives, from the primary school to the university, that you are the top enemy for Muslims and Arabs all over the world," Yahya said of the Jews and Israelis behind the $100,000 effort. Now, he said, "we realized that what we have been taught all our lives is a kind of a rumor. When we have been killed you are protecting us; when we are displaced, you are trying to save us; when our people are murdered and raped, you are there trying to help us."

Jewish groups collectively have sent more than $1 million in aid to humanitarian causes in Sudan since the violence in Darfur took a turn for the worse in early 2003, according to the American Jewish World Service, which supports humanitarian and economic projects in the developing world. Earlier this year, the organization helped create the Jewish Coalition for Sudan relief, a collection of some 15 groups. The groups involved in the new $100,000 aid package were the Union for Reform Judaism, the New Jersey MetroWest federation and UJA-Federation of New York, in addition to the 15-member coalition, AJWS and Israel.

Arye Mekel, Israel's consul general in New York, said Israel decided to send the aid and do so along with American Jewish groups to stress that Israel and the Jews work together when it comes to Jewish-values issues.

"The State of Israel is following the developments in Darfur carefully, and as a people who has gone through persecution, we could not sit idly on the sidelines through such a devastating humanitarian disaster," Mekel said. "This is according to the Jewish values."

The civil war in Sudan has been waxing and waning since 1983, but the violence escalated in Darfur, a farming region in the western part of the country, in February 2003. Since then, an estimated 2 million Sudanese have been displaced as the Janjaweed, nomadic Arab tribesmen armed by the Sudanese government, began raping, maiming and murdering their black African farming neighbors, humanitarian experts say. The government in Khartoum tacitly has encouraged the violence and exploited the ethnic tensions in a bid to control Darfur's water and arable land resources, they said.

"These are people who had a functional lifestyle and have lost everything they've owned," Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, said in August after a visit to Sudan. "The nature of life in these places is really appalling."

Yahya said he was grateful for the American Jewish support and the aid from Israel, which Mekel called Israel's first humanitarian support to residents of an Arab country with which it has no diplomatic ties.

"You are the voice of the voiceless," Yahya said. "We need to support each other and stand by you and support you forever."

"I tell my people in Sudan and in Darfur: Please forget about the rumors that the Israeli people are our enemy," he said. "They are not enemies anymore."