Miss Israel visits the Balkans
A Jewish relief agency flies a planeload of Kosovar refugees to Israel, where the country's mixed feelings about a Muslim "Greater Albania" -- and its own Arabs -- awaits them
Jerusalem, 15 April 1999, SALON.COM

In the lobby of Ben Gurion airport at 5 a.m. sits Miss Israel, smiling and relaxed, with long black curls, a baby blue shirt and tight denims. Her presence raises the sleepy eyelids of a dozen Israeli and foreign journalists invited by the Jewish Agency to cover a first in the organization's history: the rescue of non-Jewish persecuted people -- Muslim Kosovars -- stranded in a fenced-off refugee camp in Macedonia.

Seventeen families, including six infants and an 85-year old grandmother, will be given a temporary home in a lush and peaceful area north of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast. They will receive money, Hebrew lessons, a roof and hot meals for six months, with the option to stay longer if they wish to.

The special flight -- Israir 100 -- was scheduled on the eve of Holocaust memorial day, for obvious symbolic reasons. Israelis are saying: We remember the plight of our people, forced out of their homes, pushed into ghettos, stripped of their jobs, dignity and life. No matter that the Kosovars are Muslim. A tremendously successful fund-raising concert given by leading Israeli pop singers in Tel Aviv last week was dubbed "We of All People Cannot Remain Silent."

Miss Israel is here because, well, that's not clear. Maybe she wants to do the Princess Di thing: use her celebrity to raise the profile of a humanitarian cause. And vice-versa. She isn't that well-known, although her election in March made quite a splash in Israel and abroad: Rana Raslan, 22, born in the coastal city of Haifa, is the first Arab Miss Israel in the beauty contest's history.

Right-wing Israelis were outraged. Can't she be the beauty queen of some other country, they asked, listing the Arab states that surround the Jewish homeland. She stood her ground nicely. I'm an Israeli too, she said. There are 1 million Arabs in Israel proper -- Arabs who stayed in their villages when Israel won its war of independence in 1948 and established a Jewish state in Palestine. Recently Gideon Levy, columnist for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, wondered why the country didn't offer the Palestinians who fled or were expelled by Jews in 1948 the sympathy it gives the Kosovars. "Has anyone ever thought of holding a telethon for the benefit of refugees in Gaza or the West Bank?" he asked. "The closer the despair comes to our house, the more it is our fault and the less willing we are to help out."

But that is a different story. The pictures of Kosovar refugees on TV give Holocaust survivors nightmares. Today they are going to act.

Miss Israel is doing her share. She has a big box of chocolate Kinder eggs between her legs -- something to give children in the refugee camp. "The message is peace, peace, peace," the beauty queen says through her agent. She's taking English lessons in preparation for the Miss Universe contest in May, but she's not fluent yet.

On the flight to Skopje, Macedonia, the first 10 rows of the plane are taken up by medical aid neatly packed in cardboard boxes, slapped with a big photogenic sticker: "From Israel with sympathy." The back of the Boeing 737 is a business class of sorts where organizers, government ministers and reporters move from seat to seat, exchanging information and sound bites.

At dawn, when the light through the windows turns pink, we see snow-covered mountains through the clouds, misty hills, well-marked fields and red roofs. There are NATO helicopters on the runway. When we touch ground in Skopje, it is about 7 a.m., local time. We board a bus quickly, taking refuge from the morning chill. We are told to hand over our passports to Macedonian authorities and are let out of the airport complex with a police convoy.

The view from the bus is a mixture of rural beauty, Communist-era apartment blocks and Balkan idiosyncrasies. There are fruit trees in full blossom on both sides of the road, distant mountains, and the minarets of mosques next to Orthodox Christian steeples. During the 40-minute bus ride that takes us north to the Brazde refugee camp, near the Kosovo border, we are lectured on the history of the Jewish community in the area. There have been Jews here for the past 26 centuries ... A large number arrived with Alexander the Great ... In March 1943 about 7,000 Jews were rounded up in a tobacco factory and sent to Treblinka. Nobody survived. Today there are 186 Jews left in Macedonia, mostly in Skopje.

When we finally get to Brazde, 111 refugees are already waiting in buses near the impressive field hospital run by the Israeli army. You might say that they're all packed and ready to go, except they have no belongings, save the jackets they had on their backs when they were forced out of their houses by the Serbs, and the children's knapsacks, packed with bits of food or diapers, given to them in the camp. They're not entirely thrilled about the trip. Their home is Kosovo; they know little about Israel; they just want to leave a refugee camp that, despite the neat rows of tents put up by NATO, the free food and medical care, is a fenced-off universe of concentrated misery. There are 2,000 tents pitched in the mud here at Brazde.

From the corner of my eye, I catch Miss Israel practicing her English with NATO soldiers.
On the return trip, the professionals move to the front of the plane, where the aid boxes had been, while the refugees are told to sit in the back of the plane, like smokers. A young steward complains about the smell in the cabin. It's not really his fault. He has no idea that refugee camps have no showers and that, in the absence of toilets, people are forced to crouch over holes in the ground, their naked parts barely protected by low canvas screens.

Arms extend into the central aisle during takeoff, imitating the surge and glide of wings. For some of the Kosovars, the flight is their first ever. Not for Enver Hassani, 40, who was expelled from Pristina, the regional capital of Kosovo. He's been to Belgium, Germany, Switzerland -- "You must understand: I used to have a life," he says. Until two weeks ago, Hassani owned two gold jewelry shops and three small cars. But when the Serbs came to his door, saying "You like NATO? Go to NATO," he and his four children were packed into a train for Macedonia and forced to leave everything behind.

Now Hassani is on his way to Israel, for the simple reason that he's "tired of Europe and crazy Balkan politics." He was also impressed by the Israeli field hospital in Brazde and thinks Israelis are OK.

"What is there on TV in Israel?" he asks. There's CNN, BBC World, Spanish and Italian channels -- "OK, OK," he says, satisfied.

The plane's intercom is used to make emotional speeches about the peace and dignity Kosovars will recover in Israel. Lunch is an introduction to Middle Eastern food, with hummus and baklava. There is Israeli folk music, mandatory clapping. Jewish Agency workers distribute bright white T-shirts and baseball caps bearing the star of David and sing, while Miss Israel pretends to sleep under her black sunglasses. The crew runs up and down the center aisle, plying the refugees with sponge cake until they cry uncle. And the plane, finally, touches down at Ben Gurion airport.

"Welcome to Israel, the land of milk and honey," says the pilot. Unfortunately for the Kosovar refugees -- lawyers, doctors and engineers, graced with individual names and addresses until just a few weeks ago -- the PR circus has just begun.

Now Miss Israel wears her prettiest smile, walking down the rolling staircase as if it were a fashion runway. On the tarmac Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, are approaching at a fast pace, surrounded by sharp-looking security guards. The cameras are trained on Netanyahu's face and body, both in excellent pre-electoral shape. He has come to shake hands, touch babies and show support for a popular cause.

Until recently, of course, it had not been his cause. His foreign minister, waving the specter of a Muslim "Greater Albania," home of Islamic terrorists, had criticized the NATO airstrikes. But with general elections around the corner, it would have been foolish for Netanyahu to ignore the Israeli public's overwhelming response to the Balkan crisis. (So far, Israelis have given $1.5 million to help the Kosovars, a tidy sum for a country of 6 million people.)

The first refugees emerge from the back of the plane. They look almost clean and sporty in their white T-shirts and they wave Israeli flags to please their benefactors. The teenagers smile in the sun, noticing palm trees, anticipating happiness. But their parents look exhausted and haggard.

Briefed in advance, Netanyahu singles out Lamia Jaha, a woman whose parents saved Jews during World War II. Descendants of the people they saved now live in Israel. Lamia's husband, Vlaznim, an anonymous-looking man in his 40s, is listening to the prime minister make TV promises about granting the Muslim family Israeli citizenship, when he is rudely yanked to the side by a CNN cameraman. He's blocking the view. Vlaznim fights his way back to the same spot to listen -- after all, the prime minister is talking about his future -- but he's grabbed by the collar again and greeted with a loud "Fuck you." Welcome to Israel.

The refugees are taken to a room in the airport to be fêted, filmed and interviewed some more. Clearly, they'd rather see a firm bed and a shower. But the public wants to hear how grateful they are.

Miss Israel is in a foul mood. Security guards won't let her into the reception room because her passport hasn't been stamped properly. "It's because I'm not Jewish, " she says angrily in Hebrew. Forget the speech she wanted to give for the refugees. "That's it. I'm going home."

© Flore de Préneuf