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.
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.
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."
that is a different story. The pictures of Kosovar refugees on TV give
Holocaust survivors nightmares. Today they are going to act.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the corner of my eye, I catch Miss Israel practicing her English with
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.
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.
is there on TV in Israel?" he asks. There's CNN, BBC World, Spanish
and Italian channels -- "OK, OK," he says, satisfied.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.