JERUSALEM — A PLANELOAD of Bosnian refugees flew into a storm of controversy on their arrival in Israel Feb. 16, amid claims they are pawns in an Israeli public relations stunt. Eighty-four Bosnian Muslims, rescued from refugee camps in Croatia, arrived after being granted indefinite asylum by Israel. But Israeli Arab leaders refused to have anything to do with them, making their future unclear.
Caught in a domestic political row between the government and Israeli Arab leaders, the Bosnians settled in to a nature conservationists' field camp amid massive publicity.
Originally, they had been due to find homes in Israeli Arab villages in the Galilee, among fellow Muslims. But at the last moment, village leaders pulled out of the operation, claiming that it did not have the approval of the Bosnian authorities.
"We have come to the conclusion this is an operation aimed at improving Israel's image, which has been tarnished by the Palestinian deportations," Israeli Arab leader Ahmed Tibi said.
Government officials, meanwhile, said they believed the Arab mayors had caved in to pressure from the Palestine Liberation Organization not to accept the Bosnians while 400 Palestinian deportees were still camped in southern Lebanon. No gimmick, Israel says
Denying that the offer of refuge to the Bosnians is "any sort of gimmick," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said the deal had been under negotiation with the Representative Council of Jewish Organizations in France for some time.
Israel sent medical supplies to Sarajevo last summer, he pointed out, and Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, the key Israeli official involved, has taken an interest in the Bosnians' plight since he visited the former Yugoslavia months ago.
Israeli Arab leaders are angry, however, that Mr. Sarid should claim credit for the humanitarian gesture when they say their own efforts to bring Muslim refugees to Israel have been repeatedly frustrated by the government.
After visiting refugee camps in Croatia last July, Israeli Arab mayors "made it clear that we were willing to adopt up to 1,000 children, women, and old men in our homes," says Ibrahim Sarsour, mayor of the Israeli Arab town of Kfar Kassem. "For six months the Israeli government denied our requests. We were completely shocked and surprised when they announced they were willing to take 101 refugees," the originally advertised number who were planning to come. Numbers suspicious, Arabs say
That figure itself, he adds, was suspicious. Israel has offered to take back 101 of the deportees. The Palestinians, however, argue that all 400 should be allowed to return.
Late Feb. 15, Sarid produced a letter from Bosnian Vice President Zlatco Lagumdzija approving the operation, to counter Israeli Arab complaints that it had not been coordinated with the Bosnian authorities.
"If we get a message personally from the Bosnian government, we can deal with this point again," Mr. Sarsour says. "We wanted to help the Bosnians six months ago, and our intention is still to help them for an unlimited time."
In the meantime, the Bosnians may find their living conditions better in Israel than in Croatia. But they will also find they have moved to another part of the world where political motivations weigh just as heavily as humanitarian concerns.