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Immigration to israel hits 20 year low

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Immigrants to Israel hit new low

THE flood is drying to a trickle. Israel is facing a population crisis with the number of Jewish immigrants moving to the strife-torn country falling to a 20-year low.

The four-year Palestinian intifada and a crippling economic recession, which has cut benefits for new settlers, are believed to be behind the steep decline.

Demographic experts are now predicting that the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River - in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza - will outnumber Israelis within the next 15 years.

The new immigration figures have been released by the Central Bureau of Statistics, which says that for the first half of 2004 only 8,550 immigrants had moved to Israeli, the lowest number in 20 years.

The figure is 7% lower than the first half of 2003 and 43% lower than for the same period in 2002. Some 9,200 immigrants arrived in the first half of 2003, compared with 14,900 in the first half of 2002, a contrast to the heady days of the 1990s when some one million immigrants arrived on Israelís doorstep after the former communist bloc collapsed.

The reality is that with the source of immigration from the former Soviet Union now drying up, and the economy stabilising in Argentina - another recent source of immigrants - the Jewish state is finding it tough to attract Jews.

Because of the rapid natural increase of the Palestinian population, demographers have estimated that by 2020 some seven to eight million Palestinians will live between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, compared with only six million Jews.

The percentage of the Jewish population within Israel itself will drop to 68%, despite continuing immigration.

The slowdown has also not been helped by Israeli government moves in the last 12 months to slash immigrant benefits as part of its economic reform programme. "I think this yearís figures would be much higher than they are if these measures had not been taken," the agencyís director of immigration and absorption, Mike Rosenberg, said.

Officials from the Jewish Agency, which brings immigrants to Israel, met Israelís prime minister, Ariel Sharon, last week, asking him to overturn a decision to reduce mortgage benefits to new immigrants.

There are some brighter spots on the horizon however. Officials are expecting a rise of up to 20% in newcomers from France and North America this year.

Rosenberg said growing anti-semitism in France was no doubt having an impact.

"Jews in France are not feeling comfortable, people are already buying apartments in Israel," he said. "I do think we are going to see a rise in immigration from there in the next few years."

Of the North American immigrants, some 60% are Orthodox Jews such as the Balofsky family which arrived last week from Toronto.

"We were raised to love Israel," said 26-year-old Ahuva Balofsky as she sat sipping a soft drink in Jerusalemís main pedestrian mall. But after a number of years of talking about it, "the signs were there this year that this was the time to make aliyah [move to Israel]," explained the Jewish Studies teacher.

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