Natan Sharansky, Israel's interior minister, said he empathizes with the suffering of the 18,000 Ethiopians who have gathered at dusty transit camps, and he promised to streamline the process of applying for immigration to Israel.
"To see the suffering up close is a difficult experience that is impossible to be indifferent to," said Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons for trying to help Jews make aliyah.
At the same time, the interior minister said he does not intend to announce a mass immigration of the Falash Mura without a careful review of applicants' eligibility to enter under the Law of Return, under which any person with one Jewish parent or grandparent may make aliyah, or under the Law of Entry, which provides for family reunification.
Sharansky made clear he could not promise that all of the country's estimated 26,000 Falash Mura -- descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity -- would be found eligible.
The interior minister visited compounds this week in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and in the northern city of Gondar, where thousands of Ethiopians who left their homes hoping to move to Israel live in crowded camps. Some of them have waited for years to receive answers to their immigration requests.
At the compound in Addis Ababa on Monday, some of the Ethiopians sang Israel's national anthem and baked matzot to show Sharansky what they had learned about Judaism since leaving their villages.
Some 18,000 Falash Mura are living in squalid conditions near compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar operated by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, an organization that has been pushing Israel to speed up the application process.
Prior to Sharansky's trip, two Israeli legislators returned from Ethiopia and warned that the Falash Mura are facing hunger and disease. Zevulun Orlev and Yuri Shtern also warned that a drought is approaching the areas where the Falash Mura are waiting.
Sharansky noted the dire conditions in the compounds and lauded humanitarian aid provided at the sites by such organizations as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
At the same time, he said, the criteria for determining immigration eligibility cannot be altered.
"On the one hand we have a humanitarian problem, where we must ease the suffering of people," he said. "On the other hand, the Law of Return, as the basis for the state of Israel as the ingathering of exiles, cannot be different for America, Russia, Morocco and Ethiopia."
On Tuesday, Sharansky promised to streamline the review process by:
* Allowing requests for immigration to be submitted in Ethiopia itself, in order to shorten examination procedures and make them more efficient. Until now, the only way for Falash Mura to apply for aliyah has been through a relative in Israel.
* Increasing staff dealing with the requests at Israel's Interior Ministry. Up to now, the ministry has had only one staff member handling all of the applications coming from Ethiopia.
"Even for those who are ineligible, we must give them a speedy response. There cannot be a situation where people sit here for years and do not get an answer," Sharansky said.
Unlike the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews who were brought to Israel in the early 1990s under Operation Solomon, there is a lack of consensus about the status of the Falash Mura.
Proving the Jewish lineage of Falash Mura is a difficult task and one of the reasons the process has been drawn out.
Some Ethiopian activists have claimed the lengthy process is due to racial discrimination in Israel against the Ethiopian community.
In Jerusalem, Ethiopian activists cautiously welcomed Sharansky's trip, saying they now were waiting to see the outcome.
"This is the first time that a minister goes there and visits the people," said Yafet Alemu, of the Southwing to Zion group.
"Up until now, he did nothing on the issue of this problem, even though we tried to explain the situation to him. Now, after he goes and sees the people, and prayed with them, I hope he hears them."