JERUSALEM -- Israeli and U.S. authorities have reached agreement on what they term an "interim humanitarian solution" to the stateless Black Hebrew community living in the southern Negev desert.
After 20 years of being a thorn in Israel's side, the Black Hebrews will be able to return to the United States.
Many of them renounced U.S. citizenship when they arrived.
In the meantime, they will be able to receive Israeli work permits.
"There is no true solution," Interior Minister Aryeh Derri said.
"Either we make them citizens or we send them back to the United States. One of these solutions is unrealistic," Derri said. The Black Hebrews arrived in Israel in 1969 from Liberia, claiming they were a forgotten Jewish sect.
Israeli authorities soon determined the black group was originally from Chicago and had never been Jewish.
Israel offered the Black Hebrews the choice of converting to Judaism or returning to the United States.
Accusing the government of racism, the group refused both options. Some members renounced their U.S. citizenship, and others tore up their passports.
Since then the Black Hebrews have remained in the desert town of Dimona, largely penniless and unable to work legally. Their children have not been recognized as residents and were refused entry into schools.
In 1984, Israeli officials warned that they intended to deport the Black Hebrews.
The government refused entry visas to visiting U.S. blacks suspected of being group members trying to join the Dimona sect.
At the same time, visiting U.S. representatives called on Israel to improve the conditions in which the Black Hebrews lived.
"It was the first subject they raised in all their conversations," an Interior Ministry official said.
After a year of intensive efforts, Israeli and U.S. authorities announced an accord this week under which Israel will offer the Black Hebrews work permits and the United States will consider annulling the Black Hebrews' renunciation of their U.S. citizenship.
As a result, any Black Hebrew who applies to renew a U.S. passport is eligible for a one-year work permit, renewable for an additional year.
Those who petition Washington to annul their renunciation of their U.S. citizenship will receive six-month work permits, also eligible for renewal for up to two years.
An official in the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said 360 Black Hebrews have renounced their citizenship.
About 70 of them have petitioned for an annulment of their renunciation. An additional 70 Black Hebrews, who are still U.S. citizens, have applied to renew their passports.
The applications have been submitted in the last few weeks as the Black Hebrews have apparently dropped their long-standing refusal to renew their U.S. citizenship.
Israeli officials hope that many Black Hebrews will return to the United States once they have the means.
Yata Bat Yisrael, a spokeswoman for the Black Hebrews, said the community is still waiting for more details of the Israeli plan. She would not say whether the group would consider returning to the United States.
"There is a process that has begun and we are realizing a positive and humanitarian solution to the problems that we have been experiencing," Bat Yisrael said.