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Airlift of Ethiopian Jews Has Been Halted, Apparently Because of Its Premature Disclosure

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The Jewish Agency confirmed today that the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Sudan has been halted, apparently because it was prematurely disclosed. There were 35 flights since last November, by a Belgian charter airline, carrying thousands of Ethiopian Jews from their famine-stricken country. (See separate story.)

The operation had been subject to military censorship. The eruption of publicity about it here and abroad last week reportedly disturbed the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan, the latter a member state of the Arab League.

(In Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry charged that the Sudanese government, unnamed “foreign powers” and “anti-Ethiopian and counter-revolutionary elements operating from within the Sudan have for a long time been forcing and enticing the inhabitants of the region to illegally cross over into the Sudan.” The ministry also accused the unnamed foreign powers of providing “financial inducement” to the Sudanese in exchange for their cooperation.)

The publicity in Israel about the airlift triggered a barrage of accusations and counter-accusations between government and Jewish Agency officials over who was responsible. Ethiopian Jews already in Israel are fearful for the fate of their relatives who have not yet arrived. They are also angry over the way the local media described the newly arrived immigrants.

FIRST CASUALTY OF THE FOUL-UP

The first casualty of what appears to have been a public relations foul-up was Yehuda Dominitz, veteran director of the Jewish Agency’s aliya department. He was suspended by his department chairman, Haim Aharon, last Thursday, a day after the Gush Emunim magazine Nekuda published an interview which quoted him as saying the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews was already in Israel.

Dominitz insisted that his remarks were off the record and not intended for publication. Nevertheless, the Israeli authorities were forced to lift censorship. The rest of the media, which had known of the airlift but felt constrained not to publish, was furious that an obscure journal of West Bank Jews was able to break the story. It was widely published overseas.

The Prime Ministers Office, at a hastily called press conference Thursday, affirmed that what Dominitz told Nekuda was substantially true and disclosed some details of the measure being taken to house and integrate the newcomers from Ethiopia.

SENSATIONAL STORIES CRITICIZED

The Jewish Agency and the Ethiopian Jews blame the government for calling the press conference which resulted in a spate of sensational stories about the new arrivals and their poor physical condition. They were described as suffering from a variety of diseases endemic to Africa, some of them contagious. One physician was quoted as saying the newcomers resembled Jews liberated from Nazi death camps at the end of World War II. The media also reported squabbles among mayors and local town councils in various parts of Israel accusing each other of unwillingness to accept the Ethiopians because the newcomers lack skills and are not likely to find jobs at a time of increasing unemployment.

EARLIER LEAKS CITED

Although the airlift operation was confirmed only last Thursday, there had been leaks much earlier. Leon Dulzin, chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization Executives, told a meeting of the WZO-American Section last November that the Jewish Agency “is preparing for a sudden jump in immigration, far beyond the figures we projected for this and the coming year. One of the ancient tribes of Israel is due to return to its homeland.”

Dulzin added that when the true story of the Jews of Ethiopia is told, “We will take pride in what we have already achieved in this most difficult and complex rescue operation.”

More than a week ago, the Israeli media carried reports of the welcome extended to Ethiopian newcomers in Eilat where many hundreds of them are housed in a newly built apartment complex. The same reports quoted officials of a Negev town as saying the Ethiopians were not wanted there because many of the towns-people are out of jobs.

The entire Ethiopian Jewish community is estimated at between 25,000-28,000. While most of them may now be in Israel as a result of the airlift and earlier clandestine escapes from Ethiopia, an unknown number remain in that country or are stranded in Sudan.

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