TEL AVIV (May. 27)
In what appears to have been a brilliantly planned and flawlessly executed operation, 14,087 Ethiopian Jews, comprising over 3,000 families, were airlifted from Addis Ababa to Israel over the weekend within some 30 hours.
Code-named “Operation Solomon,” the airlift was accomplished in a mere 40 flights, involving dozens of aircraft.
Twenty-four of the planes were Israeli air force jets, including Boeing 707s and Hercules transport planes. Ten El Al jumbo jets were used, and three flights used planes chartered from Ethiopia’s state airline.
At one point, there were 25 aircraft in flight simultaneously.
The first flight reportedly arrived in Israel around 6 p.m. Friday local time. New immigrants, many of whom kissed the ground as they left the plane, were greeted by top officials of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency.
During the complicated operation, 10 babies were born — four or five of them in mid-flight. No deaths were reported, and only 195 were hospitalized upon arriving in Israel.
Israeli identification markings were painted over on all planes, which were adapted to seat far more than the usual number of passengers.
One El Al 747 jumbo jet set a world record by transporting 1,087 passengers, two-and-a-half times the normal capacity. The plane’s manufacturer, Boeing Corp., found it hard to believe the number when informed of the record load.
But as one Egged bus driver remarked, as he carried a load of passengers to a reception center in northern Israel: “We could not have done it with burly Soviet immigrants, each with five or six suitcases. These thin and emaciated immigrants arrived with only the clothes on their backs.”
‘WE COULD HAVE TAKEN EVEN MORE’
Captain Avi Orr, head of the El Al’s Operations Division, who piloted the 747, was full of praise for the speed and efficiency with which the El Al ground staff had effected the reconfiguration within a few hours of notification that Operation Solomon was on.
The plane was on the ground in Addis Ababa for only 36 minutes before taking off again.
“We could have taken even more, but there were no others left on the airfield at that moment,” Orr said Sunday.
The jumbo jets were used for only one flight, as air force experts decided the Ethiopian airfield’s only runway was unsuited to such large and heavily laden aircraft, in view of the congestion of Israeli and other aircraft rushing refugees and foreign residents out of the country.
Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak, the Israel Defense Force deputy chief of staff and military commander of the operation, arrived in Addis Ababa on the first plane to land, together with a group of IDF soldiers from an elite unit.
Their mission was to ensure the safety of the new immigrants, Israeli personnel and the aircraft themselves.
But the fighters were not needed on the airfield, the perimeter of which was guarded by Ethiopian troops. Instead, they helped carry babies and escort the elderly off the buses that had brought the masses from the Israeli Embassy compound to the waiting aircraft.
Another group of soldiers was made up of young Ethiopian recruits now serving in the IDF. They were called together on Thursday for what was ostensibly a day of relaxation. But once aboard military buses, they were told they were on their way to Addis Ababa, to serve as interpreters.
In Ethiopia, group leaders appointed by a central committee of local Jewish leaders were informed on Thursday night that they should begin rounding up early the next morning the 30 families on each of their prepared lists.
The Ethiopian Jews would then be herded to the Israeli Embassy compound, carrying only the clothes on their back, for transport to Israel in an airlift beginning Friday morning.
Numbers were pasted on the foreheads of all children to ensure they kept with their group and could be rejoined if lost. Miraculously, none were.
Ironically, Israelis were some of the last people on earth to learn of the airlift, because of strict censorship rules that had barred any mention of Ethiopian Jewry since the May 21 resignation of Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.
The news blackout was imposed for fear that publicity from Israel might jeopardize the operation, just as published reports about Operation Moses halted the 1985 airlift of Ethiopian Jews from neighboring Sudan.