Israel Completes Ethiopia Airlift

By Jackson Diehl
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 26, 1991

JERUSALEM, May 25, 1991 -- Israel today completed the most intensive rescue airlift of its history, flying 14,500 Jews from Ethiopia in less than 30 hours during an evacuation it called "Operation Solomon."

The last aircraft to make the 3 1/2-hour flight from the capital, Addis Ababa, to a military airfield near Tel Aviv arrived this afternoon around 4 p.m. local time, officials said. Like the thousands who came before them, the tired passengers gingerly descended boarding stairs and stepped onto waiting buses with little more than the grimy clothes they wore, having lived in squalor in the midst of civil war.

The completion of the airlift ended an often dramatic, seven-year odyssey by Ethiopia's Jews, who first began to flee en masse to Israel in a secret airlift in 1984. The interruption of the operation in 1985 left hundreds of families separated, and many were finally reunited only today, as the entire country celebrated another feat of rescue by the Jewish state.

Official Israeli sources today said 2,000 to 3,000 Jews remain stranded in rebel-held Gonder Province. Israel still plans to evacuate them, the officials said, although they did not say how it would be done.

Israel paid the Ethiopian authorities under acting President Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan $ 35 million in exchange for their cooperation, sources said. They added that the last-minute demand for the money, in cash, might have slightly delayed the start of the evacuation. The sources said it was not clear whether the money was paid directly to the leaders involved or went into an Ethiopian government account.

A senior Israeli official said that in addition to money, Tesfaye demanded that Ethiopian planes participate in the airlift, that Israeli planes be disguised so his government could claim to have carried out the entire operation, and that the airlift be kept secret until it was completed.

Greeting the first planeload of Ethiopians as they arrived in Israel on Friday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir declared, "It's a great moment for all our people, all our country, for Jewish people all over the world." He added, "Now they are here, and they are Israeli citzens, so no one will persecute them anymore."

Officials said that in addition to the cash payment, U.S. diplomatic pressure helped persuade the Ethiopian government to allow the exodus. President Bush dispatched a letter last Tuesday to Addas Ababa linking Washington's support for a cease-fire and peace conference in the civil war to the release of the Jews. The United States also persuaded the Ethiopian rebels, who are reported to be within 12 to 19 miles of Addis Ababa, not to attack the capital or airport while the evacuation was underway, officials said.

In a letter to Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said the United States "played a crucial and decisive role" in bringing about the airlift, which he said was "another wondrous chapter in the relations between our two peoples."

The excited Jews on one plane cheered, clapped and sang early this morning as they left Addis Adaba -- 359 of them crammed into a Boeing 757 commercial jet that normally carries a maximum load of 198 passengers. They shouted with joy again when told they had reached Israeli airspace, although many were exhausted or ill.

Seven babies were born during the operation, and several were removed from planes in incubators.

Military officials said the massive, round-the-clock airlift by 34 Israeli planes and one Ethiopian jet proceeded smoothly, despite the rebel advance on the capital and near collapse of the government. At its height, the operation transported more than 1,000 Jews per hour, and 28 aircraft were flying simultaneously, officials said. A security force of about 150 elite Israeli commandos was deployed in Addis Adaba but did not face any serious challenges, officials said.

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