The secret airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, suspended in early January after an Israeli leak about the operation, was undertaken only after a decade of debate in which a small group of American Jews pressured an apparently reluctant Israeli government to help evacuate them to Israel, according to Jewish sources involved in the dispute.

This intramural feuding over the "rescue" of the Ethiopian Jews, known as Falashas, deeply divided the American Jewish community as well. It focused on whether the Falashas were really Jews and whether they should be moved from Ethiopia, where they had lived for centuries, to a "promised land" they scarcely knew about.

"We forced Israel to take them by indicating that if they didn't take them we would make it a public issue," said Gaenum Berger, a founder and vice president of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ). "If it hadn't been for our persistent criticism they wouldn't have done it."

Berger has been agitating for the Falashas' evacuation since the Ethiopian revolution began in 1974 with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.

He said the operation could, and should, have been carried out a decade ago.

"They could have all come out in the early years of the revolution," he said. "It was chaos."

The Israeli Embassy here disagreed.

"It's been a number of years [that] Israel has been acting outside the public eye and doing its utmost to bring the Ethiopian Jews back home," embassy spokesman Victor Harel said. "It's a fact that even before the big airlift there were already several thousand Ethiopian Jews in Israel."

Harel accused the AAEJ of acting in "an irresponsible way by their publicity and their amateurish actions," which he said had jeopardized the Falashas' evacuation and created "unnecessary risks."

The validity of these charges or countercharges is difficult to assess given the longstanding secrecy surrounding efforts to smuggle the "black Jews" out of Ethiopia and into Israel. But the accounts of Berger and others familiar with the AAEJ campaign strongly suggest that Israel for years failed to act decisively and may have deliberately helped to create a news blackout to delay action.

This reporter, for example, was repeatedly approached by AAEJ members and Israeli officials -- the former arguing for publicity and the latter for silence -- during five years as Washington Post correspondent in Africa in the mid- and late-1970s. During those years, the silence was kept but scarcely any Falashas made their way to Israel.

Subsequently, the AAEJ became involved in its own small "rescue operation" and from 1979 to 1982 brought out 280 Falashas, mostly to prove to the Israeli government it could be done and to force its hand, according to Berger and others involved.

The first major Israeli action, a daring operation from the Red Sea, occurred in mid-1980 after five years of constant pressure, mainly by the AAEJ, including meetings between its leader and former prime minister Menachem Begin. Between 1980 and 1982, the Israelis brought nearly 2,000 Falashas to Israel, according to the AAEJ's calculations.

Events took a dramatic turn in 1983 when the Falashas began leaving their villages and migrating by the thousands west to Sudan. But there was still no organized system for taking them on to Israel.

Then in early 1984, 12,000 walked en masse to Sudan in what Berger descibed as a "purely spontaneous movement," creating enormous pressure on Israel for action.

In October 1984, the AAEJ ran ads in 32 Jewish newspapers around the country saying that 2,000 Falashas had died in terrible conditions in Sudanese refugee camps and calling on the world Jewish community to step in.

The Israeli airlift got under way Nov. 24. But after an apparently deliberate leak about it by an official of the Jewish Agency, the Israeli immigration office, "Operation Moses" was suspended Jan. 6 with 7,000 Falashas evacuated to Israel.

The Israeli government's handling of the "Falasha issue" is still at the center of the controversy over the fate of members of this small "lost" Jewish tribe, who have endured for centuries in Ethiopia as landless, lower-class potters and blacksmiths.

Once in Israel, they have struggled to adjust to radically new conditions. At least eight new arrivals have committed suicide, according to State Department sources.

The Israeli government's ambivalent attitude toward the Falashas apparently was partly a result of its clear desire to avoid offending Ethiopia, an old anti-Arab ally to which it continued selling arms and with which it maintained secret ties even after a break in diplomatic relations during the revolution.

The ambiguity also is reflected by a dispute in Israel over whether the Falashas are really Jews and over the wisdom of bringing primitive Africans, many of them illiterate in their own language, to a modern society such as Israel.

Finally, there was the question of whether to bring them to Israel in one big airlift or in small numbers over a long period to allow both Israel and the Falashas to adjust.

"The Israelis felt it should be a gradual process of bringing them in. They didn't realize the dimensions of the problem," Berger said. "Their view was it couldn't be done massively."

Interviews and other accounts make clear that the issue has been extremely divisive within Israel and the American Jewish community, with the AAEJ regarded as a kind of extremist lobby for a cause almost embarrassing to the Israeli establishment.

The accounts nonetheless make clear that the Israeli government periodically reacted to pressure and undertook limited rescue attempts. One came in August 1977 when 62 Falashas were smuggled aboard a plane bringing aircraft spare parts to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Two others occurred in mid-1980 and again in mid-1982 when the Israeli navy took hundreds of Falashas to Israel from an obscure Red Sea port in the Sudan in small ships and even submarines.

In a telephone interview from his home in Pelham, N.Y., Berger recounted the association's long battle with various governments in Israel and with other American Jewish agencies to bring attention to the plight of the Falashas, who according to some accounts have been persecuted for their faith.

Despite a ruling by the chief Sephardic and Ashkenazi rabbis in 1975 that the Falashas were Jews and thus subject to the "law of return," the Israeli political establishment "dragged its feet" for nine years on organizing a rescue operation, according to Berger.

Another AAEJ official, former president Howard Lenhoff, wrote in an internal memoradum dated Sept. 17, 1980, that "on the Falasha issue we are dealing with the most devious and inept elements in the Israeli bureaucracy and with the most naive, ill-informed and overcautious elements of world Jewish leadership.

"The only way the Falashas, the world's oldest Jewish community, are going to be saved is if the AAEJ will . . . threaten, divert funds and embarrass our Jewish leadership both in Israel and worldwide into action."

The AAEJ organized demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, lecture tours for Falashas in the United States and publicity campaigns through ads and stories in Jewish newspapers.

The climax of this campaign came with the October ads in Jewish newspapers. At the same time, the association sent 50,000 letters to American Jews who had given donations, asking them to urge Congress to act.

"This produced a deluge of mail," Berger said. "This brought about a decision by the Israeli government."

Other sources said that plans for the airlift were being discussed by the Israeli government over the summer, however, suggesting that it had its own reasons for deciding to act.

"They did a magnificent job, as they always do when they decide to act," Berger said, referring to the secret Israeli airlift that began in late November through European airports.

As AAEJ officials and at least one Ethiopian involved tell it, one of the biggest obstacles to a mass rescue operation was a top official in the Jewish Agency, Yehuda Dominitz. Dominitz's "leak" about the arrival of Falashas in Israel in late December resulted in its suspension Jan. 6.

The running conflict between the AAEJ and the agency came to a head at a meeting in Begin's office in late June 1979 that Lenhoff attended with Dominitz and leaders of interested Jewish organizations.

The AAEJ objective was to get the agency to take over the operation while using AAEJ people to run it. The agency agreed to the proposal but refused to use any AAEJ people, several of whom had helped organize demonstrations against the government in Jerusalem over the Falasha issue.

The AAEJ even agreed to stop its publicity about the issue in return for a pledge from Dominitz that "60 to 100" Falashas would be brought out over the summer of 1979, according to the Lenhoff memorandum.

By October, however, "not a single Falasha came to Israel" and none arrived till February 1980, the document states.

Lenhoff said the "double cross" led to an AAEJ decision to take a more militant stand "to force the Jewish Agency to carry out that work that they are charged by the Jewish people to do, i.e., the rescue of Jewish lives."

The AAEJ also decided to mount its own small rescue operation.

Haile Temesgen of the Ethiopian province of Eritrea, who said he was involved in six rescue plans, brought 25 Falashas to Frankfurt, West Germany, in March 1980.

"There was a challenge from Dominitz, who said this cannot be done," Temesgen said. "Eventually, they had to bring them out through the means we suggested."