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Airlift of Ethiopia Jews Ends in Joy : Rescue: Operation flies more than 14,000 from embattled Addis Ababa to Israel in just over 33 hours. A plan to whisk them to safety was prepared six weeks ago.

May 26, 1991|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — More than 15 years ago, a group of Israeli and American men went to the small village of Quara in Ethiopia, spoke to the elders and asked for the names of all the Jews. Men, women and children--the men carefully wrote down their names and then drove away as suddenly as they had come, leaving behind a promise that, one day, they would be back to take them to Israel.

"They told us it is written in the Torah that the people of Israel will come in the end of days to Jerusalem," said Alana Zouda Yitzhak, a village councilor in Quara.

On Saturday, Israel completed one of the fastest human airlifts in history, transporting more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv in just over 33 hours and completing a migration that spans 2,000 years of history and a decade and a half of negotiations between the two governments.

"Because I am Jewish, I have dreamed all of my life of coming here," said Yitzhak, who sat, exhausted but jubilant, in a Jerusalem hotel room Saturday morning with his wife and nine children. "It wasn't just yesterday that I started dreaming of this, and it wasn't last year. All my life I've dreamed of this."

In Addis Ababa, Asher Naim, the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, said the rescue operation consumed only about half the time originally expected. "We had a window out, and this was it," Naim said after the final flight took off from Addis Ababa Airport.

The transfer of the mostly rural and destitute immigrants took place as an encirclement of the city by Ethiopian rebel troops posed the prospect of a breakdown of public order--and just four days after the flight into exile of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu had approved the emigration in principle as far back as November, 1989, but had burdened the procedure with red tape.

The operation rescued all of the Ethiopian Jews who had gathered over a period of 18 months in Addis Ababa seeking approval to emigrate to join family members who had left the country during and after earlier, secret Israeli and American airlifts in 1984 and 1985. Still remaining in Ethiopia are an estimated 2,000 Jews living in the remote province of Gondar, which has been under the control of the rebel Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front since February.

Ambassador Naim said that Mengistu's departure into exile Tuesday was one of several elements in the quick transfer of the Jews, who are members of a mysterious community so ancient and isolated that their religious rites differ markedly from those of modern Judaism.

The new government installed after Mengistu's departure wanted to project a more liberal political outlook, Naim said, as well as a willingness to respond to American interests that included the Jewish emigration. He said that plans for a major airlift had been in place for some time.

Israel state radio described the operation as "the largest human rescue operation Israel ever carried out." It involved about 40 passenger, air force and charter flights between the Ethiopian capital and Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport.

The massive, $150-million airlift, dubbed Operation Solomon, at one point had 28 planes in the air at a single time. Israeli officials revealed that the talks leading up to the airlift involved repeated requests by the Ethiopian government for arms supplies, including a secret trip by Mengistu to Israel last June. Israel television said there were reports that the Ethiopian regime had received a last-minute payment of $35 million before the airlift was allowed to commence.

Officials refused to comment on what agreements were reached between the two governments, though they insisted that Israel had refused to supply any weapons to Ethiopia.

"I had to achieve something very negative from Mengistu's point of view. I had to make it abundantly clear to Mengistu that we were not going to supply Ethiopia with arms, come hell or high water," said Uri Lubrani, an aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who negotiated the airlift operation in Addis Ababa. "They realized no arms were coming from Israel, let's see what else we can get out of it. I felt it was then we began to talk business."

Prime Minister Shamir said that President Bush was personally asked to intercede with the Ethiopian government to win permission for the airlift, "and he did not hesitate for a moment. He sent the letter and it did the thing," Shamir said. "Thank God, we succeeded."

The final details of the secret evacuation plan were drawn up six weeks ago as what Lubrani called a "doomsday scenario," envisioning the potential need to immediately evacuate the estimated 15,000-plus Jews then remaining in Ethiopia, many gathered in temporary housing and camps around the capital at Addis Ababa over the past year in the hope of emigrating to Israel.

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