1088 Passengers On One Airplane

Israel is known for many things, but usually not for (people) breaking world records. It’s a tiny country about the size of New Jersey, but not small enough to become the smallest country in the world. Yet Israel holds the world record in transporting 1088 passengers on a single airplane. This is the story of how the Mossad rescues Ethiopian Jews.

It all began in 1973, when then chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef published a Halacha (religious) ruling that Ethiopian Jews, calling themselves “Beta Israel”, were Jews in every sense. Two years later the Israeli government decided to apply the “law of return” to Ethiopian Jews, allowing them to immigrate and become Israeli citizens. In 1977 prime minister Menachem Begin ordered the head of the Mossad (the Israeli secret service – ssssshhh, don’t tell anyone!) to bring the Jews of Ethiopia.

Weapons for Jews

By then Ethiopia was torn by civil war and the Jews were not allowed to emigrate. David Kimhi, deputy director of the Mossad, was sent to the Ethiopian ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam and struck a deal: weapons for Jews. Every Hercules aircraft arriving with military equipment would return loaded with Ethiopian Jews. The deal held for 6 months until – perhaps by mistake – Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan leaked the weapons shipments story to a newspaper. Mengistu broke off the deal as he couldn’t admit to having an agreement with Israel. For the Jews of Ethiopia the gates to freedom were locked again.

Escape to Sudan

Ferede Aklum, an Ethiopian Jew, fled to neighboring Sudan and started to sent letters for help to international organizations and to Israel. Eventually a letter found its way to Mossad headquarters. Sudan itself was an enemy of Israel. The Mossad sent agent Danny Limor to meet Aklum. Within a few months Aklum located about 30 Jews that were rescued. But then he couldn’t find any more Jews and Limor asked Aklum to come to Israel. Instead, Aklum sent a false report with names of Ethiopian Jews he supposedly found. He then returned to Ethiopia and went from village to village to tell the story about a secret route to Jerusalem to his brethren.

Eventually some 20,000 Ethiopian Jews walked to Sudan. Not everybody made it – about 4000 lost their lives on the treacherous route and in the refugee camps. Life in a refugee camp is difficult as it is, with famine and disease everywhere. It didn’t help that the real rulers of these camps were an assortment of miscreants, criminals, rapists etc. But Jews had to be extra careful not to reveal their identity. The food distributed by relief agencies wasn’t kosher and the Jewish refugees would often avoid it. One day bandits captured about 100 girls and, as it turned out, sold them off to Saudi Arabia. Many refugees died of sickness and starvation.

In the meantime Danny Limor and other undercover agents returned to Sudan. At first the Ethiopian Jews were sent on commercial flights using forged passports. Obviously this wouldn’t work for so many people, so the Mossad decided to use the sea route. Boats would take the people from the shores of Sudan via the straits of Tiran to the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat. But they needed a good cover story for their operation at the Sudanese shore.

Arous Red Sea Diving Resort

10 years earlier Italians built a Red Sea resort at the Sudanese coast named Arous, but eventually abandoned it. This was the perfect cover-up for a large scale rescue operation. During daytime, the four old trucks at their disposal would be used to get supplies, but sometimes at night they brought the Ethiopian Jews from faraway refuge camps. The story of “Operation Brothers” (code name) has recently been turned into a Netflix movie. Unfortunately, the movie is a big disappointment as it doesn’t even attempt to tell the story of the Ethiopian Jews.

Ethiopian Jewish helpers – the Committee – would identify and prepare the Jewish refugees. Easier said than done. For the Beta Israel (i.e. Ethiopian Jews), revealing their real identity to the wrong person would mean torture or death, or both. The Committee members would instruct the people to be prepared to leave at any moment. The agents feared that any prior knowledge of when and where the extraction would take place could jeopardize the whole mission.

Collecting the refugees from the camps was a scary undertaking. Along the route to the pickup points on the Red Sea were police checkpoints that needed to be bribed – cigarettes and dry biscuits usually did the trick. But when an officer insisted on inspecting the back of the trucks, they had to forcefully break through the barrier, sending the barrier drums flying in all directions.

One night in March 1982 the trucks were followed by a Sudanese army unit looking for smugglers. When Mossad agents tried to push the last Zodiac boat loaded with refugees back into the sea, the Sudanese soldiers started to shoot at them. At that moment Danny Limor, held at gunpoint back at the beach, started to scream at the Sudanese commander: “What are you doing, you fool? Are you out of your mind, shooting at tourists?” The officer, who understood English, was baffled. “Can’t you see that we are organizing night diving here for tourists? We work with the Ministry of Tourism…” Danny Limor added. The officer, seeing Europeans in front of him, bought the story and let them go. This incident, however, marked the end of the maritime rescue operation for now.

On Eagles’ Wings

Thankfully the British who had ruled Sudan until 1956 left behind some of their World War II military installations, such as a perfectly intact airfield at Erkowit. The first Hercules C-130 airplane brought new air-conditioners and a windsurfing board from Israel, and took 130 refugees to the Promised Land. The air-conditioners provided much needed relief from the summer heat at Arous, the windsurfing board was probably a first in that part of the world. Unfortunately the airlift had been witnessed by a local who reported it to the police. The Mossad became aware of this and local agents sought a new landing place, nearer to the refugee camps.

By now tourists started to arrive to the Red Sea Diving center, mainly from Germany and Holland, but also foreign diplomats from the embassies in Khartoum. The staff was expanded, including female operatives such as Yola Reitman, who were better qualified to run the holiday village. One day a group of unconventional guests arrived on foot: a British special forces commando. They chose to stay in an outer structure that was abandoned. Participating in dives and enjoying the meals in the dining room helped them pass their “desert survival course” in a more civilized way.

The new landing site deep inside Sudan shortened the rescue operation, but posed higher risks to the pilots and passengers as they traversed a long distance over Sudanese territory. One time a Sudanese army position fired a SAM2 missile at an Israeli Hercules plane, but missed its target.

In addition to this sophisticated rescue operation via sea and air, Israel established a parallel rescue route. Under the auspices of a humanitarian organization, Jews left Sudan in small groups as Christian refugees. This mode proved to be less dangerous and more efficient, and thousands of Beta Israel were rescued this way.

Jerry Weaver Plan – US Help

By 1984 the situation in Sudan worsened. Economic and political instability, civil war in the South and a growing refugee problem endangered the Ethiopian Jews and demanded evacuation on a larger scale. Israel turned to the United States for “help in the humanitarian mission of extricating refugees from hunger-stricken Africa”. The Americans agreed. Jerry Weaver, coordinator of refugee affairs at the US embassy in Khartoum, developed a plan.

Mossad hired the services of a small Belgium airline named TEA and late November 1984 the first flight left Khartoum via Europe to Israel. But not without glitches: The Belgian captain refused to take off with 250 passengers, saying they had only 220 oxygen masks and it would be against the law. A short motivational talk by the Mossad agent on board solved the problem: “Go right ahead, make a selection. You decide who lives and who dies.”

Operation Moses was on its way. During 47 days, more than 6,000 Ethiopian Jews were transported to Israel. The arrival of large numbers of Ethiopians in Israel couldn’t be ignored by the media. Back then, Israeli government censorship proved to be quite effective. If the story became known, the entire operation would be jeopardized and many lives put in danger. Yet, a small magazine named “Nekudah” published by settlers in the West Bank and Gaza ignored military censorship and revealed the secret immigration of Ethiopian Jews. This was seen as a green light by foreign media and caused a major scandal. When Shimon Peres, then prime minister of Israel, confirmed the stories, there was no holding back. Arab countries were furious about Sudan helping Jews get to Israel and saw it as a betrayal of the Muslims. That was the end of Operation Moses.

Higher Intervention

As Operation Moses came to an end, there were hundreds of Beta Israel Jews in Sudan that were known to the Sudanese. Their lives were in great danger. Help came directly from then Vice President George H. W. Bush. A former director of the CIA, Bush was aware of the rescue effort of the Mossad. When the world showed apathy, he promised economic help to the Sudanese president at his visit to Khartoum, in return for letting the Americans rescue the Jews.

A few days later seven American Hercules transport airplanes flew from Ramstein airbase in Germany to Gadaref’s military airbase in Sudan. From there they continued directly to Israel. About 500 Ethiopian Jews were rescued in what’s known as Operation Joshua. (For more information, see this Los Angeles Times article.)

Days after the rescue operation, a military coup toppled the pro-Western regime and established a fundamentalist Islamic “democracy” in Sudan. After the new rulers “debriefed” (i.e. tortured) Gen. Omar el-Tayeb, Sudan’s former no. 2 who helped arrange the evacuation, they knew that Israeli agents were in Khartoum. Catching Israeli intelligence officers would make great propaganda for the new regime. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi’s secret service was employed to search for the agents (I cannot help but link this Qaddafi interview by Oriana Falacci – that’s how interviewing is done!).

Thanks to Milton Bearden, chief of the CIA station in Khartoum, the remaining four Israeli agents were first hidden in different safe houses. Over time it became too risky, so the CIA prepared special boxes with oxygen and labelled them as diplomatic mail. Hidden in these boxes, the Israeli agents were brought to the airport, accompanied by US diplomatic officers. But Sudanese became suspicious and tried to delay the flight. Eventually the special US airplane carrying the boxes took off from Khartoum airport without authorization from the control tower.

About the same time, the Mossad agents at the Arous holiday village had escaped by airlift, including two of their vehicles. Smaller rescue operations inside Sudan would continue, with the agents brought in by sea and leaving on transport aircraft.

Operation Solomon

In May 1991 the Ethiopian terror regime of Mengistu was on the verge of collapse. Rebels besieged the capital Addis Ababa. Ethiopia had renewed diplomatic relations with Israel two years earlier, but did not permit the emigration of its Beta Israel. But now, for a round sum of $40 million in numbered foreign bank accounts, Mengistu agreed to let the Jews go.

Within less than 48 hours more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel, first on EL AL 747 airplanes and then on Israeli military C-130 transport planes. As it turned out the huge Jumbo jets were damaging the runway.

On one of the 747 flights 1,088 passengers were counted when boarding. Later in Israel, the number grew to 1,122. The explanation: The packages some Ethiopians carried on board weren’t clothes but babies. Also, two mothers gave birth in midair. Whatever number you pick, each of them qualifies for the Guinness World Record. To accommodate as many people as possible, the Israelis had removed the seats. I wonder if the pilots were concerned about having enough oxygen masks?

Shortly after Operation Solomon, the Ethiopian regime was toppled by the rebels.

Wings of a Dove

In 2012, during Operation Dove’s Wings, another 8,000 Ethiopians were flown to Israel. This time primarily Falush Mura, that is descendants of Jewish Ethiopians that had returned to Judaism. Until the present day, Ethiopians are immigrating to Israel, but in small numbers.

The integration of the Ethiopians into Israeli society was not easy. Cultural differences aside, the Beta Israel were often humiliated by locals, in particular the demand from the orthodox religious to undergo conversion rites. As recent as last year, Israelis of Ethiopian origin were demonstrating for better treatment and equality.

Mossad Exodus

Gad Shimron, author

Much of the information above is taken from the fascinating book “Mossad Exodus” by Gad Shimron. Shimron, a known Israeli journalist and book author, lived a double live as undercover agent for the Mossad. He was one of the agents sent to establish the Arous Red Sea holiday village as a base for clandestine rescue operations.

Shimron got the green light to reveal this amazing story. His first hand account brings a personal note to this historic event, as he relates his adventures as an agent in Sudan. Unlike the Holywood-style Netflix movie, Shimrons more realistic account is definitely more captivating.

Note: When I immigrated to Israel in 1984, I actually went to Hebrew school with some of the Ethiopian immigrants. If only I had known their incredible story! (Our ability to communicate with each other was our very limited Hebrew vocabulary.)

Highly recommended:

Mossad Exodus – Kindle edition

Mossad Exodus – Print edition

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