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Operation Moses: How Israel smuggled thousands of Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan

December 27, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Rwandan refugees living in Israel, stage a demonstration after Israeli authorities decided to deport refugees in Tel Aviv, Israel on 7 February 2018 [Kobi Wolf/Anadolu Agency]

On 5 January it will be 33 years since the end of Operation Moses, the secret operation to smuggle thousands of Ethiopian Jews, known as Falashas, out of Sudan via Brussels and on to Israel using the now defunct Belgian Trans European Airways (TEA). The actual number of Jews involved is unknown, and estimates vary from six to eight thousand. The airlift was planned and executed by Israel’s Mossad spy agency, which is infamous for assassinating leading Palestinian figures, particularly in Europe.

In 1984, Ethiopia was in the midst of a civil war which killed tens of thousands of people and lasted, on and off, well into the first years of this century. Between 1983 and 1985, northern Ethiopia also suffered a devastating famine, which killed nearly half a million people. Hundreds of thousands fled to Sudan, and other neighbouring countries, in search of food and security.

The then Associate US Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, Richard Krieger, received first hand reports of the situation of the Ethiopians in refugee camps in Sudan, including Ethiopian Jews, the Falashas. He it was, apparently, who came up with the idea of smuggling the Falashas out of Sudan by air via Europe and then to Israel. As a Muslim majority country, Sudan was at that time an enemy of Israel and, like most Arab countries, it had neither diplomatic nor commercial relations with the Zionist state.

Krieger met Mossad agents in Europe and by 1984 Operation Moses was sanctioned by the Israeli authorities. Zionism and its state, Israel, depends on Jews migrating to the state in order to populate occupied Palestine. Today, Israel is home to over 40 per cent of the Jews in the world.

READ: The ‘Law of Return’ is being tested by Ethiopian Jews as an ‘Israel First’ policy begins to bite 

Initially dubbed Operation Cub of the Lion of Judah, before it was changed by the United Jewish Appeal into Operation Moses, the process started by smuggling a few hundred Falashas using the Israeli fleet in the Red Sea. Mossad agents, posing as entrepreneurs from Switzerland and other European countries, rented an abandoned luxury holiday resort in a village called Arous on Sudan’s Red Sea coast for less than $500,000 per annum. The resort was built by the Sudanese tourism authority but it lacked roads and other essential infrastructure. The Israeli agents, working under the guise of a fake tour company, renovated the resort, connecting water, power and roads. The resort was run entirely by Israeli agents apart from the front desk, which was manned by local people.

The resort in Arous became very popular with tourists from Europe as well as diplomats based in Khartoum. No one knew that Mossad was running the venture, never mind its ultimate purpose. In just a couple of years it became a self-financed holiday venue offering scuba diving, wind surfing and other sports.

Whenever possible, Mossad agents brought lorries full of Falashas, who had already been smuggled out of the refugee camps miles away, to a location not far from Arous and loaded them onto dinghies waiting to take them to Israeli ships out at sea. Later on, the agents built airstrips for transport planes to land not far from Arous itself.

Rwandan refugees living in Israel, stage a demonstration after Israeli authorities decided to  deport refugees in Tel Aviv, Israel on 7 February 2018 [Kobi Wolf/Anadolu Agency]

Rwandan refugees living in Israel, stage a demonstration after Israeli authorities decided to deport refugees in Tel Aviv, Israel on 7 February 2018 [Kobi Wolf/Anadolu Agency]

By 1985, the Operation Moses airlift from Khartoum Airport started after US and Israeli pressure and bribes persuaded the then Sudanese President, Jaafar Nimeiry, to cooperate. He agreed and demanded cash and full secrecy. He needed financial and military help to fight his own war against separatists in a civil war that led eventually to the creation of South Sudan as an independent country in 2011, involving huge military, financial, and political support from the United States and other Western countries. Nimeiry, it is said, also got some personal financial reward out of Operation Moses.

Sometime in early 1985 the story was leaked to the press and Nimeiry immediately halted flights; in April of that year he was toppled from power. US Vice President (before he became President), the late George Bush, would go on to intervene and evacuate some 492 Ethiopian Jews who were left behind from Operation Moses by taking them on a US Air Force plane direct to Israel.

The operation was the first large scale smuggling of Jews out of their home countries to go to Israel since the creation of the state in occupied Palestine in 1948. On arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, they became citizens of Israel immediately, despite the fact that neither they nor their ancestors had ever set foot in the land of Palestine before. According to international law, such people smuggling by an occupying power, Israel in this case, was and remains illegal, because such states are forbidden from moving their own citizens into the occupied territory in order to change its demographics. This legal principle applies to hundreds of Israeli colonies, euphemistically called settlements, across the occupied West Bank making any future Palestinian state nearly impossible to implement even if peace is achieved.

Furthermore, displacing people from such occupied land, by whatever means, is not only illegal but also a crime against humanity prosecutable at the International Criminal Court. However, with US protection guaranteed since its creation in 1948, Israel has never been held accountable for its crimes.

READ: 1,000 Ethiopia Jews to move to Israel 

As a Zionist state, Israel is built upon two things: the financial and military support from the United States preserving its hegemony over all its Arab neighbours; and the colonisation of as much of historic Palestine as possible, as quickly as possible, while populating the land with Jewish immigrants from other countries at the expense of the indigenous Palestinians, who are still being ethnically cleansed on a daily basis. Such a policy is unique to Israel since the direct wave of Western colonisation ended in the 20th century.

Israel’s 1950 Law of Return granted “every Jew … the right to come to [Israel] as an oleh [immigrant].” To sustain this immigration, Israel has never declared where its borders are and it continues to seize ever more land either from the Palestinians or neighbouring states, as it did when it occupied the Syrian Golan Heights, which it annexed in 1981. Palestinian refugees have a legitimate right to return to the land from which they were expelled by Israel, but that right has never been recognised by Israel or allowed in practice.

Faced with a population problem — more Jews tend to leave Israel than migrate there — Israel continues to try to encourage Jews to make “aliyah” and go to the self-styled “Jewish State”. The indigenous Palestinian population, meanwhile, continues to have a higher birth rate than Israeli Jews; this has been described as a demographic “time bomb” by Israeli officials.

Today Arous is again a holiday resort in Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast, listed by some tourist websites like Tripadvisor. Its history as a key part of the smuggling of Ethiopian Jews to Israel is not so well known, however.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.