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article imageThe historical significance of Operation Dove's Wings

By Paul Iddon     Oct 31, 2012 in World
Israel has initiated another airlift of Ethiopian Jews that is similar to previous ones it carried out in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Aiming to bring all of the Falash Mora Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish state, Israel this week has brought a planeload of 240 Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to their new home. This signifies the initiation of Operation Dove's Wings.
The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews who reside in Gondar, Ethiopia. They had been forced to convert to Christianity over the course of the past two centuries. Israel intends to airlift the 2,000 members of this community that still reside in Ethiopia to Israel by October 2013. (Times of Israel, October 29, 2012)
Such an airlift is not historically unprecedented. In 1984, 1985 and again in 1991 Israel covertly arranged for hundreds of Ethiopian Jews to be brought to Israel. (The History of Ethiopian Jews, Jewish Virtual Library)
Operation Moses was the first of these covert operations. The operation saw the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the U.S. embassy in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, mercenaries and Sudanese security forces all working with the common aim of getting Ethiopian Jews (the Beta Israel community) from Sudan.
Thousands of members of this community had previously fled Sudan from Ethiopia on foot to Sudanese refuge camps. Secretly aiding the Israelis, the Sudanese government allowed 8,000 members of Beta Israel to leave Sudan on TEA planes straight to Israel before calling off the airlift.
However the operation was terminated in January 5th 1985 when Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, questioned at a press conference, confirmed the airlift. Sudan immediately put a stop to it -- under pressure from several Arab countries -- leaving some 1,000 Ethiopian Jews behind and 1,000 "orphans of circumstance" in Israel -- children separated from families left behind in Sudan after the airlift was abruptly called off. (Jewish Chronicle Online, January 5, 2011)
Then U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush had the CIA aid in Operation Joshua, a direct followup to Operation Moses, which had pretty much the same aim. This operation managed to bring 494 of those Ethiopian Jews still in Sudanese refugee camps to Israel. However the Mengistu Haile Mariam dictatorship in Ethiopia was not willing to permit the emigration of his country's Jewish community.
In Israel meanwhile, the Ethiopians had a hard time adjusting, separated from their families they struggled to adjust to Israeli society. The modern industrialized society was a far cry from the simple lives they had in their tukuls back in Ethiopia.
Conscious of such integration difficulties, Israel has today, in preparation for the arrival of hundreds more Ethiopians, readied absorption centers across the country. As was the case with the aforementioned Ethiopian immigrants these centers will help these newcomers learn Hebrew and everything they will need to know and understand about Israeli society and culture. This will enable them to gradually adapt to their new homes and lives.
Back in 1991, the government of Mengistu seemed close to toppling when Ethiopia was faced with dangerous destabilization from Eritrean and Tigrean rebels. Israel showed grave concern over the safety of the Beta Israel community. Mengistu had made it difficult for emigration, therefore whilst that regime was in dire straits and losing its power and influence over the country the Jewish community within Ethiopia were presented with a chance to leave. The IDF had been monitoring the political situation in the country since the previous year and were making plans for a massive covert airlift of that community to Israel.
Over the space of 36 hours of non-stop flights over 30 Israeli planes, consisting of Israeli Air Force C-130 Hercules transports and El Al (Israel's main national airline) airliners transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. One instance saw an El Al Boeing 747 carry 1,122 passengers in a single flight -- following estimates that 760 passengers would completely fill that flight -- since the passengers were so profoundly skinny and weighed so little. During that flight alone two babies were born on the way to their new home. (New York Times, May 26, 1991)
Many of those "orphans of circumstance" were reunited with their families following this airlift. Some orphans and their families were reunited for the first time since 1984.
Needless to say, with such predecessors as Operation Moses and Solomon, Operation Dove's Wings may turn out to be a very intriguing human interest story to watch unfold over the coming year and beyond.
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