Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

“How many people can you fit on a 747?”- Operations Sheba and Solomon


ethiopian_falash_mura_child_airlift_2009_jaiThe Ethiopian Aliyah, as it is known in Israel, was the migration during the 1980’s of thousands of Ethiopian Jews [known in Amharic as Falashas; some consider the term pejorative] to Israel. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) played a major role in the evacuation of the Ethiopian Jews as they came under increasing threat from the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan as well as from rebel groups in both countries. Initially, Ethiopian Jews who wanted to go to Israel went overland through North Africa, a long and dangerous journey. The IDF undertook Operation Moses in 1984, in which nearly 8000 Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel. The operation ended when it became public and the Muslim government of Sudan forced a halt to the flights. Not all of the Ethiopian Jews who wanted to leave had been evacuated.

In 1985, the CIA and IDF executed another airlift, known as Operation Sheba. Smaller than Operation Moses, the one-day mission succeeded in bringing another 500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Finally, in 1991, Operation Solomon began. Essentially the final push, the undertaking set the record for the most people ever on a commercial airliner as airplanes were packed to the brim in a rush to get the Jewish adherents out of Ethiopia in the dying days of the regime of Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam.

While working at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum from 1985-1987, Anne Cary saw the efforts undertaken to help the Jews exit Ethiopia during Operation Moses. During his time as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Ambassador Herman Cohen dealt with the Israeli government as the Americans and Israelis cooperated on the mass departure in 1991. Serving as a Refugee Counselor in the Khartoum embassy, David Reuther observed the conditions in which the migrants lived and the urgent need to help them depart. Ambassador Hume Horan, U.S. Ambassador to Sudan from 1983-1986, watched the IDF operations from Sudan and Ethiopia. Finally, Ambassador William Brown, serving as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, witnessed the impact of Operation Solomon as the travelers landed in Israel.

Ms. Cary, Ambassador Cohen, Ambassador Horan, and Ambassador Brown were all interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy; Cary beginning in November 1995, Cohen in August 1996, Horan in November 2000, and Brown in November 1998. Mr. Reuther was interviewed by Raymond Ewing beginning in August 1996.

To read more about evacuations, Africa or Israel, please follow the links.

“Jewish groups… had been basically paying off Mengistu to get people out for a long time”

Anne O. Cary, Economic Officer, Embassy Khartoum, 1985-1987

156986627_custom-5a9961d104166430e83054f6d3b841f6f2e80676-s900-c85CARY: [I wondered] why on earth the U.S. was involved in getting black Jews out of Ethiopia to Israel. The Beta Israel (House of Israel), better known as Falasha, traditionally had been a very poor group of people who were potters, tanners, certain positions that status-wise an Amhara would not hold.

Falasha claimed to be descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel. The international Jewish groups — a lot of money coming straight from the United States – had been basically paying off [Ethiopian President] Mengistu to get people out for a long time.
They smuggled them out through Sudan; this became another of our irritants with Sudan. The Sudanese authorities knew it was going on but when it became public that Jews were going out through Sudan to Israel they [protested and stopped the effort.]

“By releasing this Jewish community … they would be able to convince the Israelis to give them arms”

Ambassador Herman Cohen, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, State Department, 1989-1993

mengistuCOHEN: By August of 1990 we understood what Mengistu’s objectives were (Mengistu is seen at right); not to use the U.S. as a mentor for peace, but to use the negotiations as a cover for finding other sources of arms. In effect they decided their best source of arms would be the Israelis, and by releasing this Jewish community, dripping them out 100 at a time, they would be able to convince the Israelis to give them arms. We, wanting to help the Soviets get out of there and wanting to see peace, as well as the departure of the Jews, would not object to their getting arms.

The Falashas were the Jewish community. Of course we were under a certain amount of pressure from organized groups in the United States on that issue. It was not just the regular Jewish organizations. There were organizations just for Ethiopians. There were two in the United States and one in Canada, and they had a certain amount of influence in the Congress.

[Vice President] Bush was interested in it because he had been involved with the first exodus about ten years earlier when they had managed to get some out. Anyway, we realized what was happening, so we had a choice at that point either to denounce the whole thing as a farce or just to play along with it and see what happens. We decided to play along with it.

“Publicity had forced the termination of this program through Khartoum”

David Reuther, Refugee Counselor, Khartoum Embassy, 1990-1991

goREUTHER: The exposure of the covert Falasha resettlement to Israel [Operation Moses] severely damaged the program as the Sudanese had lost confidence in it, and it had been very difficult for us to recover….

They had lived in rural areas of Ethiopia for many centuries, cut off and isolated from other centers of Judaism. Some had been quietly evacuated from Ethiopia clandestinely by Jewish agencies and resettled in Israel. That clandestine program had been stopped because of some very unfortunate publicity which forced the Ethiopian and Sudanese governments to end it.

The Falashas had been brought out of Ethiopia into Sudan, where they were kept in a secret refugee camp. This flight was assisted by the connivance of a couple of key ministers in the Sudanese government, who knew about the transit program and did not interfere, even though the Sudan was officially bitterly hostile to Israel and therefore not able to publicly admit the use of its territory for the movement of some Jews.

The unfortunate publicity had forced the termination of this program through Khartoum, although some Falashas were still arriving in Israel having followed an over-land route.

“As soon as the plane bays were filled, the planes took off”

Ambassador Hume Horan, U.S. Ambassador to Khartoum, 1983-1986

idf-operation-solomonHORAN: The extractions were in two parts. The first, “Operation Solomon,” was the larger. Many major U.S. papers knew of the operation, but had agreed – unusually – not to publish. They rightly decided that it would be wrong, just for the sake of a story, to close the exit door on these thousands of totally miserable people.

Anyway, the story did break in the end in the Israeli press. The L.A. Times picked it up next and carried a very good, objective piece on what was going on. That ended “Operation Solomon.”

After lying low for some weeks, we were able to go back to the Sudanese.

We said, “Look, we’re sorry about the leak. But the damage has been done. `In for a penny…’ So why not follow through to the end? There are only a 5000 or so Ethiopian Jews left. Let us blot them up in one quick extraction.”

They said, “Okay, provided that, this time, the operation is run by your sister Agency.”

“Operation Sheba” was briefer, even more expeditious. It was done by the Agency and with U.S. military C-130s. Same convoys, same rush to board the refugees. The facilities this time were even starker. No seats.

As soon as the plane bays were filled, the planes took off. One after another. DOD! Imagine! They had security people on the ground to make sure that no refugee tried to hijack one of the planes!

“In 24 hours 14,000 people were airlifted out of Addis Ababa and flown to Tel Aviv”

Ambassador William Brown, ambassador, Embassy Tel Aviv, 1988-1992

lubraniBROWN: Now, by 1991 Mengistu’s position had deteriorated to the point that the well-known special operator, Uri Lubrani (seen left), was involved. Lubrani had been handling relations between Israel and Lebanon for years. He had once been an unofficial Ambassador to the Shah in Iran. He was a very sophisticated and highly educated and articulate negotiator.

Lubrani called me in to see him in his office at the Israeli Ministry of Defense. He outlined the situation and the fact that he was in touch and negotiating with Mengistu. He said that, at an appropriate point, he might require our assistance and wanted us to be brought up to speed on this matter.

As it worked out, Mengistu wanted arms, of course. He also wanted money and he wanted to survive. If he couldn’t survive in Ethiopia, he wanted help in getting out of the country so that he could survive somewhere else.

So it was that Lubrani would fill me in on the latest aspects of the situation in Ethiopia. We would compare notes. On my side I had information from our Chargé d’Affaires in Addis Ababa, an outstanding officer whom I met briefly only recently. Lubrani and I would compare notes on Mengistu’s position and so forth. Finally, Lubrani came to the point.

Funds were deposited in a New York bank for transfer to Mengistu when, and only when, Israeli planes began to take off transporting Falasha people from Ethiopia to Israel. The precise date when this would be done remained a secret.

One day in the spring of 1993, I received an urgent phone call to go quickly to Ben Gurion International Airport. I saw all kinds of Israeli planes which had recently landed, including a Boeing 747 and a lot of C-130s.

operation_solomonI watched the last C-130 which came in that day. The rear ramp came down, and one could see a sea of humanity in the aircraft. The Israelis had taken all of the equipment out of the aircraft and covered the deck and sides with sheets of black, polyethylene plastic. The aircraft was jam packed with Ethiopian men, women, and children.

The smell that came out of the aircraft after that long, long flight with no toilets was rather overpowering. However, it was a tremendously emotional occasion for all who were there.

The last man to leave the plane was a very elderly gentleman in a white, flowing garment and wearing a white cap. He was what the Falasha community called a “Kais,” one of their religious leaders. He had a long, flowing beard and a rod or scepter of some kind. Thinking that I was an Israeli liberator, he embraced me, and we did a little dance on the deck of this rather pungent C-130 aircraft.

8759242fad71e020fa64fed150485645We got off the aircraft, and I was all choked up. I was the only American present. This operation had been pulled off by Israeli security operatives. [Amnon Lipkin-] Shahak, who was to emerge as Deputy Chief of Staff, then Chief of Staff, and is now a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Barak, had flown secretly to Addis Ababa, set up a headquarters there, and pulled this operation off. In 24 hours some 14,000 people were airlifted out of Addis Ababa and flown to safety in Tel Aviv.

There had been previous flights of Falasha people to Israel some years previously, in which George Bush, then the Director of Central Intelligence, had been involved. This was called “Operation Moses.” And the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] was involved in assisting the Israelis in this effort. It was a very delicate business, given the attitude of the Sudanese Government at the time.

Operation Solomon was such an impressive job that I put in a phone call to my son Alex, who was then a career Air Force pilot flying B-52 bombers. I said, “Alex, you command a B-52 and are an expert on large aircraft. Let me ask you a question. In an emergency, how many people could you put in a Boeing 747?”

My son thought a while and said, “Well, in a real emergency, I could cram some 700 people in it.”

I said, “How about 1,030 people, or thereabouts?”

He said, “What?”

I said, “A Boeing 747 has just landed at Ben Gurion International Airport with over 1,000 Ethiopian Falasha people aboard. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

It was really a remarkable achievement.

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