Operation Solomon: A modern-day exodus

The IDF (Zahal) Wesbite sat for an exclusive interview with the aerial commander of the operation that airlifted 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to safety and freedom in the Land of Israel

Date: 31/03/2013, 11:11 AM     Author: Yiftach Carmeli

Darkness descended on the airport in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, and the Hercules aircraft opened up. The red lights flashing from inside the plane, the hot air whizzing off the propellers, and the great roar of the engine combined to create a surreal scene as the Ethiopian Jewish olim (immigrants to Israel) continued their march towards freedom in the land of Israel.  While the sounds first appeared nightmarish to the Ethiopian olim, it also provided a great sense of relief – the relief of the end of one of the largest air operations in Israel’s history: Operation Solomon.

Today, 22 years later, we look back at this great exodus from modern Jewish history with the aerial commander of the operation, Brig. Gen. Amir Nachumi. In honor of Passover, we discussed the bird’s eye perspective of the mission that brought so many thousands of Jews out of exile, home to the Promised Land.

Years of hard work shrouded in uncertainty

Operation Solomon was a project aimed at bringing some 15 thousand Ethiopian Jews into Israel with 24 transportation planes of the Israel Air Force: 18 Hercules transport aircrafts and six Boeing 707 jets.  In addition, soldiers from the elite Israel Air Force unit Shaldag provided security throughout the operation, along with assistance from the Mossad, the Israel Security Agency (ISA or Shin Bet) and the Jewish Agency. 
 
The operation officially began on May 24, 1991, however the journey began long before, with a series of actions in 1984 dubbed Operation Moses. During that operation, thousands of Ethiopian Jews migrated from Ethiopia to refugee camps in Sudan. Then, through a coordinated effort by the IDF (Zahal), the CIA, the US embassy in Sudan, and Sudanese state security forces, the Sudanese government green-lighted a secret operation that would evacuate some eight thousand Ethiopian Jews from Sudan into Israel. Due to the lack of formal diplomatic relations between Sudan and Israel, the operation remained a secret until it was exposed in January 1985 and therefore terminated, leaving about 15 thousand Jews behind in Ethiopia and Sudan.

Operation Solomon: A modern-day exodus

One of 18 Hercules transport planes used in the aerial convoy. Photo: IAF Archives

Two years later, when Ethiopia had become the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Israel renewed its diplomatic relationship with Ethiopia as it began supplying weapons to the new regime and military advisors to Ethiopian president Mengistu Haile Mariam. Over the course of the next three years, until May 1991, the 15 thousand Ethiopian Jews who were left behind returned to Addis Ababa. An agreement was signed between Ethiopia and Israel to allow five hundred Jews to immigrate to Israel within a month. However, reality set in earlier than expected and, in early 1991, severe political destabilization threatened the Mengistu regime with collapse. The Israeli government decided to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel in as swift and comprehensive a manner as possible. 
 
“Back in 1989, when I began my position as head of Air Transportation, we discussed the possibility of bringing everyone in by air transport,” explains Brig. Gen. Amir Nachumi, who was the commander of the aerial aspect of the operation. Discussion and planning for the possible operation accelerated quickly into reality by March 14, 1991, with the creation of a ‘Planning Dossier’ for the operation at Air Force headquarters in Tel Aviv. The planning team included officers from the Intelligence Directorate, Operations Directorate, Air Force, transport squadrons, the Mossad, the Jewish Agency and the JDC (Jewish Joint Distribution Committee).

“The date of the operation was not clear as it depended on the agreement of the Ethiopian government,” Nachumi explained. On May 23, when Mengistu fled Ethiopia and was granted asylum in Zimbabwe, Tesfaye Gebre Kidane, a very senior officer in the Ethiopian army, replaced him. Kidane approved the operation, and immediately thereafter the work began.

The following is Brig. Gen. Nachumi’s description of the operation from start to finish. 

We’re not here to conquer Ethiopia, we’re here to bring Jews home””

On the night of May 23, [1991] we sent out the cable to start the operation. Zero hour was set for 12 noon the next day. For the purposes of the operation, we had to use nearly the entire transport system of the Air Force, as well as EL Al commercial airplanes.  Our flight path would run across the international route that passed through the center of the Red Sea. With the help of the United States, we coordinated with the countries located along the route to prevent threats to the aerial convoy.

It was not clear in advance how long our planes would have to stay on the runway in Addis Ababa. So it was decided that the planes would not turn off their engines after landing. The working assumption was that we would receive no help from services on the ground in Ethiopia, including for refueling. The ground plan included the assembling of Ethiopian Jews in the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, and sending rounds of buses to the airport – a distance of 3.5 km from the embassy. A force of 100 soldier in civilian clothes were to divide into different groups: one responsible for the transportation route from the embassy to the airport, one to secure the field of operation and one to secure the embassy. Also, a small medical team was present, and in Israel we primed a rescue force that was ready to intervene if necessary. Transporting the olim to the airport was to be performed as a progression, so there were many buses parked near the embassy. Each bus had a support team, with at least one Israeli soldier of Ethiopian origin present. The intention was that the buses would travel on dirt roads to avoid running into PLO representatives in Addis-Ababa. The directive was to avoid gunfire as much as possible.

All the participating parties were present at the Lod Air Force base, including transport squadrons, the maintenance squadron, the administrative squadron, the loading unit and combat troops. In the briefing prior to the operation, the then-Deputy Chief of Staff and operation commander [who would become Chief of Staff himself] Amnon Lipkin-Shahak said: “We are not going to conquer Ethiopia, nor impose law and order in Addis Ababa. We are going to bring all the Jews who are currently in Addis-Ababa to Israel”.

Operation Solomon: A modern-day exodus

It was decided that after the go-ahead was received, Foreign Ministry security forces and Jewish Agency staff on the [Rhino – C-130 Hercules] plane would help identify and register immigrants at the embassy. At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, all the equipment for the operation was to be flown in on two “Rhinos”. Participants in the operation would leave in an [Oryx – Boeing 707] aircraft at 12:30. This schedule would allow all participants to land at the airport in Addis Ababa, establish orientation and prepare. After unloading the equipment, the planes were supposed to wait in the field, ready to take off immediately when they had enough fuel to fly back. In any case, there was an option to land in Kenya for refueling if necessary. The Air Force and El Al prepared for the possibility that they would have to perform repairs in the field.

I left with the first Rhino on Friday, May 24 in the morning, with the people and equipment needed to establish a command post at the airport in Addis. On both of the Oryx jets which took off later, were members of the command group led by Deputy Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and commander of the Lod airbase Asaf Agmon.

At around 10.30, we (the advance team) landed in Addis Ababa and the rapid organization in the field began. The equipment was unloaded and set up next to the planes and the soldiers set out on their missions and began setting up observation posts.

Later on, the two Oryx planes arrived with the whole command group led by Lipkin-Shahak. After a short situation briefing it was clear that everything was ready, and we gave the signal on the rapid calling network throughout Addis Ababa. Thousands of Jews began to flock from all over the city towards the embassy. At noon, about an hour before the first plane was scheduled to take off, there were already around five thousand hopeful olim in the embassy. They started entering in small groups and presenting their identity cards – those that they had received earlier from the embassy during the early registration process. They went through initial sorting and afterwards each of them received a sticker that they stuck to their foreheads with the number of the bus that they were meant to get on.

No accidents, no malfunctions

At one stage a bottleneck was created at the embassy by gathering masses of Ethiopian citizens – a situation that led to great delays to the planned arrival of the olim to the airfield, and the departure times were thus pushed back by two and a half hours.

At 12:56 p.m. the first Oryx departed for Israel with four hundred passengers on board, landing close to five o’clock on Friday evening when they were greeted at Ben Gurion airport by the Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir as well as many ministers. After that plane, the other planes began taking off one after another, each at its designated time. At one of the peak moments during the operation there were 27 planes in the air at the same time, flying to and from Addis. When the first ‘jumbo’ landed, it became clear to us that we would not be able to operate 747 jets from the field due to their size. The plane stayed standing on the track and we crammed 1,078 passengers on board – a world record for the amount of passengers on one plane. By 8.30 p.m. we had brought out some two thousand olim. The crowding at the Addis airfield increased and the ongoing changes to the flight times created more than one situation where there was no coordination between the number of olim and the number of planes in the field. As evening beckoned, when the curfew was imposed on the capital Addis and all the local residents returned to their homes, the pressure was eased on the traffic between the embassy and the airfield and so the planes went back to departing on average three flights each hour.

Operation Solomon: A modern-day exodus

At 5.30 a.m. on Saturday (shabbat) May 25, around one thousand olim remained in the embassy and by 6.30 a.m. tens of thousands had already landed at Ben Gurion airport. On Saturday morning at 9.17 a.m., the embassy reported that the sorting procedure there had been completed and all the olim had departed. Among the planes landing at Ben Gurion was an Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet, which itself brought olim as per a special request from the authority in Addis.

On Saturday morning, May 25, at 11.37 a.m., the last plane in the operation’s aerial convoy took off from Addis Ababa.

The operation took a total of 26 hours and included 30 aircraft flying 366 flight hours in 41 sorties to Addis Ababa and back, carrying some 15 thousand Jewish olim from Ethiopia to refuge in the State of Israel. It was one of the longest and most complex operations in the history of the Air Force. Despite the small amount of information and certain details, and despite the many diverse variables, we succeeded in the most extraordinary fashion, with no accidents and no malfunctions, and we accomplished our goal completely. The feeling during the operation and afterwards was a feeling that we were saving lives. It was a feeling shared among everyone who participated in the operation, and it united everyone under one mission.