“Next year in Jerusalem” are words spoken by Jews all over the world. For the Jews of Ethiopia, this dream was a promise.
On May 24, 1991, the IDF carried out Operation Solomon, a massive airlift that brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel. After 34 planes and 36 hours, the Israel Air Force safely carried 14,500 Jews to Israeli soil. The mission remains the largest aerial expedition in Israel’s history.
Ethiopians awaiting a flight to Israel during Operation Solomon in 1991
In the 1970′s, the Israeli government made the decision to authorize the use of the IDF to enable the immigration of thousands of Jews who were living in Ethiopia, a country that at the time prohibited its citizens from emigrating to Israel. Beginning in 1984, the IDF brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel in three airlift operations, the last of which was Operation Solomon in 1991.
“Operation Solomon truly represents what Zionism is,” said Israel’s air force commander of the time, Maj. Gen. Avihu Ben-Nun. “It demonstrates the purpose for the State of Israel: to provide a home and shelter for Jews around the world who have suffered and were prosecuted merely for bearing the Jewish religion.”
It was a great operation on a global scale. “Never before, did so few pilots transport such a great number of people in such a short time,” Maj. Gen. Ben-Nun said.
Turmoil in Ethiopia
In 1991, Ethiopia was experiencing great political instability. The acting government was weak, and the likelihood of it falling to Eritrean rebels was high. Ethiopia’s Jews were in danger. On March 7, Uri Lubrani, an Israeli diplomat, reported on the worsening military situation in Ethiopia, and advised the formulation of “an emergency plan, for the protection and evacuation of the Jewish community.”
Leading up to the operation, $35 million were raised almost overnight in order to pay the Ethiopian government to allow the Jews to leave.
The operation begins
The Israel Air Force allocated six Boeing 707 and 18 Hercules planes capable of carrying 18,000 people. The mission had two stages: a three hour flight to Addis Ababa (using the Boeing 707 plane) and another five hours to Israel, using the Hercules aircraft. A modern version of the Hercules, the C-130J-30 Super Hercules, is still in use in today’s IDF missions.
The first Hercules landed in Addis-Ababa around 10:00 AM, and the crew immediately began assembling the command room. “The first control tower in the northern part of the country did not even respond to our call, as the local city was taken over by rebels, hours earlier,” recalled Lieut. Col. A., who landed the first Boeing in Ethiopia. “There was a lot of traffic over the airport at Addis-Ababa, and we had to wait for 30 minutes before we could land. The airport itself was very organized, and ground services worked very well”.
The ground plan involved gathering everyone at the Israeli embassy, and transporting them to the planes using specially designated buses. Each bus was to be escorted by an Israeli soldier, of Ethiopian origin.
In order to accommodate as many people as possible, the seats of the planes were removed and up to 1,200 passengers were able to board a single plane. Those who planned the operation expected that the planes would hold only 760 passengers, but the Ethiopians – many of whom were malnourished – were so light that many more were able to fit.
Almost 20 years later, IDF Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, who led the ground operation as commander of the IAF’s elite Shaldag commando force, spoke of the mission: “As commander of Shaldag Unit, I had to deal primarily with technical details. Only during the mission did I get a sense of how meaningful it was to be part of this crucial event. It’s a turning point in my service which encompasses both my Zionist values and the meaning of our existence in this country.”
Photo: Miki Zarfati, courtesy of IDF Archive
“I vividly remember those images from Addis Ababa,” recalls Maj. B., an IAF pilot at the time. “An incredible number of people walked towards the plane, organized in groups of 200. The doctors and paramedics provided ongoing support.” The first Boeing plane took off at noon, followed by the rest. At one time, 27 planes were in the air.
On the ground
At 5:00 P.M. the first plane landed in Tel Aviv. As the passengers walked out, Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir and other leaders greeted them on the ground in Israel.
The children came out first. “Everyone looked tired and scared”, described Anat Tal-Shir, a reporter for the newspaper “Yediot Aharonot.” “The people who arrived during Operation Solomon fled their country with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. The children stayed close to their mothers. A young man carried his elderly father on his shoulders. They both bent down and kissed the Israeli soil”.
Ethiopian arrivals on the ground in Israel with IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak (later Israel’s Defense Minister and Prime Minister) – Photo: Miki Zarfati, courtesy of IDF Archive
The arrivals were met with cheer and celebration. “We didn’t bring any of our clothes; we didn’t bring any of our things,” said 29 year old Mukat Abag at the time. “But we are very glad to be here.” After one of the most complex and emotional operations in IDF history, Ethiopia’s Jews had finally landed safely in Israel.