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Operation Brothers: A Top-secret Mission to Rescue the Jews of Ethiopia

May 14, 2019

by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer

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The covert mission had all the makings of a spy thriller: international intrigue, daring and danger. Yet it wasn’t the fictional plot of a novel or movie. It really happened.

The actors? The Israeli intelligence service (the Mossad). The stage? A fabricated resort on the Sudanese shores of the Red Sea. The plan? To rescue Ethiopian Jews from the refugee camps in Sudan. The bogus resort would be their cover.

 Fleeing Persecution and Famine

From 1983–1985, Ethiopia suffered a devastating famine. In desperation, thousands of Ethiopians—Jews among them—fled to neighboring Sudan. Entire families, including the elderly, the infirm and young children, made the trip. To make matters worse for the Jews, Ethiopia was targeting Jewish inhabitants with government-sponsored persecution. Over 1,700 refugees died en route, victims of bandits and wild animals. Those who survived the 400-mile [644-km] trek were housed in wretched refugee camps just inside the Sudanese border, suffering hunger and disease. Almost 4,000 more refugees died in the camps.

The Covert Rescue Mission

The Israeli government realized the plight of their Ethiopian brethren and authorized Operation Brothers, the first secret mission designed to bring Ethiopian Jewish refugees to Israel. It would have to be top secret, for Sudan and Israel were longtime enemies. For over 30 years, Operation Brothers remained virtually unknown. Then, in 2007, one of the Mossad operatives who took part in the operation, Gad Shimron, brought the story to light in his book, Mossad Exodus.

The Israeli operatives, posing as Swiss businessmen, purchased an abandoned resort at Arous on the Sudanese seacoast and began the process of fixing up the place, installing electricity and running water and then advertising the resort in travel agencies across Europe. The operation had to appear legitimate to outsiders. Arous Holiday Village became known as Sudan’s premier recreation center, and hundreds of guests descended on the resort throughout its 6-year operation—never suspecting that it was the front for a Mossad operation.

The agents, former Israeli naval commandos, posed as scuba diving and windsurfing instructors, while female agents were tasked with managing the resort. All other serving and kitchen staff were hired locally, with the Mossad even pilfering their chef from a Sudanese hotel. The local staff were kept in the dark as to the resort’s real mission. If they thought it odd that the diving instructors left the resort at all hours and were absent for long stretches of time, they just assumed the crazy Swiss were out having a good time.

From Sudan to Israel

The trips to the Sudanese refugee camps were arduous, made under cover of darkness. The Mossad hired men inside the camps to seek out the Jewish refugees and gather them for pickup at a rendezvous point. The waiting Jews were then transported by truck for two nights over rough roads to the resort, put into Zodiac dinghies and ferried to an Israeli ship waiting outside Sudanese waters.

Gad Shimron remembered how scared and bewildered the refugees were as they huddled in the back of the trucks, but, “they gazed at us with complete trust and they never complained.” For many, this was the first time they’d ever ridden in a truck, been on a boat or seen a white Jew. The truck convoy stopped in a wadi (dry ravine) during daylight hours, waiting for darkness to fall again before proceeding. The adult passengers quietly kept to themselves, but the children curiously asked their rescuers questions and played with the truck’s steering wheel.

A Close Call

One night while the dinghies were being loaded with refugees, a patrol of Sudanese soldiers started shooting at the group, believing they were smugglers. Israeli chutzpah (audacity) was put to the test. One of the operatives shouted angrily to the soldiers that they were taking boatloads of tourists on a nighttime diving trip—how dare the patrol shoot at them! The confused soldiers apologized for their mistake, and the boats continued on their way.

At this point, the marine rescues were becoming too dangerous. The Mossad found an abandoned airstrip in the desert large enough to land a Hercules transport plane to airlift the refugees out of the country. The Ethiopian Jewish refugees had never seen a plane before, but the belief that one day they would go to Jerusalem “on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4) encouraged them to climb aboard the giant, featherless bird bound for Israel.

Achieving the Impossible

Operation Brothers came to a sudden end in the spring of 1985 when its cover was blown. The Israeli government advised all the Mossad operatives to get out of Sudan immediately. If they were discovered, a summary execution by hanging awaited them. Overnight, the “Swiss staff” disappeared from the resort and were extracted by a Hercules aircraft deep in the desert. Other operatives, stranded in Khartoum on a similar mission, were “mailed” to Israel in diplomatic mail crates. Over the course of Operation Brothers, more than 6,000 Ethiopian Jews had been rescued.

Much later, Shimron visited an absorption center in Israel that housed some of the Ethiopians rescued from Sudan. One of the young boys looked at him closely with round eyes and then said in flawless Hebrew, “Uncle, I remember you from the red truck in the wadi.” Shimron confessed that he cried.

The magnitude of the mission emphasized the bravery of the men and women tasked with an almost impossible assignment to save their “brothers.” However, according to Shimron, it was the silent, stoic Ethiopian Jews who showed the greatest courage.

Running parallel with but separate from Operation Brothers, another top secret mission called Operation Moses airlifted 8,000 Jews from Sudan between November 1984 and January 1985. Seven years later, Operation Solomon airlifted another 14,000 Jews out of Ethiopia in one day. After 2,500 years, Ethiopian Jewry had finally come home to Zion.

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