Rescue mission

Israel, Jewish Agency rescue Israelis, immigrants-to-be from war-torn region of Ethiopia

More than 200 people flown from Gondar and Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa in complex operation

The Israeli government, working with the Jewish Agency for Israel, on Thursday rescued more than 200 Israeli citizens and members of the local Jewish community waiting to immigrate to Israel who were trapped in Ethiopia’s Amhara region due to ongoing clashes between a local militia and government forces. They were flown to the capital of Addis Ababa, where some will stay for the time being while others will continue on to Israel, officials told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“We initiated this rescue operation as part of our shared commitment and strong dedication to our people. We won’t break our promise; we won’t abandon any Jew who needs our help on the ground,” Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog said in a statement.

As battles between the government’s Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Fano militia group escalated in recent days in Amhara, the Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency, halting almost all travel into and out of the region, including from the city of Gondar, home to one of Ethiopia’s largest Jewish communities, which has seen some of the fiercest battles.

In light of this, the Israeli government and Jewish Agency began preparing to extract the approximately 140 Israeli citizens in Amhara, most of them in and around Gondar and others in the city of Bahir Dar, as well as the approximately 60 people eligible for Israeli citizenship.

On Wednesday, when it became clear that the rescue operation could go forward, the Israeli Embassy in Ethiopia and the Israeli Foreign Ministry began contacting the 204 citizens and would-be immigrants, instructing them to get to one of several collection points in Gondar and Bahir Dar. There they were taken by bus to the cities’ airports and flown on chartered flights to the capital city of Addis Ababa, the Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office said in a joint statement.

“The complex rescue efforts from Gondar to Addis Ababa were led by Jewish Agency security officer, Mamush Marsha, together with a representative of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish Agency security officers,” a Jewish Agency official said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen hailed the “successful cooperation and close coordination” between his ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Council and the Jewish Agency.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the organizations and ministries for their “quick, quiet and — most importantly — successful operation.”

Some of the 204 people who were rescued will remain in Addis Ababa for the time being, including the volunteers from the Jewish Agency’s Project TEN (a service-learning program), while others will make their way to Israel. 

“They will stay in Addis Ababa tonight and tomorrow; they’ll decide for themselves how to proceed,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

Those eligible for Israeli citizenship must first receive travel documents from Ethiopian authorities, the Jewish Agency official said. A spokesperson from the Immigration and Absorption Ministry said he expected these soon-to-be-immigrants to arrive in Israel in the coming days.

Surafel Alamo, the head of the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah, criticized the government for leaving behind thousands of Ethiopians in Gondar with family members in Israel — but are not recognized by the government as eligible for Israeli citizenship — who have been waiting for years to immigrate.

They are not recognized as being Jewish or as being the children or grandchildren of Jews — despite many maintaining that they are Jewish through matrilineal descent — or as being married to Jews, all of which would have made them eligible for citizenship under Israeli law. (There are no precise numbers of how many residents of Gondar fit this description, but it is generally estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000.)

“In light of the war in Ethiopia and the immediate threat to life it represented, the Israeli government worked to save the lives of Israeli citizens who were stuck in the area of the battles and along the way continued to abandon the lives of those in the waiting camp in Gondar,” Alamo said.