Ethiopian Jews make aliyah in Operation Solomon
Ethiopian Jews make aliyah in Operation SolomonMiki Zarfati, Courtesy of IDF Spokesperson

The IDF on Sunday marked 24 years since Operation Solomon, which was conducted on May 24, 1991, and saw 14,500 Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel by 34 planes in 36 hours, constituting the largest aerial mission to bring Jews home to Israel.

Ethiopia had prohibited its Jews from making aliyah (immigration) to Israel, leading Israel in the 1970s to authorize the IDF to act in bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel, reports the official IDF Blog.

Three massive airlift operations were conducted starting in 1984, concluding with Operation Solomon.

"Operation Solomon truly represents what Zionism is," said Maj. Gen. Avihu Bin-Nun, who was the commander of the IAF at the time of the operation. "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."

Bin-Nun remarked on the historical scale of the operation, noting "never before, did so few pilots transport such a great number of people in such a short time."

The IDF decided to launch the operation due to the great danger posed to the Ethiopian Jewish community, given the high political instability in the nation at the time and the risk of Eritrean rebels seizing control. Responding to the threat, $35 million was raised almost immediately by the Jewish community to pay the Ethiopian government so it would let the Jews leave.

From Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv

No fewer than six Boeing 707 planes and 18 Hercules planes, capable of carrying 18,000 people, were deployed by the IAF for the mission, which brought Ethiopian Jews via Boeing 707s to Addis Ababa in a three-hour flight, and from there to Israel in the Hercules in a five-hour flight.

Lt. Col. A., who landed the first Boeing in Ethiopia, recalled that "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."

"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," he said.

Local Jews were gathered at the Israeli embassy and bused to the planes. In order to fly out as many as possible, the seats of the planes were removed, with each aircraft made able to contain up to 1,200 passengers.

"I vividly remember those images from Addis Ababa,” stated Maj. B., an IAF pilot who flew in the mission. "An incredible number of people walked towards the plane, organized in groups of 200. The doctors and paramedics provided ongoing support."

As the first plane landed in Tel Aviv, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other leaders greeted the new immigrants.

Ehud Barak meets Ethiopian Jews
Ehud Barak meets Ethiopian JewsMiki Zarfati, Courtesy of IDF Spokesperson

"The people who arrived during Operation Solomon fled their country with nothing but the clothes they were wearing," wrote Anat Tal-Shir, a reporter for Yedioth Aharonot, at the time. "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."

Mukat Abag, a 29-year-old rescued in the operation, said at the time, "we didn’t bring any of our clothes; we didn’t bring any of our things. But we are very glad to be here."

Former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz also took part in the mission, leading the ground operation as commander of the IAF's elite Shaldag commando force.

Speaking 20 years after it happened, he recalled, "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.”