21 Israelis Rescued from Tunisia

It wasn't Entebbe, but 21 Israeli tourists in Tunisia were grateful when a complex rescue operation brought them home to Ben Gurion Airport.

Chana Ya'ar , | updated: 10:39 AM

The island of Djerba in Tunisia
The island of Djerba in Tunisia
Israel news photo: Wikimedia Commons / Tawfiq

It wasn't Entebbe, but for 21 Israelis trapped in the chaos of an Arab nation gone haywire, the relief in seeing their rescuers must have been nearly as palpable.

As Tunisia swore in a new interim president on Saturday for its second change of power in less than 24 hours, Israel quietly prepared to extract its citizens.

Riots have wracked the streets of the nation since last week; former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ended 23 years of autocratic rule in a hasty flight on Friday to Saudi Arabia when it became clear that the violence was escalating. By Saturday, at least 42 people were dead in a prison fire, and 1,000 inmates of another prison were freed by officials who didn't want to brave a deadly rebellion brewing within the facility's walls.   

But from the moment it became clear Tunisia was going up in flames, Israeli officials at the Foreign Ministry were already on the phone to Europe, according to ministry spokesman Yossi Levy.

“We have good contact partners through a third nation,” he told Israel National News Sunday morning. “The moment we heard of the blockade during the upheaval we sent a message, asking for the safety of the Jews.”

The complicated rescue mission took some time and involved a number of different agencies. But at 7:00 p.m. Saturday, the 21 Israeli tourists lifted off from the island of Djerba, home to most of Tunisia's Jewish community. They were flown to Germany, and from there home to Ben Gurion International Airport.

But the story does not end there.

In addition to a request to allow Israel to rescue its citizens, two other messages were delivered as well.

Safety for Tunisian Jews
According to Yacov Hadas, the foreign ministry's deputy director-general  for Middle East and Peace Process Division, Israel asked its contact partner to ask Tunisian authorities to make sure the Jews would not be dragged into the conflict.

The tiny Jewish community, which today numbers fewer than 2,000, lives on the island of Djerba and comprise the country's largest indigenous religious minority. The other Jews in Tunisia live in various areas, although most are in Tunis, the capital and move back and forth from there to Europe. In 1948, the Jewish population in Tunisia was estimated at 105,000, but by 1967 most had left the country for France and Israel.

Hadas told Israel National News the message also included a request to “take all required measures to make sure Jewish community institutes as well as premises will not be affected by looting in the street as much as possible, due to the lack of physical security on the street these days.”

Tunisia is home to the second-largest Jewish community in the Arab world; the largest Jewish community in an Arab country is in Morocco, currently home to some 4,000 Jews.

“In Morocco, the Jews at this point are safe,” Hadas stressed. “There is no reason to believe that what is happening in Tunisia would affect them at all.”

Jordanian Riots Not Related
Meanwhile, although reports of rioting by thousands of people in Jordan, Israel's eastern neighbor, initially appeared to be related to those in Tunisia, such was not the case, said Hadas. The foreign ministry official said the situation in Jordan is “completely different and over different issues.” 

According to Hadas, “Organizers there were planning those demonstrations in advance; they were just able to take advantage of the Tunisian upheaval” for an extra publicity push.

In Jordan, protesters scoffed at a government announcement earlier in the week that $169 million would be invested to reduce food and fuel prices, and create jobs.

“Jordan is not only for the rich. Bread is a red line. Beware of our starvation and fury,” read a protesters' banner, according to news network Al Jazeera.

Nevertheless, the demonstrations in Jordan were scattered and well-controlled, as compared with those in Tunisia. International media echoed the statement by Hadas that the issue in the Hashemite kingdom is about food prices, not corruption in government – the Jordanians do not appear to have any wish to depose their king.