Operation 'Solomon'

In May 24-25 1991, almost the entire Jewish Ethiopian community was repatriated to Israel in an incredibly complex operation, and the largest air-train in the history of Israel. The top-secret operation saw 34 planes, going on 41 sorties to bring to Israel some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews

“Operation ‘Shlomo’ truly represented what Zionism is, and demonstrated the purpose of the State of Israel: providing a house and a shelter to Jews from all around the world who suffered and were prosecuted merely for bearing the Jewish religion”, said the Air force commander of the time, Maj. Gen. Avihu Ben-Nun. “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".

The warm relations between Israel and the Jewish community in Ethiopia have been established in the 1950s. The idea to repatriate the community to Israel was first proposed in the 1960s, however quoting Uri Lubrani, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia: “There was no chance at that point, that the Government of Ethiopia will allow the migration of the Falasha community outside the borders of Ethiopia".

The rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam faced an increased military challenge, and required military assistance. Israel saw it as an opportunity to repatriate the Jewish community. In August 1977, Israel sent two Hercules planes full of ammunition and replacement parts, in exchange repatriating 122 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

This was the first of several operations, which brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. A first large operation brought Ethiopian Jews from Khartoum, Sudan, during a famine in 1984. Between November 1984 and January 1985, 6,145 Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel in 28 sorties. However, after news of the operation became public, Sudan decided to stop it.

Between February and May of 1990, 15,000 Jews walked the 350 km from the Gundar Mountains, the home of the Jewish community in Ethiopia, to the country’s capital, Addis-Abeba. The walk, organized by the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, meant to cause a public and international pressure on the government of Ethiopia to allow Ethiopian Jews to leave to Israel. The large amount of people disrupted the daily routine of the capital, and as it later turned out, it helped in speeding up the approval process.

The political complexity of the issue brought the prime minister of the time, Itzhak Shamir, to appoint Uri Lubrani as his direct advisor on the matter. On March 7th, 1991 Lubrani reported about the worsening military situation in Ethiopia, and advised to formulate “an emergency plan, for the protection and evacuation of the Jewish community there". 

The IDF began planning the operation. At first, the plan revolved around reuniting the families who were separated in previous operations. The planners faced grave uncertainties: will the government cooperate? Will the rebels interrupt? What is the condition of the local airport? The uncertainties led to multiple possible scenarios, and demanded flexible planning.

On March 14th1991, an “Envelope Plan” was created, with the assumption that the Ethiopian government will cooperate and allow it to proceed. The goal was difficult and complex: bringing to Israel 18,000 people in the shortest time possible. A large interdepartmental planning team was assembled, and got together daily to plan and manage the operation.

The diplomatic efforts continued alongside the military planning, and it was uncertain whether the operation will be possible at all. Finally, after months of intense negotiations, the Ethiopian President Tesfaye Gebre Kidan announced on May 23rd 1991 that he agrees in principle to Operation “Salomon”. The last political hurdle was the objection of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Tesfaye Dinka, which was overcame with the direct involvement of the American President Bush, who concluded his request by writing: “If you allow such a great humanitarian and historical operation, the entire world will thank you. America will remain committed to mediate between the sides, and preserve the democracy in Ethiopia”. Same day, Ethiopia gave the green light for the operation.

The operation was slated to commence the next day, noon time.

“This is a rescue mission. Unlike the military kind of operations we are used to, this one is about saving people”, said Brig. Gen. Amir Nahumi at a brief in Palmahim air base, a day before the operation start.

To the task of flying 18,000 people, the air force allocated six Boeing 707 and 18 Hercules planes. The flight had two parts: a three hour flight to Addis-Abeba (using the Boeing 707 plane) and another five hours to Israel, using the Hercules aircraft. It was estimated that 33 hours will pass from the first take off, and until the last landing. The flight path was planned to pass over the Red Sea, and in order to avoid any potential risk to the air train all countries along the flight route were contacted, with American help and support.

The ground plan involved gathering all people 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.

On May 24th 1991, at 04:41 AM, the four Boeing, and the first of the Hercules took off from Israel. The planes carried a large number of people and equipment required at the Addis-Abeba airport required for the purpose of the operation.

The first Hercules landed in Addis-Abeba around 10:00 AM, and the crew immediately began assembling the command room. Lieut. Col. A. Who landed the first Boeing in Ethiopia described: “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-Abeba, and we had to wait for 30 minutes before we could land. The airport itself was very organized, and ground services worked very well".

Over 5,000 people gathered at the Israeli embassy by noon, with nothing but a few items in their hands. There was a great commotion inside, as the people went through several stops, presenting their documents and receiving a boarding pass to the plane.

“I vividly remember the images from Addis-Abeba”, recalls Major B., one of the pilots. “An incredible number of people walked towards the plane, organized in groups of 200. The doctors and paramedics provided an ongoing support". The first Boeing plane took off at 12:56, followed by the rest. At one time, 27 planes were in the air.

At 17:00 the first plane landed in Tel-Aviv. As they were walking out, the repatriates were greeted by the Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir, Minister of Foreign Affairs David Levi, Minister of Defence Moshe Arens, Minister of housing Ariel Sharon and many others.

The children came out first. “Everyone looked tired and scared”, described Anat Tal-Shir, a reporter for “Yediot Aharonot”. “The people who arrived at operation Salomon fled their country with nothing but the clothes they wear. The children stayed close to their mothers. A young man carried his elderly father on his shoulders. The both bent down and kissed the Israeli soil".

The Israeli air train was supplemented by one “Ethiopian Airlines” plane, by the request of the Ethiopian government.

“It was a very well planned operation”, said Lieut. Col. A., one of the Boeing pilots. “The plan was described in great detail, from the sequence of the planes take off, to the positioning of the many reports that covered the operation. In Addis-Abeba our passengers were frightened. Once we closed the doors they felt more at ease. When we landed in Israel, I could hear their applause all the way to the cockpit".

On Saturday, May 25th at 11:37 the last plane in the “Salomon” air train departed from Addis-Abeba. This concluded of the most complicated and emotional operations in the history of Israel.