Secret airlift 'ends historic mission to bring Yemenis home'


Towards the end of last week, 19 Jewish citizens of Yemen, a country embroiled in a bitter civil war, secretly began packing their bags.

On Sunday, the last of them walked through the arrivals hall in Ben Gurion airport to start new lives in Israel.

The immigrants, young and old, arrived late at night. One of them, a rabbi, carried a 500-year-old Torah scroll. They included relatives of Aharon Zindani, who was murdered in 2012 - one of two antisemitic murders in the country in the past decade.

"From Operation Magic Carpet in 1949 until the present day, the Jewish Agency has helped bring Yemeni Jewry home to Israel," said Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. "Today, we bring that historic mission to a close." The 50 Jews who are left in Yemen have decided that they want to stay there.

While the latest operation was on a far smaller scale than the mass emigration that wowed the Jewish world almost seven decades ago, it has also caused amazement. There are no clear answers on how the Jewish Agency managed to get the Jews out of Yemen at a time when its allies in past operations, Britain and the US, have shuttered their Yemeni embassies, and when the Saudi blockade is firmly in place.

There are no clear answers on how the Jewish Agency got them out

"I know that the Americans have been involved but how they did it and what route they took I don't know," said Dov Levitan, Israel's leading expert on Yemenite Jewry and a professor at Bar-Ilan University. Jewish Agency officials will only confirm that the plane that brought the immigrants to Ben Gurion was not Israeli.

Dr Levitan thinks that Yemeni officials may have been paid off as part of the operation. "It could be corruption," he said, adding that he also believed Mossad was involved.

Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer said that, of the 50 Jews who remain in Yemen, the majority live in a special compound in Sanaa, where they are protected by Yemeni authorities. Mr Mayer added, however, that the group's movement was very restricted.

The Yemenites who have just arrived in Israel are living in an absorption centre in Beersheva and, after a stint there that will include Hebrew classes, are expected to move to parts of the country where they have relatives. Although immigration normally attracts limited interest in Israel, TV and newspapers enthusiastically reported their arrival.

Within 24 hours, they had been hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the meeting, they read to him from their Torah scroll. "I am very excited to see you here," Mr Netanyahu said. "It is moving that you know to read from the Torah. This is the basis. For many years we have thought about bringing you and, with God's help, it is over."

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