JERUSALEM (Reuters) - While other Israeli spies spent the early 1980s stalking Arab foes through Europe, Gad Shimron was deep in Africa on a secret mission to save lives.
Thousands of Ethiopian Jews had fled the Eritrean conflict to neighboring Sudan, only to be stranded in teeming camps. Shimron, then a young Mossad operative, was sent to the Muslim state to find a way of spiriting the refugees away to Israel.
The resulting mission, codenamed Brothers, became a modern Zionist legend. For Shimron, it was a high-wire mix of the humanitarian and the hazardous about which, a generation on, he has written a book with rare acquiescence from Israel’s censors.
“The feeling is that Sudan was one of our finest hours, the enlistment of an entire defense establishment for a truly altruistic purpose,” Shimron, now 57, told Reuters in an interview promoting the English edition of “Mossad Exodus”.
“We’re the only Westernized country to have brought out Africans in order to liberate, rather than enslave them.”
Other groups of Africans have been invited to leave their countries in emergencies, but this migration aimed to resettle the Ethiopian Jews in their ancestral homeland.
Tens of thousands moved to Israel in Brothers and other, less clandestine operations. Their community in Israel now numbers 100,000, its integration at times hampered by state bureaucracy and allegations of racist discrimination.
But when Shimron and a small Mossad team flew to Khartoum in 1981, posing as entrepreneurs from a Swiss travel firm, they had the blessing of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin — himself a Polish refugee from the Nazi Holocaust.
The Mossad had bought a defunct resort up the coast from Port Sudan, which Shimron and his comrades renovated and staffed with locals. It was a front, yet proved to be surprisingly successful, drawing foreign scuba divers and sport fishermen.
“Most Mossad operations lose money, but we found ourselves making a small profit. We had to come up with all sorts of excuses to get away for our real work — parties in Khartoum, stocking up on provisions, that sort of thing,” Shimron said.
From 1982 to 1984 the Israelis, receiving radio instructions from Tel Aviv, shuttled between the resort and inland areas where they had located 8,000 Ethiopian Jews.
Traveling by night over potholed roads 440 km (260 miles) long, ever conscious of the fact that they were in a country deeply hostile to the Jewish state, the Mossad men took hundreds of refugees to a beach rendezvous where they were collected by Israeli naval commandos and ferried to their new national home.
“I still remember how they looked in the back of those trucks — emaciated, dressed in rags, the old and the infants among them clinging to others for support. But they gazed at us with complete trust and they never complained,” Shimron said.
There were many problems. Shimron’s partner was arrested by Sudanese security forces, escaping from their compound through a window. On another occasion, one of Shimron’s trucks — empty at the time — was pulled over by police. Shimron discovered to his dismay that the truck’s previous user had run a checkpoint.
“Luckily, the cop in question had a very macho imagination, and claimed to have shot up the truck when it refused to stop. I pointed out the lack of bullet holes in the vehicle and he had to let me go,” Shimron said.
Such mishaps, and the halting pace of the sea evacuations, persuaded Israel to try something more dramatic. Top Khartoum officials were bribed to look the other way as Israeli cargo planes flew to desert bases, picking up the remaining refugees.
Israel was later to bring in another 22,000 Ethiopian Jews in airlifts known as Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.
Assimilating the new arrivals from Africa has not been without setbacks. Some complained of being abandoned to a life on the poor fringe of Israeli society. The discovery of a Health Ministry policy of dumping blood donated by Ethiopian immigrants — for fear of contamination, officials said — sparked riots.
Yet thousands of Ethiopians, many hard put to prove their Jewish descent under the stringent standards set by the Orthodox rabbinate, still await permission to move to Israel. Israeli authorities say that by the end of 2008, all those who are eligible will have made the move.
“The Ethiopians I have stayed in touch with have no regrets about ‘coming to Zion’, despite the difficulties,” Shimron said.