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Israel flies in 19 Yemeni Jews, ending immigration mission

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has flown 19 Jews from war-ravaged Yemen in what immigration officials described as the last covert operation to move members of a dwindling Jewish community whose roots date back two millennia.

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Seventeen people arrived late on Sunday, including a man who doubled as rabbi and kosher butcher in the northern town of Raydah, carrying a 500-year-old Torah scroll, said officials. Two others came in a few days earlier.

The sacred manuscript’s departure from Yemen marked the de facto end of Raydah’s Jewish community, which has lived alongside its Muslim neighbors for centuries only to be driven out by a surge in fighting and political turmoil.

“I dreamed of coming to Israel already several years ago,” Rabbi Suleiman Yihiye Dahari told Israel’s Channel 1 television.

Four of his children left Yemen several months ago, the channel said, and he was reunited with them as he and his fellow immigrants settled into housing in the desert city of Beersheba.

Yemeni Jews have complained of increasing harassment since the rebel Houthi movement - whose slogan is “Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam” - seized control of the capital Sanaa in 2014.

Israel, founded partly as a haven for survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, has organized waves of Jewish immigration including the mass transfer of most of Yemen’s then 40,000-strong Jewish community in 1949.

Fresh fighting and political chaos has since driven many of the people who stayed behind out of their northern homelands.

After decades of airlifts of Yemeni Jews, the latest arrivals had “brought the mission to its conclusion”, the head of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, said in a statement.

Some members of the deeply conservative Jewish community had voiced concern that life in Israel or elsewhere would be an affront to their traditional values.

Around 50 had decided to stay, the Agency said, including at least 40 living in a compound near the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa under Yemeni government protection.

Yemeni government aid to those driven from the north - an individual monthly stipend of $20 - stopped about six months ago and the group remaining behind faces eviction from the compound.

Other operations have transferred Jewish populations from Ethiopia and, more covertly, from Arab or Muslim states with which Israel has no formal relations.

Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, and Mohammed Ghobari in Cairo; Editing by Andrew Heavens and John Stonestreet