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On January 10, 1961, at a time when the immigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel was illegal, the ship Egoz set sail from the port of Al Hoceima with 44 Jews on board. The ship had been leased in 1960 by the Mossad and on each of its journeys smuggled between 40 to 50 Jews from Morocco to Gibraltar, and from there they would continue on their way to Israel.

On its 12th voyage, however, the Egoz sank. The 44 Jewish immigrants died, along with an Israeli radio operator and one of the ship's Spanish crew members. Three other crew members, all Spaniards, were rescued. Before it sank, the Egoz had transported 334 Jews out of Morocco within a three-month span.

A day after the tragedy, Haaretz reported that "12 corpses were collected today and brought this evening to the Spanish port of Algeciras. Most of the bodies found had life vests on them, and an effort has been launched to identify them and determine their nationality. No official statements have yet been provided on the cause of the disaster, but it was reported that the small ship was carrying an excessive load."

After the incident, an agreement was made allowing for the Jews' departure from Morocco under certain conditions - including payment of a ransom fee, through the mediation of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an American Jewish organization; and by taking a route that passed through a third country. Some 80,000 Jews left Morocco between 1961 and 1964 in the framework of this agreement.

Even though the Egoz sank after the State of the Israel was established, the victims of the disaster are referred to as Ma'apilei Egoz (using the Hebrew term for illegal immigrants in the pre-state years ). The Hebrew date of the event, 23 Tevet, was designated as the official day to commemorate the ship's casualties and the legacy of the immigration of North African Jewry.

"The government of Morocco has decided to allow Jews to immigrate," Haaretz's correspondent in Paris, Morris Carr, reported a few days after the incident, adding that "in its most recent meeting, the French Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee voiced serious concern that Morocco is withholding human rights from its Jewish minority."

"In Rabat today," Carr continued, "the Moroccan information minister, Moulay Ahmed Alawi, announced that a passport would be issued to any Jew requesting one, however if his government discovers any organized immigration to the imperialist Zionist state of Israel, they will stop issuing passports." Alawi added that "Morocco should not be seen as an anti-Semitic country. It is doing its best to keep its Jews in the country."

In Israel, the Egoz tragedy was met with shock and mourning. A few days after the ship sank, the Knesset correspondent for Haaretz reported that Foreign Minister Golda Meir considered the government of Morocco responsible for the immigrants' deaths.

"The foreign minister opened her announcement of the tragedy ... by determining that the Moroccan authorities bore the brunt of the blame for the ship's sinking," Haaretz wrote. "She referred to Moroccan Jewry as 'exiles,' cited the 'shocking injustices they suffer' and promised them that they do not stand alone in this fight."

"We demand that the government of Morocco remember and honor its commitments and not be swept away by empty promises on the part of those who seek destruction and hatred," Meir continued in the article. According to Haaretz, she concluded her remarks with a proposal that an inquiry into the issue be forwarded to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

In August 1993, the report on the sinking of the Egoz was made public. According to Yossi Torfstein, whose comments appeared in Haaretz on August 19, 1993, "a series of operational malfunctions caused the sinking of the ship on the night of January 10, 1961, according to the confidential report of the Mossad that was presented to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on March 21, 1961. The ship sank with 44 Moroccan Jewish immigrants, an Israeli wireless radio operator and four Spanish crewmen on board."

From Torfstein's article, it appears the report did not blame a specific person or mention the names of those responsible for the operation, but did cite the malfunctions that led to the disaster, including a communications problem with the monitoring station in Paris. The report also described the background of the incident and the circumstances concerning illegal immigration from 1956 to 1961 - during which time 25,200 Jews from Morocco arrived in Israel.

Relatives of the victims of the Egoz tragedy reacted to the publication by claiming that "the report does not offer anything new. The question is why it was not released until now."

(Yael Greenfeter )