In a covert cross-continental operation, the Jewish Agency airlifted 17 Yemeni Jews to Israel on Wednesday, reuniting members of several families who had been separated for two years.
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The group included four adults and one small child flown in directly from Yemen to Ben-Gurion International Airport where they were reunited with their family members who had been previously smuggled out of Yemen and taken to Argentina two years ago by a group of Satmar Hassidim.
The other 12 Yemeni Jews had been residing in Buenos Aires, and they were taken out of Argentina clandestinely, without the knowledge of their Satmar patrons. The group consisted of four children from one family and five from another, one of whom had married and had a husband and child joining her on the flight to Israel.
The Jewish Agency said the rather logistically complicated operation had been in the makings for several weeks and was prompted by concerns for the safety of the small Jewish population of Yemen, in the wake of growing threats from radical Islamist groups including Al-Qaida. These threats have intensified since the ouster of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Israeli ministries of foreign affairs, interior and immigration absorption were also involved in the operation.
In August 2011, a group of Satmar Hassidim persuaded 30 Yemeni Jews to come to London, promising them they would be recognized as political refugees. But as soon as they were smuggled out of Yemen, they were notified that they would not be able to go to London and instead were brought to Argentina where they were taken in by the local Satmar community. The Satmar, one of the largest Hassidic sects, are not Zionists, and do not support immigration to the Jewish state. In recent years, they have been actively involved in smuggling Jews out of Yemen and absorbing them into their communities.
The Jewish Agency said in a statement that since 2008, the Jews of Yemen have been subject to growing anti-Semitism, culminating in the December 2008 murder a Moshe Nahari, a teacher, and the May 2012 of stabbing death of Aaron Zindani, a community leader.
“This evening we had the honor of undertaking a rare operation that combined saving lives, reuniting families and immigration to Israel,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky after the families had been reunited in Israel. He added that the Jewish Agency was determined to help any other Jews from Yemen who wished to come to Israel to do so.
Since 2009, 151 Yemeni Jews have arrived in Israel, including the group on Wednesday. Since the beginning of this year, 45 Yemeni Jews have relocated to Israel. According to Jewish Agency estimates, fewer than 90 Jews remain in Yemen today and about half of them live in a guarded structure in the capital, Sa’ana.
The 17 Yemeni Jews who arrived in the country on Wednesday will be housed in Jewish Agency absorption centers in the south.