The last 450 immigrants from Ethiopia landed in Israel on Wednesday afternoon, ending a 30-year national project. However, hundreds or even thousands of others remain in a camp in Ethiopia, as Israel has refused to let them in.
Wednesday's landing completed the effort’s final stage, which consisted of 91 flights over the past three years, bringing in the last 7,864 Falashmura whom the government allowed to immigrate.
Hundreds of excited family members and friends, some of whom arrived from Ethiopia only a few months ago, filled Terminal 1 at Ben-Gurion International Airport to greet the newcomers. Pictures of the immigrants coming off the plane and making their first steps on Israeli soil were broadcast onto a large cinema screen in the hall. The crowd applauded and cheered every time a familiar face appeared on the screen.
As the new immigrants entered the terminal gates their relatives rushed toward them, hugging and kissing them.
"We're waiting for our eldest daughter, Dababash, 22 years old," said Elmo Gent, 48, who came from Ethiopia nine months ago and is staying with his wife Athatgev in the Ivim Absorption Center in the Negev. The couple has six children.
"It's only been nine months [in Israel for the family], but it seems like years. I'm very excited that she's joining us," he tells Haaretz in Amharic. Ivim center director Moshe Bata, who accompanied the family, served as translator.
Half of the immigrants who came to Israel in the last stage of the immigration campaign, dubbed "Wings of a Dove,” are under 15 years old. The oldest is 87 and the youngest a 16-day-old infant. They will be staying in the Jewish Agency's absorption centers in Mevasseret Zion, Safed, Be'er Sheva, Arad, Haifa, Kiryat Gat, Nahariya, Beit Alfa and Ayelet Hashahar.
Minister: 'Very sad story’
Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver, who traveled to Ethiopia earlier this week and joined the last flight to Israel, told Haaretz: "It was very important to me, as a 'Russian' minister, to bring the last plane and end this saga. It's a very sad story that has been going on for years."
From now on, the cabinet has decided, there will be no more organized group immigration of Ethiopians to Israel. An Interior Ministry committee for special cases has been set up to consider individual immigration requests.
"This is the end of the group immigration. Individuals will continue to come from Ethiopia like from any other state," Landver said.
Two years ago Landver visited the immigrants' camp in Gondar. "For 15 years people sat waiting without getting an answer [of when or if they would be allowed to come to Israel]. People had been uprooted from their life in the village and were in limbo, neither here nor there. When I returned I worked to close the camp. I told the prime minister those people must get an answer, whether yes or no," she said.
The immigrants from Ethiopia have been brought to Israel in three major waves: Some 8,000 arrived in Operation Moses in 1984 via Sudan, some 14,000 in Operation Solomon in 1992 by air shuttle, and some 8,000 in Operation Wings of a Dove, which began last October and targeted the remaining Falashmura in the African country.
Falashmura is the name given to members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community who were pressured to convert to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries.
After many years of inaction, in late 2010 the government bowed to pressure from American and Israeli organizations that advocate on behalf of Ethiopian Jews and agreed to allow these thousands of Falashmura, who had been waiting in transit camps in the country’s Gondar region, to come to Israel and reunite with their families.
"The Ethiopian Jewish community is one of the most ancient in the world, dating back to the days of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba," said Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
"The community's children have the yearning for Jerusalem for thousands of years. We're closing a circle of some 3,000 years," he said.
However, the joy was marred by the predicament of thousands of Falashmura who remain in Ethiopia. Israel has refused to let them in because they do not meet the Interior Ministry's criteria. Their family members are still fighting to bring them to Israel.