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Despite airport closure, ICEJ brings 302 new Ethiopian immigrants to Israel including 6-year-old for surgery

Young boy whisked from emergency airlift straight to hospital for life-saving heart surgery after plane lands

Dr. Jürgen Bühler, President of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, welcomes new immigrants from Ethiopia (Photo: ICEJ)

A group of 302 Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants were granted exemption from Israel’s airport closure and were permitted to land in Tel Aviv on a fully-chartered flight sponsored by the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ) last week including a boy who needed life-saving surgery.

Upon arrival, a 6-year-old Ethiopian boy named Benjamin was immediately transported to the Wolfson Medical Center in central Israel to undergo an urgent life-saving heart treatment. 

Benjamin’s remarkable arrival in Israel was a collaborative effort by several government agencies including the Ministry of Health, the Jewish Agency, Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal, the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration and the Ministry of Interior. His surgery was coordinated by Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an Israeli non-profit humanitarian organization that has continued to provide treatments to thousands of children worldwide despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Benjamin is currently recovering at SACH’s Legacy Heritage Children’s home where he will receive ongoing medical assistance while his mother waits to board a flight to Israel to join him.

Last week’s airlift was the most recent phase of the Jewish Agency’s broader rescue mission “Operation Rock of Israel,” which had set an ambitious goal to bring 2,000 Jewish-Ethiopian immigrants — including the last remnant of the Falash Mura community — to Israel by the end of January. The program was successfully moving forward with weekly flights into Israel until Jan. 26, when the government shuttered Ben-Gurion International Airport in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19 infections and prevent new variances of coronavirus from entering the country. The mandatory travel ban created a sudden, unexpected backlog of flights from Ethiopia.

New immigrants from Ethiopia arrive on a special flight as Ben-Gurion Airport is shut down (Photo: ICEJ)

The ICEJ appealed and received approval by a special exceptions committee, which allowed the charter flight to land in Israel on Feb. 12. 

Prior to boarding the flight, the Ethiopian immigrants were required to pass a coronavirus test at University Hospital in the city of Gondar. After all passengers received negative test results, they were transported  on a 12-hour bus ride to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, and then boarded the plane for their 4-hour flight to Israel. Since their arrival, the newcomers have been quarantined in several absorption centers throughout the country.

For decades, the ICEJ has been instrumental in helping Jewish communities worldwide make aliyah, the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel. This past year Israel’s management of the pandemic — along with its commitment to vaccinate the population in a short period of time – has been perceived favorably and motivated  Jewish populations worldwide to immigrate to Israel. Ethiopia – battered by drought, swarms of locusts, tribal warfare, economic hardship and most recently the challenges of the pandemic – was deemed eligible by Israeli authorities for evacuation and transport to Israel, despite the government ban on incoming flights.

ICEJ Vice President and Senior Spokesman David Parsons spoke to ALL ISRAEL NEWS in an exclusive interview.

“While ICEJ is called to help many  groups around the world make aliyah, the Ethiopian community has waited a long time and are very deserving of our assistance. They’ve proven themselves when they left their homes, their fields, their businesses,” he said.

Parsons sees that Israeli government authorities also have a strong desire to bring the final group of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. He believes the driving force for last week’s airlift is Pnina Tamano-Shata, Israel’s minister of Aliyah and Integration, who was born in the village of Wuzaba, Ethiopia. In 1984 at age 3, Tamano-Shata immigrated to Israel through Sudan as part of Operation Moses. Fully aware of the desperation of those stuck in transit camps throughout Gondar and Addis Ababa who are living in poor conditions and some waiting to make aliyah for nearly 20 years, Tamano-Shata is determined to bring the last remnant of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. 

Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency and son of Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel who was involved in the 1991 Operation Moses rescue of Ethiopian Jews, is strongly committed to the completion of “Operation Rock of Israel” and is providing vital support for Ethiopian families as they transition into their new lives in Israel.

“We are so grateful that these Ethiopian immigrants were granted special permission to make the journey home to Israel," ICEJ President Jürgen Bühler said regarding the Feb. 12 arrival. "They have endured very tough conditions in Gondar and were expecting to come to Israel any day now, only to see their hopes dashed by the recent airport closure. But now their dreams have come true of finally reuniting with their families in the Promised Land. And we have many Christians worldwide to thank for making this flight possible.”

Click here to read the full press release issued by the ICEJ.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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