Israel 'rescues' 19 Jews from war-torn Yemen in covert operation

Majeda El-Batsh
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The Jewish community in Yemen, which once numbered around 60,000 people, dates back some 2,000 years

The Jewish community in Yemen, which once numbered around 60,000 people, dates back some 2,000 years (AFP Photo/Khaled Fazaa)

Beersheba (Israel) (AFP) - Israel has spirited 19 Jews out of war-torn Yemen in a "covert operation" to rescue some of the last remnants of one of the world's most ancient Jewish communities, officials said Monday.

The operation transporting them to Israel almost brings to an end the presence of the Jewish community in Yemen, which once numbered around 60,000 people and dates back some 2,000 years.

Only 50 or so Jews now remain and have chosen to stay in the war-ravaged Arabian Peninsula country, according to the Jewish Agency, responsible for immigration to Israel.

Most of them -- around 40 -- live in a protected compound adjacent to the US embassy in Sanaa.

"Nineteen individuals arrived in Israel in recent days, including 14 from the town of Raydah and a family of five from Sanaa," the agency said in a statement.

"The group from Raydah included the community’s rabbi, who brought a Torah scroll believed to be between 500 and 600 years old."

Rabbi Salman Dahari, red-eyed and looking exhausted after his travels, told reporters the scroll had been passed down in his family.

"I got it from my father who was also a rabbi who inherited it from my grandfather, another rabbi," he said in the desert city of Beersheba in southern Israel, where the group will stay initially.

The Yemeni capital and the town of Raydah to its north are both controlled by Iran-backed Huthi-rebels who are battling loyalists of the internationally recognised government and its supporters in a Saudi-led coalition.

The agency declined to provide details of the operation, but a spokesman said it took several months to prepare.

- 'A secret operation' -

Seventeen of those brought to Israel arrived on Sunday night. The other two arrived over the preceding days.

They were taken to an immigration centre in Beersheba.

"We are really tired. We crossed three countries," Dahari said, before being interrupted by an agency official telling him not to elaborate on the details of the journey.

"If you only knew," Jewish Agency spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP.

"Maybe one day we'll make a movie out of it. We are talking about a secret operation in a hostile environment. It is not easy to transport people who are visibly and recognisably Jews."

"Being a Jew in Yemen right now is extremely dangerous," Palmor said. "The Huthi militants, for example, are openly anti-Semitic."

Esther, 11, told of her life in Sanaa.

"We were afraid of the tribes," she said. "They used to throw things at us and hit us. Here is nicer than Yemen."

On Monday evening the group was taken to Jerusalem to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pose for pictures with the unrolled yellowed Torah scroll.

"It's moving that you know how to read the Torah," a statement from Netanyahu's office quoted him as telling them in Hebrew. "That is the foundation.'

The Jewish Agency also arranged for the remains to be brought to Israel of Aharon Zindani, a Jewish man stabbed to death in Sanaa in 2012 by a Muslim who accused him of witchcraft.

Zindani's son and his family arrived in Israel from Sanaa in the latest operation.

- Operation Magic Carpet -

Yemen has been gripped by violence since September 2014, when the Huthis, who had long complained of marginalisation, stormed Sanaa and forced the government to flee south.

The Saudi-led coalition began bombing Huthi positions across Yemen in March last year, but the insurgents still control swathes of the country including the capital.

Al-Qaeda and Islamic State group jihadists have gained ground in southern Yemen since the coalition launched its air campaign.

The Jewish Agency says that more than 51,000 Yemenite Jews have immigrated to Israel since the country was founded in 1948.

Nearly 50,000 were brought over in 1949 and 1950 in a secret airlift known as Operation Magic Carpet.

The Jewish community in Yemen continued to dwindle in subsequent decades, and by the early 1990s it numbered only around 1,000 people.

The lifting of a longstanding travel ban in 1993 sparked a fresh exodus.

Since 2007, authorities in Yemen have moved members of the minority community from the northern province of Saada to the safe compound in Sanaa.

"This chapter in the history of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities is coming to an end, but Yemenite Jewry's unique, 2,000-year-old contribution to the Jewish people will continue in the state of Israel," the agency said.

Elsewhere in the Muslim world, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia still boast significant Jewish communities.

In Egypt, and war-torn Iraq and Syria, few if any Jews remain.