`Lost Tribe' Returns Home To Israel -- Dramatic Airlift Of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews Completed

Israel brought 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to their promised land, plucking them out of the besieged capital, Addis Ababa, in a dramatic two-day airlift that ended yesterday.

Operation Solomon's 40 flights brought virtually all of Ethiopia's known Jews - held to be the descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel - to new lives in the Jewish state.

About 2,000 Ethiopian Jews live in rebel-controlled areas.

The airlift, the largest such evacuation Israel has ever mounted, reflected its determination to go to any lengths to bring Jews to their ancient home.

At Ben-Gurion International Airport and an adjacent military airfield, the newcomers walked, hobbled or were carried down gangways. Many were clad in flowing robes, with only what possessions they could carry. One woman knelt and kissed the tarmac.

Four babies were born aboard the flights.

"This is a very moving experience," said one of the pilots, who was identified only as Avi. "It's not every day one gets to play a part in making history."

The operation had been planned over several weeks with U.S. diplomatic assistance. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told Israel television that President Bush was personally asked to intercede with the Ethiopian government to win permission to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

"And he did not hesitate for a moment," Shamir said. "He sent the letter and it did the thing. Thank God, we succeeded."

The airlift was begun with swiftness and secrecy, triggered by fears that the Ethiopian Jews could be trapped if Addis Ababa fell to advancing rebels.

The desperate haste was reflected in the packed conditions aboard the planes. One Boeing 747 carried 1,087 Ethiopian Jews, more than double the normal capacity of the passenger jet. Eighteen people were jammed into each row of 10 seats.

In Addis Ababa, Israeli soldiers in jeans, sneakers and purple-and-orange parkas ushered bewildered groups of Jews to the planes. The Ethiopians had been quickly shuttled from the Israeli Embassy in the capital, where some had camped out for weeks.

"We did not even have time to eat," said Ambaye Mentesnot, 55, a farmer who left all he owned - 330 pounds of wheat and other grain and a small hut.

He, like most of the evacuees, had never been so close to a plane, let alone flown in one.

Waiting to board, one group of more than 400 Ethiopians squatted in rows under the tail fin of a plane, each with a numbered sticker on the forehead signifying clan membership.

"Kassa ba-kassa" - "Slowly, slowly" - the Israelis told the passengers as they clambered aboard. The refugees settled themselves on thin mattresses, fathers counting their family members, mothers breast-feeding babies.

They shared what little food they brought - oranges, unleavened bread. Flight attendants gave them plastic bags of water, which they ripped open with their teeth and drank.

The 1,600-mile trip took 3 1/2 hours. Aboard one flight, the entire cabin erupted in applause and shrieks of joy when told the plane was approaching Jerusalem.

As the plane descended to the landing strip, children pressed their faces against the window for the first glimpse of their new world.

At one point, 28 planes were simultaneously in the air, officials said. The Israelis used 35 planes, including Hercules military transports, Israeli air-force Boeing 707s and El Al Boeing 747s, 757s and 767s. One Ethiopian Airlines jet also was used.

At Ben-Gurion Airport, more than 200 buses waited to take the newcomers to temporary lodgings. All over Israel, crowds turned out to applaud as the buses arrived.

Shamir led an array of dignitaries onto the military airfield to welcome the first group of newcomers. "It's a great moment for all our people," he said.

Transport Minister Moshe Katzav said he was reminded of himself at age 5, arriving from Iran in 1951.

"Just as we leave no soldier in the field, so we are going to leave no Jew who wants to come to Israel and cannot do so," said legislator Shlomo Hillel, who ran illegal immigration operations to bring Iraqi Jews to Israel in the nation's early years.

One of the arrivals was teacher Gnodago Alamu, 24. He brought three children and expected a brother and sister to arrive later. His father already was in Israel.

"I'm terribly happy. This always was my dream," he said.

Despite the rejoicing, this latest wave of Ethiopians is likely to present Israel with an array of problems.

Many lack education, and doctors said many were suffering from serious illnesses including tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis, eye infections, isolated cases of meningitis and possibly AIDS.

Israel brought in 7,000 Ethiopians in a secret operation six years ago that was halted by premature publicity. In 1990, 3,300 Ethiopians arrived, and this year there have been an average of 200 arrivals a week, according to the Jewish Agency, which brings immigrants to Israel.

About 23,000 Ethiopians live in Israel.