"We were never part of the State of Israel's agenda," sighs Gabio Rada, who is leading the struggle of a group of Ethiopian operatives who worked for the Mossad during the 1980s.
"We never received formal recognition and the Mossad is not willing to give us the title of Mossad operatives – but rather insists on calling us aliyah activists. The State of Israel sufficed with a symbolic gesture which was too small and too late, and paid some of us compensation totaling NIS 30,000. Even the founding of a tombstone in memory of the 4,000 members of the community who perished in Sudan on their way to Israel is just a placating gesture, nothing more," he protests.
From right to left: Rada, Zaudi, Damalayu, Ingdasht, Hadrai and Mitiboner
Three decades have elapsed since 1977 when then Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the Mossad to advance the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews, the year which marked the beginning of the long voyage of Ethiopian Jewry which culminated with Operation Moses. Three decades that only strengthened the insult of the Mossad volunteers who operated in the refugee camps in Sudan, where the journey of 20,000 people who secretly fled their homes came to an end.
Group by group they neared the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, crossing remote desert terrains while fighting hunger, thirst and risk of death. Some 4,000 perished during the journey, and many others were arrested. To their surprise, despite the assurances, they were not taken to Israel immediately and were forced to remain in refugee camps for prolonged periods of time, two years on average and often five.
The unbearable conditions took more lives, alongside documented incidents of physical and sexual abuse. Finally, between the years of 1984-1985 thousands of Ethiopian Jews were clandestinely taken to Israel under the auspices of the Sudanese government's silence and the help of the US.
'We did the real work'
Members of the Komita (committee for Ethiopian Jews) - a group of leader-volunteers selected by the Mossad - operated for eight years. They were responsible for locating Jews among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled their villages; they distributed food, money and medicine and managed daily life at the camps.
"Our work in Sudan stemmed from our absolute faith in the State of Israel and in the Mossad. We had no telephones; we did not undergo training and we risked our lives on a daily basis," recounts Rada. "We had no other choice. We believed in the path wholeheartedly and we agreed to do what we did. In retrospect," he adds, "today we would not have dared do what we did then as young men."
The operatives, who liaised between the Mossad and the Jews in the Arab-speaking Sudanese communities, operated in absolute secrecy. In the years that preceded Operation Moses, they led the assigned groups for aliyah from their place of residence to Khartoum in the dark of night, often with a warning of a just a few hours.
On this difficult route money and food was given to them and distributed among the families to help them survive. In order to maintain a shroud of secrecy they were forced to pose as Muslims, ignoring the pain and humiliation involved in sacrilege of the Sabbath and in eating non-kosher food. If they were caught, they were severely tortured. "Mossad agents told us to keep silent and die, as long as we do not divulge what we knew. And that's what we did," says Rada.
"We were sent to an enemy country, left waiting for several years, and in the dark of night we buried members of the community everyday. How could it be that all this is not recorded in the pages of our history?" Rada says angrily. "The young members of the community should be given something to be proud of. It's our heritage, and we shall not permit the Mossad to mess with the history of Ethiopian Jews. We believed that assurances made to us would indeed be kept, and now we feel they were written on ice."
Colleagues in the struggle, Adnefa Zaudi, Avraham Damalayu, Meir Ingdasht, Jonathan Hadrai and Oded Mitiboner nod in consent. Each has an impossible life story of activity under constant threat in an enemy country, some have been recognized as prisoners of Zion, and none of them are willing to remain silent. "We want recognition of our activities," announces Zaudi. "We were the ones who carried out the real work at the Sudanese camps; we brought our brothers to Israel."
State ceremony of recognition? At the first opportunity
In 2000 a report compiled by an inter-ministerial committee headed by Brigadier-General (reserve) Yigal Pressler was made public. The committee was established after the activists petitioned the Labor Court for compensation. Attorney Ari Sirkin, the representative of dozens of aliyah operatives, is now demanding that the Mossad and the State of Israel implement the committee's conclusions.
"The committee recognized the fact that the activists, who worked shoulder to shoulder with Mossad agents, deserve unified remuneration," he clarifies. However, in practice some of them received additional remuneration from special committees, while others did not receive any. "Some of the activists feel that those who were close to the powers that be received greater compensation."
"The meaning of this recognition is a certificate that would be granted at a formal ceremony at the presidential residence," he notes. "This ceremony was already due to take place, but it has been postponed over and over again." In a meeting held recently between Sirkin, Pressler and another senior source, the latter confirmed that there is a willingness on the part of the State to grant the operatives certificates of recognition at a State-held ceremony.
The Mossad refused to comment.