How Mossad used a fake resort to safely rescue Ethiopian Jews

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Arous was a rare treat in the Sudanese desert. A top-quality resort with the finest of amenities. Fresh food and wine? Check. A beautiful sun-dappled beach? Check. SCUBA diving and sea wreck exploration and adventure? Check. A hidden Mossad intelligence agency working in their midst?

Check.
- Gad Shimron

Arous wasn’t just a unique resort due to its location and the clientele it served. The trapping of the luxury resort concealed a hidden secret. Arous was the base of operations for Israeli intelligence agents conducting a massive humanitarian mission. From the ground up, they planned, bank rolled, and re-opened the resort to support their mission. And for more than four years, they carried out a highly successful operation right under the noses of staff, tourists, and Sudanese forces. 

Between 1983 and 1985 Ethiopia was hit by the worst famine to ever ravage the desperate nation. Drought exacerbated by the totalitarian actions of Ethiopia’s government (done under the veil of crushing a nascent insurgent movement) led to the deaths of more than 400,000 individuals. The crisis kicked off an Ethiopian civil war that would last for a decade, throwing millions into chaos, homelessness, and desperation.

Both the international community and the public responded. The mega-concert Live Aid was created to both raise awareness of the plight of the Ethiopians and fundraise for relief. However, the international response was stilted. Despite numerous countries providing aid, little was done to address the structural causes and conflict that accelerated the famine, leaving millions in a precarious situation. 
Among them, thousands of Ethiopian Jews, who not only suffered from the famine like everyone else, but also became a specific target for their government, were prohibited from practicing their religion and barred from traveling. Seeing the writing on the wall, and knowing all too well what happens when a government starts singling out Jews as a specific threat, Ethiopian Jews started fleeing the area en masse. Many ended up traveling to neighbouring Sudan by foot, enduring some of the most miserable conditions on the planet just for a chance at freedom.

The Israeli government was determined to deliver them this freedom, and so "Operation Brothers” was conceived. A massive effort to locate, safeguard, and smuggle Ethiopian Jewish refugees to safety.  But Sudan was an avowed enemy of the state of Israel, a nation with its own prejudices against the Jewish people. Discretion was necessary, and the Mossad hatched a plan to hide its refugee operation in plain sight.
The Arous resort was originally the brain child of Italian developers in the 1970s. They had big ambitions for a tiny beach resort in an area of the world they saw as underserved and ripe for tourist opportunities. Unfortunately, the project was a boondoggle from day one. With no electricity or running water, and difficulties in attaining these basic utilities, the project never got off the ground. The Italian investors built a dozen bungalows and a kitchen out in the desert and abandoned them. Rough break for those businessmen, but just what the Mossad needed.

Engineering false passports and a series of phony shell companies that would allow them to pose as a Swiss investment group, Mossad agents rented the property for a paltry sum and began renovations.

The plan would have been too obvious if some weird "Swiss” guys simply rented out an abandoned resort and drove truckloads of unaccounted for materials out of it for years. No, if this was going to work, the resort had to be functional, it had to genuinely support tourism. The resort was renovated, utilities were brought online, and staff were poached from local restaurants and hotels by means of Mossad’s deep pockets (after scouting out professional and discreet staff members at local establishments, staff members were recruited by being offered double or even triple their normal pay). 

This is how windsurfing was introduced to Sudan, as one of the many new exotic European recreation options for the resort. Including diving, where bright faced "Swiss” instructors demonstrated how to safely dive and swim with SCUBA gear. 

In fact, this was the cover most of the Mossad agents in the resort used. Smoothing over any suspicions by playing up the role of young, eager European instructors, brought on to manage the more unique aspects of the resort. The diving supply room was kept "out of bounds” for guests and other staff, presumably because it housed expensive equipment. And it did. Expensive radio and communications equipment for organizing their real mission.
Refugees were never housed at the hotel, that would have been too risky. Instead, working in collaboration with local Israeli sympathisers, the group would organize daring rescues that would see trucks from the resort "touring” the area and discreetly picking up groups and depositing them into the waiting hands of Israeli military transport. First by boats, and later as that became too risky after a few close calls, Hercules cargo planes landed in the dead of night deep in the desert. 

The sheer scope and danger of this operation boggles the mind. The Sudanese government was a declared enemy of Israel. If any of the Mossad agents had been discovered, they wouldn’t have even received a trial, they would have been hung in a public execution. Any boats or planes caught operating in the area would have brought down the full force of the Sudanese military. Wars have been started over much smaller intelligence operations.

But the agents stayed committed. To operate in one location for years at a time while knowing that a single slip – a staff member who sticks his head where it didn’t belong, an overheard conversation, a too curious tourist asking the wrong questions – could bring the entire thing down on their heads doesn’t take just courage, it takes a true belief in the value of that mission.

The Mossad agents involved knew exactly how bad things in Ethiopia were, how desperate the plight of Ethiopian Jews must have been to compel them to flee to Sudan, a state hostile to their very existence. They knew that those people deserved to live real lives, lives free to practice their beliefs, free from hunger, and war, and persecution. And they risked everything to make it happen for them.

Operation Brothers rescued more than 6000 Ethiopian Jews from starvation and death. It’s an accomplishment that should be remembered and admired by anyone who believes in the triumph of mercy and kindness over brutality and conflict. 

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