By Yehuda Shelzinger and Erez Linn
(JNS) Twenty-six Israelis who had been stranded in Morocco for several weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic landed safely in Israel on Thursday morning, after being extracted from the Muslim country in a secret operation devised by Likud Knesset member and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Among the passengers were Israeli youth who were on an overseas trip, an Israeli Bedouin from eastern Jerusalem and Israeli and Jewish businessmen with dual Israeli-Moroccan citizenship.
Morocco does not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, which required the Israelis to appeal to private entities for assistance. The matter was brought to Barkat’s attention and his took the lead on the extraction, keeping in constant contact with the group as various options were explored.
The Likud lawmaker appealed to American philanthropists Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson for help in chartering a plane, who immediately agreed to help, granting Barkat use of one of their own planes to fly the group home. The group left Morocco on Wednesday for Paris on an Air France flight. Once in the French capital, the Israelis boarded the Adelsons’ plane and headed home.
The extraction also involved intense efforts by the National Security Council at the Prime Minister’s Office, which employed various diplomatic channels to facilitate the mission.
The group of Israelis sharply criticized the Foreign Ministry’s handling of their predicament, alleging that not only did Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz fail to do enough to expedite their extraction, but also angered Moroccan authorities and delayed their extraction by tweeting about the efforts to bring them home.
“The coronavirus outbreak made Moroccan authorities shut everything down immediately,” Ilan Hatuel, one of the Israelis who boarded the flight, told Israel Hayom. “There is a state of emergency there. If you go out, you’re detained.”
Hatuel said he organized the groups and together they appealed for help “to anyone we could think of. I called the Foreign Ministry, they said, ‘We’ll get back to you’—but they never did. I contacted Nir Barkat and he came to the rescue. We couldn’t believe we were [boarding] a flight home.”
Barkat, who was waiting at Ben Gurion International Airport on the plane’s arrival, told Israel Hayom he was “delighted to see the plane land and very happy I had the opportunity to be part of this operation.”
Commenting on the operation itself, Barkat said, “This was a very complicated process because Morocco has no diplomatic relations with us. For some time, authorities would not grant the necessary permits [for the group] to leave the country and it took considerable efforts to bring them back to Israel.”
The Adelsons, he said, did not hesitate for an instant when asked to help.
“To the Adelsons’ credit, they immediately made their American aircraft available for the rescue flight,” he said.
The entire operation, he said, was “an exceptional display of the mutual guarantee the State of Israel shows its citizens. Even during the coronavirus crisis, Israel will not abandon its citizens and we spare no effort to bring them home.”
Captain Joel Grandy, the pilot of the Boeing 767 aircraft used by the Adelsons’ company, based in Las Vegas, explained that the company usually refrains from sharing information about its flights, so the need for secrecy with regard to the “operation” was obvious to him. Grandy, who has held his post for 15 years, spoke with Israel Hayom prior to the rescue flight.
Q: What can you share with us about the planning and the execution of this operation?
A: It’s been quite trying because I think this is about the fourth attempt [to extract the group]. We tried to go through Casablanca first and then that didn’t work out, and then we tried to go through Rabat, and that didn’t work out, and it’s I guess mainly due to Israel and Morocco [not having] diplomatic relations, which meant that even if we could have gone through Casablanca, we would have had to stop in Rhodes to land prior to coming to Israel.
Now that the passengers are able to get out and come up to Paris, Paris is a portal city to arrive into Tel Aviv. So the passengers are coming up on an Air France flight, they will go through security down in Casablanca and when they get off the airplane tonight [Wednesday] at [9 p.m.] they will have to go through security for screening, along with the crew. They will all be transported through security and then rechecked then board our airplane.
Q: This has been in the works for a few months?
A: It’s been about five or six weeks. We’ve attempted a couple of times to come, and just prior to departing from Las Vegas we were stopped because we couldn’t get the required permits or we couldn’t get the people through security in Casablanca because the airport has been closed except for cargo traffic and they had no way of getting people through security screening.
Q: Do you know why you were specifically chosen for this flight?
A: I am the lead captain on the Boeing 767, and mainly fly this. We have [many] airplanes but I’ve been flying for Dr. and Mr. Adelson for the last 15 years primarily on the 767.”
Q: Can you tell us what you have done to keep this mission low profile?
A: We do not discuss any of our flight plans, our destinations, without permission specifically from Dr. Adelson on Mr. Adelson, and it’s our company policy not to disclose on any of our flights over the last 15 years where we go, or what our purpose is.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.