The brochure portrayed it as a divers’ paradise located along the Red Sea in Sudan. It was in fact one of the Israeli intelligence agency’s most audacious operations.
The stunning tale is set to become a Hollywood film, starring Ben Kingsley, Haley Bennett and Chris Evans.
It dates to the early 1980s, when the Arous holiday resort and its around 15 beach houses became a prized spot for divers seeking access to Red Sea coral reefs in an unspoilt location.
“The fish came to nibble on the divers’ masks,” said Daniel Limor, who led “Operation Brothers” for Israel’s spy agency, Mossad.
As far as tourists and Sudanese authorities knew, the resort village was owned by Europeans who employed local residents.
They were unaware that Arous was a Mossad base to secretly evacuate 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from refugee camps in Sudan.
The operation played out for four years, from 1981 to 1985.
Urged into action by an Ethiopian Jew in Khartoum, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin decided to move ahead with the mission in 1977.
Limor, who was also a diving aficionado, spotted a holiday resort built by Italian entrepreneurs in the 1970s along the Red Sea that had been abandoned due to lack of road access and running water.
“It’s something that just fell from the sky,” he said, his voice still filled with surprise decades later.
At the time, Ethiopian Jews had fled their country for refugee camps in neighbouring Sudan to escape famine, war and persecution, with the goal of ultimately fulfilling the isolated community’s dream of reaching the holy land.
But the journey by foot to Sudan was filled with danger.
“They were attacked, raped, robbed,” said Limor, who was consulted for the script for the film, due out next year.
“They suffered. They also died in the refugee camps.”
– ‘For our people’ –
To set the plan in motion, Ethiopian intermediaries selected Jews who would be exfiltrated from the Sudanese camps.
The operation held great risk for all involved given the relations between Israel and Muslim-majority Sudan.
“We were the eyes, the ears and the feet of the Mossad,” said Miki Achihon, an Ethiopian Jewish student at the time who had fled to Sudan.
Without telephones or internet, everything was done person-to-person.
“The Mossad doesn’t give us a sort of contract. It doesn’t give us a down payment,” said Achihon, who would later become a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli military.
“We did it for our people.”
After being taken into the Sudanese desert, groups of between 100 and 200 people were met by Mossad agents who drove them away in trucks.
“Then started the long drive to the shore — something like 700 kilometres (435 miles),” said Gad Shimron, one of the agents based at Arous and the author of a book on the operation.
At the end of the road, they delivered the refugees to Israeli ships waiting in international waters.
“Of course, we had in mind the possibility of us hanging — you know, feet up,” Shimron said.
Apparently taking them for traffickers, Sudanese soldiers opened fire one night as the last boat left.
They escaped unharmed, but the Israelis were shaken and changed tactics.
They opted for another daring strategy: landing planes in the desert in the middle of the night to transport the refugees to Tel Aviv.
Shimron said there was a “moment of elation” when the planes took off and the operatives would stand in the quiet of the desert.
Some tourists suspected that Arous was being used as a trafficking site due to its location just across the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah.
But the agents’ double lives were never exposed, said Yola, a Mossad operative who managed the resort.
She said she could have remained at Arous for the rest of her life.
“I didn’t want to go back,” she said. “I was completely the other person.”
– ‘Zionist James Bond’ –
The operation would have to come to an end in 1985 when one of their Ethiopian contacts was questioned by the police.
As a precautionary measure, the Mossad urgently evacuated the village.
But today, its legacy stands as a key part of Israel’s efforts to bring their Jewish brethren over from Ethiopia.
More than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews have emigrated to Israel since the 1980s.
In 1984, Operation Moses exfiltrated 8,000 Jews, while seven years later Operation Solomon brought more than 14,000 people to Israel in 36 hours.
For the Ethiopians, the joy of arriving was accompanied by the difficulty of adapting to a new home and overcoming trauma they had endured.
Many regretted leaving behind family.
Achihon said they should have been given psychological treatment, but the government “immediately tried to take us to be part of the society”, offering language and other types of training.
“Many were not ready,” he said.
He said there was also discrimination.
For Achihon, the “heroic” role of the Ethiopian activists should never be forgotten.
More than three decades later, the movie version of Operation Brothers — “The Red Sea Diving Resort” — is being directed by Israeli filmmaker Gideon Raff, filmed in South Africa and Namibia.
“It is a unique, Zionist James Bond story,” said Shimron.