Flying carpet to Yemen and back
April 20, 2008
By Nasser Arabyee
Successive visits by at least four groups of Israeli tourists to Yemen over the past few weeks sparked strong criticism against the government by opposition groups who said the visits were the first step towards normalising relations with Israel.
According to Yemeni newspapers, the first group of Israeli tourists, including rabbis, journalists and businessmen, mostly of Yemeni origin, cut their visit short due to manifestations of surprise and anger by the Yemeni people. One newspaper reported that an extremist group had threatened to attack any Israeli tourists on subsequent visits to Yemen.
Entering Yemen on passports bearing nationalities other than Israeli, these were the first groups of Israeli tourists to visit the country since Israel was established in 1948. Israelis have never been permitted to enter Yemen on Israeli passports and like most Arab countries, Yemen has no diplomatic relations with Israel.
The visits by Israelis to Yemen coincided with a similarly unprecedented visit by Yemeni President Abdullah Saleh to the United States, Canada and the Vatican. President Saleh told reporters that US President Bill Clinton asked him directly to normalise ties with Israel. However, the Yemeni leader added that he informed Clinton that this would not be possible before the conclusion of a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East, Israel's withdrawal from occupied Arab territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Political observers in Yemen interpreted the government's decision to grant entry visas to Israelis as a signal of its willingness to normalise ties with a country the majority of Yemenis have considered for decades as an enemy. Yemeni newspapers, for their part, reported that arrangements to facilitate the visits were made through Yemeni embassies in the United States and other European capitals.
A Yemeni diplomat who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly said that the visits had nothing to do with politics. "There is a humanitarian aspect, which is that we cannot forbid Yemeni Jews from visiting their homeland," the diplomat said.
Fuelling suspicions that the visits by Israeli tourists were not purely for humanitarian reasons, Yemeni newspapers reported that the first group of Israelis, which included journalists and businessmen, met secretly with senior government officials, including Prime Minister Abdel-Karim Al-Iryani.
Meanwhile, Yemeni parliament speaker and leader of the fundamentalist Islah Party, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmar, announced that he rejected visits by "Zionist delegations" and declined to meet with them.
A statement issued by the Islah Party and published in its mouthpiece daily, As-Sahwa (The Revival), warned the government against initiating a "normalisation process with the Zionist entity which usurps the holy lands," in a reference to Jerusalem.
The statement urged the Yemeni people to "stand united in the face of normalisation which began its first steps under the guise of tourism and return to origins."
The chairman of the non-governmental committee against normalisation with Israel, Hatem Abu Hatem, said the visit was "against all the ethical and constitutional norms of Yemen as an Islamic country."
"How can we normalise relations with Zionists while they are killing our brothers in Lebanon and Palestine? We can accept the visit by Yemeni Jews only if they want to come back to Yemen and live as Yemeni citizens," said Abu Hatem.
The Jewish community in Yemen is one of the oldest in the world. However, like most Jewish communities in the Arab world, their number decreased sharply following Israel's creation in 1948 due to immigration campaigns by the newly-created state. Currently there are approximately 300 Jews living in Yemen, most of whom are scattered north of San'aa.
The main exodus of Yemeni Jews took place between June 1949 and June 1950. Some 43,000 Jews left in an airlift from the Red Sea city of Aden to Israel in a secret operation code-named, the "Flying Carpet." Between 1950 and 1989, about 2,000 Jews left the country, followed by the departure of almost 700 more between 1992 and 1994.