The great es­cape

Re­vealed: the mis­sion to save the last Jews of Aleppo

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY SANDY RASHTY

THEY CAME for the last Jews of Aleppo early in the morn­ing.

The first that the 88-year-old mother knew of them were the pow­er­ful knocks on the front door, a sound that sent her and the rest of the Hal­abi fam­ily cow­er­ing in the dark­est cor­ners of their Aleppo home.

She was sure Bashar al As­sad had come for them all as the three men en­tered the house. The men shouted that they were be­ing taken away.

Pet­ri­fied, they were told they had sec­onds to pack one bag each with their most per­sonal pos­ses­sions.

The women put on their hi­jabs and the fam­ily was bun­dled into a white minibus wait­ing out­side.

Only then did the truth dawn on them.

The raiders who had burst in with such force had come to save their lives.

The JC can to­day tell the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of how the last Jews of Aleppo in Syria were smug­gled out of their home in a dar­ing res­cue mis­sion ear­lier this year.

We also re­veal how the Jewish Agency — the body charged with bring­ing Jews to Is­rael — re­fused to al­low all mem­bers of the Hal­abi fam­ily into Is­rael.

Months be­fore the raid, a rel­a­tive had told them that a rich man in Amer­ica had a plan to help the fam­ily es­cape their home city, where thou­sands have been killed in three years of bomb­ing raids, sniper fire

and shelling. But the fam­ily had vac­il­lated. They tried to post­pone the res­cue, ter­ri­fied of leav­ing their house.

The Amer­i­can in ques­tion, busi­ness ty­coon Moti Ka­hana — who has ex­ten­sive links to anti-As­sad rebels in the re­gion — had been told that Daesh was clos­ing in on the Hal­abis' home. If the Is­lamist ter­ror­ists found out the women were Jewish, they would be in­stantly killed — or worse. He de­cided to or­gan­ise their es­cape.

Speak­ing from New York, Mr Ka­hana says: “Of course the fam­ily did not want to leave, be­cause it is so dan­ger­ous. So how do you get them out? You scare the s**t out of them.”

Once they were in the minibus, one of the men pro­duced Syr­ian pass­ports for each mem­ber of the fam­ily: the mother, Mariam; her two daugh­ters Sara, in her 60s, and Gilda, in her 50s; Gilda’s Mus­lim hus­band, Khaled; and his three chil­dren.

To al­lay their fears, the driver told them they were be­ing taken to New York. But the fam­ily did not feel re­as­sured.

The route to­wards Turkey — a safe haven for mil­lions of Syr­i­ans — took the bus through a fiercely con­tested area, where sniper fire be­tween gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion forces was a daily oc­cur­rence.

To min­imise the dan­ger, the fam­ily’s res­cuers waited un­til mid­day, when all sides stop fight­ing for the call-to-prayer, be­fore mak­ing a dash out of Aleppo.

It proved to be a life-sav­ing move and the minibus es­caped with­out at­tract­ing any bul­lets.

In­side, the adults tried to stay calm as the ter­ri­fied chil­dren sat silently in the back. They had been told that there would be no time to stop for food, and had brought pitta and lab­neh yo­ghurt with them for the jour­ney. The orig­i­nal plan had been to drive around the most dan­ger­ous check­points, which meant tak­ing a long, cir­cuitous route.

Then hor­ror struck. A new check point ap­peared be­fore them af­ter a dusty bend. It was manned by Al Nusra, an af­fil­i­ate of Al Qaeda.

A bearded man with an AK47 slung low across his body ca­su­ally sig­nalled for the bus to halt. He leaned against the win­dow, eye­ing the fam­ily in the back.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr Ka­hana, the Hal­abis tried to ap­pear calm, ter­ri­fied of re­veal­ing their Jewish iden­tity.

The driver told the check­point gun­men that his pas­sen­gers were refugees from As­sad’s armies, head­ing for the camps in the north. Af­ter a long, fright-

en­ing pause, it be­came clear that the fighter sym­pa­thised with their plight.

Re­mark­ably, he then tele­phoned fel­low gun­men at check­points far­ther along their route, telling them that they should let the minibus pass.

Af­ter a 36- hour jour­ney, the bus passed the me­tal fence that di­vides Syria from Turkey. The fam­ily got out of the mini bus, and paused for a pho­to­graph with their han­dler. They smiled: they were safe.

They were then taken to a rented house in Is­tan­bul, where they met Mr Ka­hana.

Speak­ing of the res­cue, the Jerusalem-born busi­ness­man says: “I got the last Jewish woman out of Aleppo. I feel very emo­tional when I think about it. It makes my hairs stand on end.”

The fam­ily wanted to move to Amer­ica, where they have rel­a­tives. But, he says: “I told them, ‘It is eas­ier to go to Is­rael than Amer­ica’. Also, I am Is­raeli and I think that if you are Jewish, you should go to Is­rael.

“They were will­ing to go to Is­rael — even the Mus­lim guy.”

But the story did not have the end­ing Mr Ka­hana had hoped for.

In Turkey, he in­formed the Jewish Agency (JA) of the es­cape in or­der to se­cure safe haven for the whole fam­ily in Is­rael. Ac­cord­ing to Mr Ka­hana, ten days af­ter the fam­ily ar­rived in Is­tan­bul the JA told him they would han­dle the sit­u­a­tion from now on. “I was fi­nanc­ing the house and the food un­til the Is­raelis took it over. I thought: ‘That’s it!’”

For one month, JA — or “Sochnut” — of­fi­cials vis­ited the fam­ily. They looked at mar­riage cer­tifi­cates and asked ques­tions to ver­ify the Hal­abis' iden­tity.

Jewish Agency said:Gilda is not Jewish enough,and shewent­back to Syria

Mariam and Sara, who have never mar­ried, were given safe haven in Is­rael, and they now live in Ashkelon.

But for Gilda and her fam­ily, things took a turn for the worse.

JA of­fi­cials — who are charged with ver­i­fy­ing a per­son’s reli­gious iden­tity — de­cided that Gilda had con­verted to Is­lam to marry Khaled around three years ago. They said she could not make aliyah un­der the law of re­turn.

“The Sochnut took the 88-year-old el­derly woman and her non-mar­ried daugh­ters to Is­rael, and they left the one who mar­ried a Mus­lim guy in Turkey,” says Mr Ka­hana.

“The lease on the house I was rent­ing for them ex­pired. They had no money, no food, they had noth­ing in Turkey."

Fright­ened, Gilda and her hus­band felt they had no choice but to re­turn to Syria — where they re­main. “By the time I got her on the phone, she was al­ready in Syria,” he added. “They did not want to be in a refugee camp.

“I am so frus­trated with the Sochnut. They said she is not Jewish enough for us. The Is­raelis have been try­ing to hide this story. They screwed up.”

He added: “I help Mus­lims and Jews — I help hu­man­ity. Of course I get re­ally ex­cited when I save a Jew, my own peo­ple, but I will still save a Mus­lim kid.”

Mr Ka­hana is try­ing to con­vince Gilda and her fam­ily to leave Syria again. He claims that the JA of­fered to re­im­burse him for the es­cape of Mariam and Sara, but not Gilda and her fam­ily. “I told the Jewish Agency: ‘You can go f*** your­self.”

JA of­fi­cial Ariel Di Porto stood by the de­ci­sion. She said: “Gilda is not Jewish any­more be­cause she mar­ried a Mus­lim and con­verted to Is­lam. The law of re­turn in Is­rael says that if she con­verted, it is not ha­lachah, she can­not make aliyah.” She added that the Min­istry of In­te­rior was re­spon­si­ble for the de­ci­sion. Names of the Syr­i­ans have been changed to pro­tect their iden­ti­ties

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES X

Moti Ka­hana, who or­gan­ised the res­cue, with one of those saved

The fam­ily on ar­rival in Turkey (faces ob­scured to pro­tect their iden­ti­ties)

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Fight­ers from Al Qaedaaf­fil­i­ated Al Nusra Front drive through Aleppo

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