Associated Press
Section: MAIN,  Page: A6

Date: Tuesday, October 18, 1994

JERUSALEM Israel on Monday lifted the curtain on a secret two-year operation that brought more than 1,200 Syrian Jews to the Jewish state via the United States, an exodus soon to include the group's chief rabbi.

The migration fulfilled a promise made by Syrian President Hafez Assad to the Bush and Clinton administrations. Israeli ministers lauded it as a sign of Syrian goodwill. ``Without a doubt this has great significance . . . also politically, because it is another gesture towards creating a new atmosphere in the Mideast,'' said Immigration Minister Yair Tsaban.

The chief rabbi of Syrian Jewry, Rabbi Avraham Hamra, was to arrive in Israel today to join 1,262 members of his community, most of them living in the Tel Aviv suburbs of Holon and Bat Yam.

In a telephone interview from New York, the rabbi praised Assad.

``Assad kept his promise,'' Hamra said. ``He promised very good things, and he kept his promise.

``All the Jews who were left in Damascus have the necessary papers and can leave, can sell their property and goods. The situation is good for them.''

The Jewish agency that is responsible for immigration said that 3,670 Jews left Syria for the United States since April 1992. Israel then secretly flew 1,262 of them to Israel, an agency statement said.

The Israeli government had never confirmed reports that some of the Syrian Jews were arriving in Israel. More than 2,400 settled in New York City, and about 300 remain in Syria.

The announcement came a few hours after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin initialed a draft peace treaty with Jordan. He said he hoped the agreement would have positive repercussions on Israel's talks with Syria.

Assad lifted travel restrictions on Syrian Jews in April 1992 at the request of the United States. However, there were many delays in issuing the exit permits, leading to speculation the ban had been reimposed.

Many of the 300 who will remain in Syria are elderly, and virtually all Jews who wanted to leave have done so, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in the United States.