There have been emotional scenes at Sydney Airport tonight as the first planeload of Australians arrived from Israel following the terror attack by Hamas last weekend and the declaration of war.
Since Friday, more than 1,400 Australians who were registered with DFAT departed on a mix of government-facilitated flights, partner flights, on commercial seats booked by DFAT, or under their own steam.
There were 222 people on board tonight’s assisted-departure flight which flew via Dubai, with some passengers travelling on to other domestic destinations.
Sydney’s Dana Gilden, who made Aliyah in 2017, was on the repatriation flight, operated by Qatar Airways.
Gilden had been in constant contact with DFAT, creating a WhatsApp group of Australians and acting as a go-between. Feelings among the Australians were mixed, with many not taking flights due to family in Israel, and medical or financial reasons. She said DFAT and the Australian Government were “incredible”.
“There’s a woman on board from [the] Embassy talking to everyone, and once we land, we’ll be greeted by more Embassy members and police as this was a specific ‘rescue’ flight. All the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed,” Gilden posted to Instagram while flying.
“They’ve provided us with food and water along the way (the Australian consulate in Dubai even had her chef bake us Anzac cookies on arrival) and they have been so lovely and helpful with any concerns or questions we had.”
Gilden went on to explain that it was a seamless experience even with so many unknowns prior to departure.
This sentiment was echoed by Melbourne’s Rabbi David Trakhtman, chef and owner of Passionate Catering’s Good Food Academy, who spoke to The AJN from Dubai while awaiting his connecting flight.
Trakhtman, together with his wife, four-year-old son and five-month-old daughter were in Israel delivering his cooking programs to Israelis. He said the Australian Government acted swiftly to get its citizens out.
“Departure from the airport was incredibly smooth, under the circumstances. There were at least six Australian government officials in the airport, also in Dubai upon our arrival,” he wrote. “In contrast, even the US representatives were not so ready and willing. They made their citizens sign a paper where they would agree to pay later for their flights.”
Talking to The AJN when the war first broke out, Gilden explained that she has been considering coming back to Australia for a little while. The unfolding events in Israel seemed to be the final push for the young Aussie who said her parents wanted her home immediately.
However, at the time, she didn’t feel safe even taking a taxi to the airport because the situation was still so unknown. She wrote that at first, rumours were flying that Hamas terrorists were in Tel Aviv and there was a lot of hearsay about what was happening in the south. The relief on her parents’ faces when she arrived in Sydney made her realise she had made the right decision for now.
Gilden also explained that the Dubai connection was making a few Australians nervous as they feared being stranded in the city without a guaranteed on-bound flight. However, sharing a moving photograph from Dubai airport of a minyan of Jewish men praying, Gilden wrote “while some are nervous to show our ‘Jewishness’ in an Arab country, nothing will stop us from continuing to be who we are and from our traditions”.
Upon arrival in Sydney, Gilden told The AJN that when passengers landed in Dubai, they were immediately taken to their own area of the airport and told there was a chartered flight available. Staff looked after everyone, even providing colouring-in activities for kids.
There were initial concerns over the fact that it was a Qatar Airways flight, however Gilden said passengers felt more comfortable as it was chartered. There was even kosher food available on board.
Gilden was the first Australian to walk into the arrivals hall after going through customs and passport control. She was immediately surrounded by media before being embraced by her family.
Earlier on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said that there would likely be no further flights departing from Tel Aviv, as the ones already carried out had met the immediate demand of Australians in Israel.