AS the El Al Boeing 747 disgorged its human cargo - more than 1,000 tired, confused Ethiopian Jews - a nervous father watched as his tiny baby, just hours old, was placed in a waiting incubator. No one seemed sure whether or not he had been born during the three-and-a-half-hour flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Some said he had, and declared him the airlift's first sabra, or native-born Israeli.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir predicted that the new arrivals, with their distinctive dark features and traditional flowing robes, would quickly find themselves at home among their fellow Jews.
``They will look like sabras ... like Israelis,'' he said, after welcoming Friday afternoon the first plane load of Ethiopians to land at Ben Gurion airport. As of Sunday, officials said the airlift, dubbed Operation Solomon, had added 14,087 Ethiopian Jews to the approximately 20,000 already in the country.
``Now they are here. Now they are Israeli citizens,'' the prime minister said. ``Nobody will persecute them. They will be happy together with us.''
Amid the bewilderment surrounding their sudden arrival in Israel, the Ethiopian Jews also expressed optimism.
``I'm very happy to reach Israel ... It's a miracle,'' said David Yalu, who arrived, with his family, early on in the 24-hour operation. ``I want my children to learn, to know more, to be active and to be the most famous men in Israel, even in the world!''
Mr. Yalu, who already has family members living in Jerusalem, admitted, in broken English, that his new home was still a largely unknown quantity.
``I know a little,'' he said. ``That is, in Israel, everybody must work; everybody must get his benefit; and everybody must know his environment and how to live, culturally.''
How to live, culturally, is one of the main problems facing Israel's Ethiopians. Many of the immigrants are peasant farmers, lacking formal education.
The absorption of Ethiopian Jews has been fraught with problems in the past. Although the Ethiopians were the focus of Israel's absorption effort during the mid-1980s (well before Moscow opened the flood-gates of Soviet Jewry), officials acknowledge that a lack of experience and understanding undermined efforts.
``We made some mistakes,'' says Gad Ben-Ari, spokesman for the Jewish Agency, the semi-official body that oversees immigrant absorption. Mr. Ben-Ari says organizations like his had little idea how to approach the Ethiopian Jews in the early days. ``But now we're much more experienced,'' he says.
Perhaps the greatest mistake was made by Israel's rabbinical authorities, who demanded that the entire Ethiopian Jewish community undergo a ritual conversion rite of immersion.
For the religiously devout Ethiopian Jews, whose ancient origins are the subject of heated historical and religious debate, the rabbinical demand merely accentuated the sense of separation suggested by the term falasha, meaning ``stranger.''
The Ethiopians prefer to call themselves Beta-Israel, meaning House of Israel.
``My grandfather and great grandfather were very strong in Judaism,'' says Aeres Farada, who arrived in Israel in 1985, during an airlift dubbed Operation Moses. ``But we had to prove it here, and that was difficult.''
As he watched the new arrivals disembarking at Ben Gurion airport, Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency, remarked on Israel's challenge in accommodating the new arrivals.
``Very difficult, [but] I can't imagine Israel doing anything else,'' he said.