Last week, the Times of Israel reported that a city in France was honouring the Palestinian terrorist who assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavem Ze’evi and awarding him with honorary citizenship. Majdi Rimawi is a high-ranking member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group recognized by France as being a terrorist organization. At the ceremony, the city reported his crime as “defending his city and demanding the application of international law” opposed to his actual crime. In light of this despicable act, I decided to reflect on the founding of Israel and France’s relationship and the exciting story of the Cherbourg Project.
Over the past 64+ years, France and Israel have had a very tumultuous relationship. Israel and France forged a strong allegiance starting with the state’s founding up until the Six Day War where France was Israel’s largest arms supplier. In 1950, the United States, Britain and France issued the Tripartite Declaration, which curtailed arms sales to the Middle East with the hope of safeguarding the Israeli-Arab armistice agreements. In 1955 after the Soviet Union (through Czechoslovakia) sold $250,000,000 dollars worth of arms to Egypt, France sided with the Jewish state and openly started selling mass quantities of arms to Israel.
This relationship was based on shared interest including the Suez Canal, France’s stance against pan-Arabism and intelligence sharing in French colonies such as Algeria. This relationship provided Israel with their first advanced fighter jet, the Mirage, integral components to their nuclear program and much of the weapons used by Israel in their 2nd and 3rd wars. The state of this relationship drastically changed with one single decision when in 1962, France decided to leave Algeria. In consequence, not only did France no longer have shared interest with Israel, but they also forged alliances with Israel’s enemies in Jordan, Syria and Egypt. On June 2nd, 1967, when it was obvious that war was about to break out, (the Six-Day War started June 5th) France announced an arms embargo on Israel.
As bad as things were in 1967, they got much worse in 1969. 200 AMX tanks originally promised to Israel were instead sold to Gaddafi’s Libya and 50 Mirage fighter jets that Israel had already paid for were instead given to Syria, a state still at war with Israel. In response, Israel stole the blueprints for the Mirage and developed their own fighter jet, the Lavi. However, there was a much more pressing issue. After the sinking of the INS Eilat by Soviet made Egyptian ships four months after the Six-Day War, Israel desperately needed to improve its navy.
Before the arms embargo commenced, Israel had purchased for development 12 Sa’ar 3-class missile boats to be commissioned in Cherbourg, France with assistance from the Israeli Navy. The construction of the ships continued during the embargo as both parties thought that by the time the ships were ready to sail for Haifa, the embargo would have been lifted. After the first 7 boats were completed, the Israeli Navy got word that instead of dissipating, France’s embargo was about to become more severe. Israeli quickly sailed the 7 completed ships to Haifa resulting in an angered response from the French. This left 5 Israeli ships in France that needed to be smuggled out.
Israel with the help of the Mossad set up and sold the boats to a fictitious Panama-Norwegian company named Starboat that “coincidentally” needed ships to survey for oil with the exact same specifications as the ones Israel commissioned. Due to Israel’s expertise with the ships, France acquiesced to Starboat’s demand that an Israeli crew would sail the ships to them. Israel then brought in an entire navy crew individually to Cherbourg as tourists to smuggle the ships out. To prepare for the eventual 8-day journey from France to Israel, the crew working on the ship secretly snuck in small amounts of groceries and fuel in order to not raise suspicion of what was going on.
Knowing that when the ships actually left the port, the engines would create a lot of noise and likely bring attention to the escape, the crew decided to start running the engines every night claiming that it was necessary to ensure that the boat stayed heated. In harsh winter conditions on Christmas Eve, the remaining five ships snuck off from France without anyone’s notice as everyone was so used to the loud noises from the engines every night. It was not until a BBC report the next day that the French finally learn about the ruse. While the ships were in international waters, France’s Minister of Defense, Michel Debre ordered the ships to be sunk, but fortunately for Israel, this request was denied. The ships successfully made it to Israel and ended up playing an integral role in the Israeli Navy and specifically, were one of the biggest factors in Israel’s triumph in the Yom Kippur War.