Lately, I’ve been watching some TV shows about Israel’s intelligence and anti-terrorism efforts. This was prompted by the wild popularity of the Israeli series, Fauda, watched by both Israeli Jews and Arabs (and probably Palestinian Arabs too). The realistic, non-stop, brutal efforts of the Mista’arvim unit of the IDF, which implants Jews into Palestinian Arab locales to interdict terror attacks, is addictive.
While waiting for the rumored third season of Fauda, I’ve started watching Mossad 101, another gritty Israeli series dealing with intelligence gathering, interdiction, and sometimes retribution. The Mossad is rated among the top 5 national intelligence agencies and even accorded the #1 position by two popular websites, improb.com and the BBC. The Mossad has also been chosen by the History channel to be one of the eight featured intelligence agencies in a new documentary series.
Improb.com explains: “Intelligence agencies are the first line of defense against potential internal and external threats. They are tasked with gathering intelligence, conducting various forms of espionage, advising the government when it comes to national security matters, spreading fake information, and, in the case of some agencies, even carrying out assassinations.”
To learn more about the Mossad, Michal and I recently toured Israel’s Terrorist Activity Museum / Intelligence Service Museum (IICC), located together in an intelligence complex just north of Tel Aviv, the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center.
Our hostess, Nina, is one of the many retired “secret warriors” (not “spies”) who volunteer to show people through the complex and explain what it was like serving the country in this difficult but vastly important task. After introductory remarks by Nina, we were introduced to Yola Reikman, who told us about the incredible operation she participated in starting in 1982, with a fascinating photo montage accompanying her talk.
Yola, whose mother tongue is German, received a life changing phone call from her diving instructor, Danny. Danny had been recruited by the Mossad to lead the rescue of thousands of Ethiopian Jews who fled landlocked Ethiopia into neighboring (Muslim) Sudan, with the hope of continuing on to Israel. They traveled on foot to refugee camps in Sudan, a harrowing month-long journey traversing harsh, barren desert. An estimated 1,700 Jews died along the way, victims of starvation, exposure, and violent bandits. Those who reached the camps lived a squalid existence, subject to epidemics of malnutrition and disease.
The Mossad was faced with an almost impossible task to bring Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) to Israel. Ethiopia is not too far from Israel, but a passage by land is not possible because Egypt blocks the way. Sudan, adjacent to Ethiopia and with a coastline on the Red Sea, was the only possibility of escaping to Israel, which also has a Red Sea coastline. Mossad agents hoped to locate an obscure lagoon in Sudan where naval rescue operations could be secretly based. This solution itself was fraught with danger because any suspicious activity would threaten not only the Mossad agents, but thousands of Ethiopian Jews who could be subject to violent retaliation.
The plan that Danny helped devise utilized an abandoned diving resort to implant Israelis with European backgrounds, posing as employees of a Swiss travel firm looking to promote the woeful Sudanese tourism industry. This gave the Mossad a highly plausible reason for operating on the shores of the Red Sea, while maintaining all the necessary boats, trucks, and communications gear.
So it was that Yola Reitman’s phone rang that day. Would she agree to join the Mossad and “act” as manager of a diving resort named “Arous” on the shores of the Red Sea? The timing of the call was perfect because Yola was in Eilat on the shores of the Red Sea, hosting tourists on deep-sea diving excursions.
“It was surely an offer I could not refuse,” Yola explained in an interview with aish.com from her home in central Israel. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – not only to serve my country, but to save thousands of Jewish lives. It also spoke to my adventurous spirit.”
Yola, a talented administrator with knowledge of both deep-sea diving and tourism, fit the “native European profile” so crucial to the covert operation. While Yola and team got the resort into shape, a select group of Ethiopian Jews were sent into the refugee camps to locate fellow Jews and prepare them for departure. When the timing was right for an operation, hundreds of Jewish refugees, packed like sardines onto trucks, fled into the nighttime desert, taking only a few possessions for the multi-night escape; they remained hidden during the daytime hours.
“Getting shuffled around from place to place was a traumatic experience for the refugees,” Yola says. “By the time they arrived in Israel, they were quite disoriented. Then these people – totally unfamiliar with modern life – were thrown into culture shock.” [But that’s another story.]
While this was going on, the vacation village managed to enjoy a steady stream of paying guests: wealthy Europeans, Saudi Arabian hawk-hunters, and diplomats stationed in Khartoum. Unbeknownst to the guests and the Sudanese workers, they were vacationing and working respectively, in an elaborate stage set while the Israelis were living in an entirely different reality.* [scroll to the bottom for the continuation of this exploit]
A new film about this daring rescue, entitled “Red Sea Diving Resort,” will be released this August, starring Chris Evans, Greg Kinnear, and Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley.
After Yola’s inspiring presentation, we followed another volunteer, Benny, who admits his resemblance to Woody Allen, into the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. He pointed out that the picture of the “friendly fellow” behind him was of the notorious Sheik Yassin, former leader of Hamas, who was killed by a pinpoint strike in Gaza in 2004. Surrounded by “souvenirs” of the war against terrorism, Benny told us that terrorism, though terrible, is a nuisance for Israel but not an existential threat. Benny joined the intelligence establishment after being liberated from European concentration camps. One of his significant achievements was forging Adolph Eichmann’s fake passport, allowing the drugged Nazi murderer to board an EL Al plane carrying him from his hiding place in Argentina to Israel.
Benny explained how operatives work undercover to attain objectives in enemy countries. He described the incredible exploits of Israel’s most famous secret warrior, Syrian-born Eli Cohen, who posed as a successful Lebanese-Syrian businessman in Argentina before returning to Syria with excellent credentials and references. Cohen became a confidant of the highest ranking government and military officials after showing up in Syria. One of his most famous and effective actions was recommending the planting of shade trees at the Syrian bases on the Golan Heights, for the comfort of the troops. When the Six Day War broke out in 1967, Israel destroyed those bases, which were easily identified by the same shade trees that the Syrians planted at Cohen’s urging.
Eli Cohen was eventually discovered by the Syrians, hung, and his corpse put on display in Damascus. Israel is still trying to recover his body. If you’re wondering whether his family knew about his activities, the answer is, no. Secret warriors’ missions are indeed secret, with only the vaguest notions of the situation revealed to the secret warrior’s family during its duration – and sometimes not revealed at all.
After we had a chance to examine some of the “spy” paraphernalia in the Center, Nina took us to the “Labyrinth,” a memorial in which 750 deceased Mossad veterans are memorialized. Soon after, we returned to the auditorium where we watched a fascinating depiction of decision making following the discovery of an Arab terrorist’s attendance at a meeting in Iran. The film, The Power of Knowledge, followed the process of gathering background and additional evidence to determine the importance of the terrorist’s visit, culminating in the successful solution to what was discovered to be a major plot to commit a huge terror attack in Israel.
The afternoon spent at IICC was a fascinating look at part of Israel’s vaunted intelligence apparatus. Israelis, and citizens of Israel’s allies, benefit from our intelligence work. We all owe a huge debt to the unsung secret warriors who live extraordinary lives fighting our enemies. My appreciation of the “real thing” can only add to my fascination with the fictional exploits I’ve been watching on TV.
* Continued: Things did not always go smoothly. One night, while transferring refugees onto the dinghies, the Israelis were caught red-handed by Sudanese soldiers looking for smugglers – but the “tour leaders” talked their way out of trouble. Another threat to the rescue operation came from a well-meaning group of Diaspora Jews, whose vocal demand that Israel rescue the Ethiopian Jews drew dangerous attention to the issue.
Two years into the operation, it was determined that naval rescues had become too dangerous and the focus shifted to airplanes. For these operations, exhausted and scared Ethiopians were brought in the dead of night to rendezvous with Hercules cargo planes, like those used in the daring commando rescue at Entebbe a few years earlier. Landing in the heart of enemy territory, Israeli planes escaped detection and the nearby battery of surface-to-air missiles proved to be inoperable.
“Operation Brothers,” as it was known, came to an abrupt halt in 1984 when an irresponsible Israeli politician bragged publicly about the mission. Predictably, the news caused outrage in the Arab world. The Israelis evacuated the diving village overnight. They left behind a resort filled with scuba-diving tourists who would awaken the next morning to find the entire senior staff had deserted them – yet with the promise to refund their money.
Operation Brothers was the precursor to additional daring rescues of Ethiopian Jews. Today, there are approximately 130,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent living in Israel. And while the transition to Israeli society has come with challenges, Ethiopian Jews are beginning to occupy respected positions in academia, medicine, arts, the military, and the Knesset. (aish.com)