Early Operations Of Israeli Intelligence

From the time Israel was founded on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion - the first Prime Minister of Israel - and other Israeli leaders made a conscious decision: Israel would need the finest secret services in the world. Israel is a tiny country surrounded by powerful enemies with far greater numbers and wealth than the Jewish State had then or possesses today. Israel would have to make up for its disadvantage in terms of numbers, land mass and natural resources by the finest armed forces it could possibly construct. For the armed forces to be effective - and to prevent armed confrontation, if possible - the secret services would have to be vigilant, active, and cunning; they would have to be ready to provide information about enemy strengths, weaknesses, plans and initiatives at a moment's notice. They would have to have agents throughout the world, including and especially in the Arab world. As Israeli recruits were told once, during training, "'We are good at our task because the alternative is too horrifying to contemplate.'"

During the British Mandate period (1917-1948) Zionist intelligence agencies were quite good. The Jewish Underground movements - and primarily the Haganah - were often able to obtain advanced reports of planned British actions, which enabled Jewish undergound leaders to hide, escape, or change plans before the British plan became operational. As some of you may remember from last semester, on June 29, 1946 - called the "Black Sabbath" in the annals of the Yishuv, the British raided the Jewish Agency Headquarters in Jerusalem and arrested some of its leaders, while rounding up 2700 members of the Haganah and Palmach.

David Ben-Gurion, then the head of the Jewish Agency and de facto leader of the Yishuv, was in Paris at the time. Many other Jewish Agency leaders and just about all of the Haganah and Palmach high command - such as Yisrael Galili and Yitzhak Sadeh - went into hiding and escaped. They were able to do so because they knew precisely when the British would strike. A British officer serving in the Sarafand Military camp (near Tel-Aviv) handed over to the Haganah's Information Service - Shai - the plans for the impending operation. The British officer refused payment, wishing only to share a room with his Jewish girlfriend. The Haganah covered the cost of the room - about 8 pounds a month. In return, the officer turned over a 600 page document describing not only British plans for the raid in detail, but almost all the material gathered on the Haganah by the British Intelligence Services from the early days of the Mandate until 1946.

Shai, short for "Sherut Yediot" - or the "Information Service" of the Haganah - was officially founded in 1940. Its antecedents went back much further; the NILI spies were a very effective intelligence service working for the British and against the Turks in World War I. As early as the April riots of 1920 in Jerusalem, Jews had warned the British of an impending outbreak of Arab violence. The Haganah was officially founded that year, 1920, and thereafter intelligence always played a major part in the Haganah's planning and activities. Shai itself was divided into three departments; a British department, designated to infiltrate the British Army, Police, and Government in Mandatory Palestine; an Arab Department, headed by a Jewish Arabist, Ezra Danin; and an internal department dealing with Jews such as Irgun and Lehi members, to the right of the political spectrum, and Jewish communists, to the far left. Isser Harel, who emerged to be a giant of Israeli Intelligence from 1952-63, headed this department. During that period, he recruited and integrated former right-wing dissidents from Lehi and in some cases even from the Irgun, into the Secret Services. His intention was to make them feel like an integral part of the new state. In return, he received their undivided loyalty. One of the former high-ranking Lehi members recruited into the Mossad was former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

The three-department system the Shai set up remained in effect, pretty much unchanged, until the Shai was disbanded soon after the state of Israel was created. In the 1930's and 1940's Haganah Intelligence (and after 1940, Shai) scored some notable successes through their network of Arab agents and friendly British contacts. The Yishuv was blessed with a number of Arabic-speaking and Arab-looking Jews, mainly those Jews who had been born in Arab countries. Some of them were sent back to their countries of birth as Israeli agents, and some infiltrated Palestinian Arab villages and towns inside the borders of the British Mandate. There were other organizations performing similar work, such as the Arab Platoon of the Palmach, which (composed of Arabic-speaking and Arab-looking Jews) did similar work to the Shai's Arab department. Beyond that there was Rekhesh, a secret organization charged with obtaining weapons for the Yishuv by whatever means necessary. Finally, the Mossad le-Aliyah Bet organized and brought illegal immigrants to Palestine in "violation" of the British White Paper. Their contacts and sheer organizational magnitude were tremendous.

Once the United Nations voted for partition on November 29, 1947, however, the Jewish secret services lost many of their contacts with Palestinian and other Arabs. Arabs could no longer be contacted due to the fighting that had broken out, which made communication difficult. Many Arabs were no longer willing to work against their own people once hostilities broke out. All in all, Haganah Intelligence from November 1947 through May 14, 1948 was rather poor. They were only able to gain the planned routes of Arab invasion a week before they took place. Many in the Yishuv leadership didn't really believe that the British would leave or that the regular Arab armies would attack. They were woefully mistaken on both counts. As Ben-Gurion remarked, to paraphrase, the young state was fighting with its eyes closed. It knew very little about enemy intentions and plans.

In spite of all that, two Israeli actions in the summer and fall of 1948 stand out, and are early examples of later, phenomenal successes that became the trademark of the Israeli Secret Services in the 1960's, 1970's, and 1980's. And in contrast to many of the more recent Israeli successes, these two operations took place mainly on the sea.

In early February 1948, a plane took off from a Middle Eastern airport. It was a Swissair flight to Paris. A young Syrian Army officer, Captain Abdul-Aziz Kerine, sat in the first class section. He was on his way to Prague, via Paris, as a representative of Syria's Ministry of Defense. He had orders to buy 10,000 Czech rifles for the purpose of driving the Jews into the sea.

A few seats behind the Syrian Army captain sat another passenger on a mission much like Abdul-Aziz Kerine's. His name was Ehud Avriel, one of the moving figures behind the secret Haganah arms purchasing unit, Rekhesh. The Jews were desperately short of weapons. Rifles and machine guns were in short supply. As of May 1948, the Jews in Palestine had no tanks, air force, or navy. (Although they would have a tiny air force and navy once the regular Arab armies invaded in May 1948).

Rekhesh and the Mossad le-Aliyah Bet (The organization for Illegal Immigration) all contributed to the daring, bravado, cunning, and intelligence that came to characterize the Israeli Secret Services. Shaul Avigur stood at the head of Rekhesh and the Mossad le-Aliyah Bet. Based in Geneva and Paris, many Israeli secret agents learned the tricks of the trade under Avriel. "Those who worked for Mossad found themselves arranging escape routes, false passports, safe houses…and chartering ships to take (Jews) to Palestine, all under the noses of the British secret service, then still regarded as the finest in the world." They set up fake corporations which could not be traced, established false identities, and ran a fully operational clandestine organization hundreds, even thousands of miles away from their homes in Palestine.

Rekhesh and the Mossad took part in many dazzling operations, including the stealing of two British planes in while making a war film in England requiring flying sequences. None, however, were as dazzling as " Operation Thief", which began with our discussion of Ehud Avriel and the Syrian Captain Abdul-Aziz Kerine above.

While traveling around the various arms manufacturers in Czechoslovakia, Ehud Avriel became aware that another man was following the same route. After a number of inquiries it was established that this was the same man who travelled with him via Swissair from the Middle East to Paris. Abdul-Aziz Kerine was attempting to augment the Syrian Army's arsenal. There was already a lopsided discrepancy in weapons supply in favor of the Arabs. Trans-Jordan was commanded by
British officers and possessed the finest British equipment. Egypt had a lot of materiel left over by the British Army after the desert battles of World War II, climaxing at El-Alemein. The Syrian purchases could determine whether the Jewish State could sink or swim.

Kerine's purchase was not huge - but at the time it would have added a considerable amount of offensive power to the Syrian Army. He bought 6000 rifles and 8,000,000 rounds of ammunition. With the combined forces of the Arabs within Palestine, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Iraqis, and even the Lebanese, the Syrian force could prove decisive. A strong Syrian force could overrun the Jewish settlements of the Northern Galilee. Thus when Shaul Avigur (after being tipped of from Avriel) informed David Ben-Gurion of the purchase, Ben-Gurion didn't hesitate. This shipment would be stopped at all costs.

However, it was already on the high seas, aboard an old Italian tramp steamer, the SS Lino. Nobody had much of an idea how to handle it. They thought first of bombing it from the air with one of the recently purchased (and under-equipped) Haganah planes. The Haganah planes had no bomb doors, so the plan was for one of the crew members to roll it out at low altitude and hope for the best. For three days the pilots of the Haganah force combed the seas without success. The mystery was soon cleared up on March 30, 1948, when Shaul Avigur cabled Munya Mardor (another high-ranking Haganah officer) that the ship was in port in Yugoslavia, for unknown reasons.

The SS Lino was soon on the seas again, but on April 1 a ferocious storm erupted in the Mediterranean. Air searches became impossible. An alternative plan was developed by the Haganah to outrun and board the Lino on the high seas with the use of a yacht they had purchased. But before that plan was implemented the Lino developed engine trouble and pulled into the Italian port of Molfetta in southern Italy. A plan was quickly developed to blow up the ship in port.

Ada Sereni, the widow of the Italian Jew Enzo Sereni, who had parachuted behind German lines during World War II and was subsequently captured and killed in Dachau by the Nazis, was behind the plan. Ada Sereni was now working for Shaul Avigur in Italy. Knowledgeable about the local scene, she took advantage of bitterly contested general elections between the Christian Democrats and the Communists. Both sides were extremely suspicious of the other.

Ada Sereni thus telephoned a friend whom worked for a Christian Democratic newspaper and told him that the Communists were landing and gathering arms. She informed him that there was a ship docked in Molfetta loaded with weapons. "Within twelve hours that news was on the front page of every newspaper in the land. The government feared a Communist coup; the Communist newspapers immediately branded the accusations as provocations." The Communists claimed that the right-wing parties planned to use the weapons to suppress the Communists. The government decided to arrest the crew and tow the ship out of Molfetta, to the military harbor of Bari. In modern parlance, it was a sitting duck.

A small number of Palmach demolition experts quickly moved into action. They had to. The ship's captain soon revealed the true story to the Italian authorities; the arms belonged to the Syrians, and the ship had only put into port due to the weather and engine trouble. The Italians would be eager to defuse the political tensions that had sprung up as a result of the affair, and in all likelihood would release the ship from detention soon.

The sense of urgency became palpable when rumors began circulating that the British were applying pressure on the Italians to release the ship. As some of you may remember from lecture 12 last semester, the British permitted arms to flow freely into Arab countries prior to the war of independence, while they maintained a blockade on the Palestine coast. The Jews were afraid that the British might be involved in the Lino affair as well. As if to confirm that fear, a British naval destroyer had pulled into the harbor near the Lino.

The Haganah hastily prepared a plan of action. They hired a fishing boat and planned to disguise themselves as party revelers, changing into diving gear when out of sight. They would row to the entrance to the harbor, avoiding searchlight activity. Then they were to dive in, fix the mine, and swim back to the boat and row back to shore.

For the rest of the day they worked on preparing a mine. They had to be careful that the mine wouldn't explode too soon after they placed it on the ship, while they would still be swimming away. At 9 p.m. they loaded the truck with the dinghy and the mine and set off for the harbor. Most of the harbor was deserted. "What was alarming, however, was the degree of activity on the British destroyer. Its searchlight was sweeping the harbor, and sailors were busy on its decks. But there was no question of turning back." They had to destroy the ship while in port, or else it would set out to sea again.

The sappers moved into action. The searchlight from the British destroyer combed the area while the sappers swam towards the ship. The dinghy and a few other boats waited for them to return.

They only did so at 4 a.m. They had gotten to within yards of the Lino but they could not get any closer, due to the British searchlights and activity on both the British destroyer and the Syrian ship. "It was as if they had been expected." They removed the detonators from the mine and having no choice, left it there.

The next night they returned with a new mine they had assembled during the day. "If anything, the activity on the British destroyer was greater than the night before. There were lights everywhere, orders being shouted, even a volley of rifle shots…" Only at 1:30 a.m. did the reason for all this activity become clear. With a wail of its siren, the British destroyer was moving out to sea on half engines. They had never even suspected the Israelis were there. With the British gone, the Lino was now an easy target.

The Palmach sappers slipped into the water and within minutes had attached the mine to the ship. They swam away without waiting for the explosion. When the mine did explode, at 4 a.m., they were safely on the road to Rome. The ship went down within ten minutes.

This, however, was not the end of the affair. The Syrians informed the Italians of what had happened, and insisted that that they help dredge up the ship from the bottom of the sea. The Italians agreed to do it. When the rifles, thickly greased, were brought up from the sea, they were still in good condition. They were then thoroughly cleaned and stored in a warehouse for the time being.

By the time the rifles were dredged up the State of Israel had come into being. Ada Sereni by then was officially working for the Israeli secret service. There was no way Israel would let these weapons get to Syria if anything could be done about it. But the Italians were cooperating with the Syrians. More than that, the Italians did not want a similar incident such as the mining of the ship to happen at the warehouse where the Syrian weapons were temporarily being stored. Thus they were maintaining a heavy guard. The Israelis would not be able to get at the weapons in Italy. It would have to be on the high seas after all.

Colonel Mardam, the Syrian who had taken over the purchasing mission, suspected nothing from the Israelis. He looked for another ship, but had difficulty finding one suitable for his purposes - until the owner of the hotel he was staying at suggested a shipping agency in Rome. The Menara Shipping Agency proved very cooperative and Mardam soon bought the SS Argiro. Mardam had no idea that the hotel manager was in the service of the Israelis, and the Menara Shipping Agency had ties with the Jewish Underground from the post World War II period, from gun-running through smuggling immigrants into Palestine.

At the last minute, the captain of the SS Argiro reported that two of his sailors were ill. They were summarily replaced - with Palmach agents.

The boat, purchased in Rome, sailed for Bari in early August. From there Mardam supervised the loading of the arms and set sail for the open sea on August 19. Captain Mardam's job was over and he flew back to Syria. The ship, however, soon developed engine problems. This was not due to coincidence. A fishing vessel offered assistance to the immobilized ship. The two men who boarded the Argiro were also Israeli agents. With the two other agents already aboard the Israelis quickly overpowered the crew and took control of the ship. Then they radioed their commanders in Israel to tell them the news.

The Argiro was met by two small Israeli Navy boats on the way to Haifa. Both the Italian crew and the Israeli agents were transferred to them while the SS Argiro was summarily sunk. The whole affair ended as a remarkably successful example of intelligence and espionage. All of the Syrian weapons were now in Israeli hands - and no bloodshed had been incurred.

Colonel Mardam was not so lucky. He was accused by the Syrian Government of collaborating with the Israelis and was sentenced to death. The Israelis made the exceedingly rare move of revealing their plans to the Syrians in order to save the man's life. The Syrians spared Colonel Mardam.

In late October 1948, the Israeli Navy performed another feat of daring and resourcefulness. For some days a flotilla of Egyptian vessels had been coming very close to the Tel-Aviv coastline. This included the flagship of the Egyptian Navy, the Emir Farouk. For a number of days the Israeli and Egyptian Navies had been acting in a threatening manner which was liable to escalate at any time. This mini-escalation took place amidst the largest IDF offensive of the war - Operation Yoav, which was a major Israeli advance into the Negev, all the way down to Eilat and the Red Sea. The Emir Farouk's actions were seen as a threat to Operation Yoav and the IDF General Staff ordered action. The Emir Farouk was to be sunk.

This would not be an easy operation. The Emir Farouk moved about with two ships for escort, including a minesweeper, "and both usually stayed within protective range of coastal batteries." The small Israeli Navy could not sink it with conventional methods. A small assault force would have to be found. It was - a specially trained group of naval commandos led by Yochai Bin-Nun would undertake the operation.

Yochai Bin Nun was born in Haifa in 1924 and volunteered for service in the Haganah at an early age. By 1942, at the age of 18, he was already a recognized figure in the Palmach - the elite strike force of the Haganah - serving in the Upper Galilee and Jezreel Valley area. He turned out to be "one of the most capable infantry squad leaders in the Palmach", noted for his prowess as "'a sapper with a keen knowledge of explosives'" as he would recall later. He was to trade his land-based service for underwater operations. He would remain in IDF Navy Service for the next thirty years, rising to the rank of commander.

Trained to deal with the freezing cold and to swiftly and silently approach their targets, Yochai Bin Nun's crew was the obvious choice to perform the operation against the Emir Farouk. The operation, however, almost never got off the ground. Yigael Yadin, the IDF Chief of Operations and Deputy Chief of Staff, refused to authorize the operation. Undaunted, the Israeli Naval Commander Gershon Zaq drove to the home of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to argue his case. "Ben-Gurion, however, exhausted after a week of touring the front lines, was taking a nap, and Mrs. Ben-Gurion refused to awaken her sleeping husband. Zaq's (refusal) to allow a sleeping prime minister to ruin the (Navy's) golden opportunity to strike at the heart of the Egyptian fleet persisted to the point, according to legend, where Mrs. Ben-Gurion had to reach for a revolver in the nearby dresser and order the navy commander to back off. The ruckus awoke Ben-Gurion who rubbed his eyes, grabbed a pitcher of water, and agreed to grant a five-minute audience to the stubborn naval officer." At first Ben-Gurion was very much against the plan, but Zaq soon convinced him it could be done. The news was quickly relayed to the wireless set on the main ship they would be using, the Ma'oz.

Bin-Nun and his men went to work right away. They approached the Egyptian flotilla off the coast of Gaza. They had four specially designed crafts filled with explosives which were intended to carry their operator to within 100 yards of their target. From there, the operator would aim his craft at the enemy ship, set the ship speeding off towards its target, and then seconds later, jump out, his legs attached to a flotation device. From there the craft worked something like a torpedo.

The four boats assembled for action. The first one took aim, fired, and the operator ejected well before the boat struck the Emir Farouk and detonated. The operator was safe, and the Emir Farouk was now badly damaged, but not destroyed. A second boat opted to have another go at the Emir Farouk. The impact and detonation broke the ship in two. Minutes later, it sank.

This was a tremendous feat for the young Israeli Navy. But the minesweeper still remained, and the Egyptian soldiers aboard began firing wildly in all directions in the hope of hitting something. But Yochai Bin-Nun, the naval commando leader, was determined to take out the minesweeper. He positioned himself for a headlong rush at the ship. As he did so, a high powered Egyptian searchlight illuminated his boat and the Egyptians focused their fire on him.

Bin-Nun ejected his flotation device but it simply would not eject. He was stuck. "Faced with the prospect of being neck-high in water about to absorb a 300-kilogram blast did not sit well in Bin-Nun's head - neither did driving his boat straight into the mine-sweeper's hull." He tried to manually free himself 100 meters from his target, but the lever wouldn't give. He pulled until the handle snapped. At 40 meters from the minesweeper he jumped, still attached to his boat. Finally at 30 meters from his target he jostled free - just a few seconds before his boat scored a direct hit on the minesweeper, sending it to the bottom of the sea.

Bin-Nun and his four-man crew were picked up in the water and taken safely back to base. They had accomplished an incredible mission. The Emir Farouk had been carrying over 500 Egyptian soldiers as reinforcements for the Egyptian Army in Gaza. "The IDF General Staff was ecstatic about the sinking of the Emir Farouk, though they only authorized the press to release word about the ship's sinking - not how it was accomplished." Israeli Naval special warfare was now on the map. It had scored a remarkable victory. This unit, soon to be called "Shayetet 13" or "Flotilla 13" would be heard from again and again in the years to come. For the time being, however, "Bin-Nun and company were secretive celebrities in the upper echelons of power in the Jewish State. Bin-Nun was granted a private audience with 'The Old Man', Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, who was adamant about hearing every little detail about the raid…"

Yochai Bin-Nun was awarded Israel's highest award for courage under fire for the sinking of the Emir Farouk, the flagship of the Egyptian Navy.

Israel was simultaneously fighting a land war of liberation of far greater magnitude than from what was happening at sea. Israel, just born, was fighting for its survival - for those Jews who were already there and for those who would come later. Israel would also fight for its existence as an answer to the Holocaust, when those Jews, with no home anywhere in the world, had no one to turn to and no one to look after them. After the war of Independence, that would never again be so. This feeling was always in the minds of the warriors of Israel when they risked their lives for the establishment of the state. Israeli Intelligence, which as shall see in the coming weeks got more and more sophisticated in the years to come, played and continues to play a major role in the defense of the state and its citizens, as well as Jews all over the world. Let us close with a poem written by Yitzhak Sadeh, the commander of the pre-state underground organization the Palmach. I think it emotionally gives expression, more than anything else I have ever read, of the feeling of the young Jewish male's desire to be strong, independent, and a protector of his people -and no less so, in a sexually evocative way, of Jewish women, in the land of Israel.


1). Ian Black and Benny Morris - Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Service

2). Ze'ev Venia Hadari - Second Exodus: The Full Story of Jewish Illegal Immigration to Palestine, 1945-1948

3). Samuel M. Katz - The Night Raiders: Israel's Naval Commandos at War

4). Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman - Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community

5). Stewart Steven - The Spymasters of Israel