| Lecture 10
Operation Spring of Youth
Ehud Barak is now Prime Minister of the State of Israel, having won the Israeli elections on May 17. Amnon Lipkin Shahak, the number two in the Israeli Center Party (after Yitzhak Mordecai), was, until 5 or 6 months ago, a Prime Ministerial hopeful who was touted as being able to beat Benjamin Netanyahu or Ehud Barak in a popular vote. Amiram Levine is now Deputy head of the Mossad - having been appointed by one of the soldiers under his command more than 20 years ago - Benjamin Netanyahu.
Barak, Shahak, Amiram Levine, and more than a dozen others have something in common; they participated in units that took out some of the main leaders of the PLO terrorist infrastructure in Beirut in the Spring of 1973. Barak and Levine were in the Sayeret Matkal, an elite special operations and reconnaissance unit, while Shahak was a paratroop commander. They were assigned to take out PLO leaders responsible for heinous crimes against Israeli civilians, including the PLO raid on the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics in 1972, which resulted in the death of eleven Israeli athletes. German police refused the Israeli request to rescue her own athletes and the German police bungled the operation themselves. The Olympic games went on anyway.
Israeli Intelligence had been searching for the perpetrators of this and other terrorist acts for some time. They located them in the PLO terrorist haven of the 1970's and 1980's - Beirut, Lebanon.
Beirut was a mixture of the old and the new in the 1970's, but certainly the "most Western city of the Arab world", complete with high-rise hotels, banks, casinos, "French and Italian boutiques", beautiful beaches with bikini-clad Lebanese women (a rarity in the Arab world), and not far away, ski resorts which together attracted "the wealthiest of tourists and Arabs seeking political freedom in the Lebanese capital."
In 1973 Beirut had not yet collapsed into a smoldering inferno of destruction due to the rivalries of Sunni and Shiite Moslems, Maronite Christians, and the mountain Druze. At that time a balance among these groups still existed. But it was tenuous. And the tenuous nature of co-existence meant that a strong government did not impose its will on the population. With such an opportunity, the PLO moved in and took over much of South Lebanon and West Beirut, which they used as a base for terrorist operations against Israel.
The Palestinian presence in Lebanon had existed since 1948, when Arab refugees fled towns within the "Green Line" (the borders demarcating the state after the War of Independence of 1948-49) of modern-day Israel in fear of the Israeli Army. Refugees also fled to Jordan, which happened again after the 1967 War. In fact, so many Palestinian refugees entered Jordan that they formed a majority of the population - as they do today.
By 1970 the PLO presence in Jordan had grown large and confident enough to attempt to set up a PLO state within the kingdom of Jordan - which essentially amounted to a coup d'etat. King Hussein, after making concessions that did not work, moved in on the PLO guerilla forces in September 1970. His Bedouin troops were relentless and merciless. Two thousand Palestinians were killed by Jordanian troops at the time. Some Palestinians even fled to Israel to escape the wrath of the Jordanians. But far many more fled to Lebanon, where they once again set up the PLO infrastructure.
The Palestinians who kidnapped and then murdered 11 Israeli athletes in the Fall of 1972 called themselves Black September - after the September two years earlier when King Hussein's troops had massacred PLO forces.
Sayeret Matkal was put on the alert after the Munich massacre. But in the meantime, Mossad agents tracked down and eliminated Palestinian terrorists all over Western Europe.
In February 1973 the commander of the Sayeret Matkal, Ehud Barak, obtained photographs and precise information about the whereabouts of three PLO arch-terrorists in Beirut. His team immediately got to work, brainstorming ideas about how to take the PLO men out.
The fact that the Mossad and IDF special units not only knew that the three PLO men lived in the second and third floors of the same building, and that the third PLO man lived across the street, of course helped. The fact that Israeli Intelligence had the exact architectural plans of the buildings helped more.
The plan the Sayeret Matkal came up with was to enter Lebanon disguised as tourists. But they had to get there first - by land or by sea. They chose a sea route, off the coast of Lebanon.
Two weeks ago we learned about Shayetet 13 (the naval commandos) and the raid on and near- destruction of Green Island, the Egyptian stronghold in the middle of the Gulf of Suez. In that operation the naval commandos (Sayeret Matkal, we will recall, also participated in that operation) approached Green Island with Zodiac boats - rubber inflatables with outboard engines. The Sayeret Matkal would use the same technique this time, only being taken in missile boats until they approached closely enough to shore to lower the Zodiacs and go in the rest of the way on them.
The Sayeret Matkal needed exact information about the terrorists' apartments, which the Mossad provided. From the beach the attacking units "needed to get to the targets, about ten kilometers inside the city."
They eventually came up with the idea of sending three units to attack each of the three individual apartments, plus a guard unit standing outside the apartment to defend against Lebanese police or PLO back-ups. Ehud Barak led this guard unit. This unit would maintain contact with operational headquarters, located in the ships that would bring them to the Lebanese coast.
They decided on three cars in the end, which would be driven by Mossad operatives who knew the city well. They would drive the fighters to the apartments and pick them up after the operation was finished. The Sayeret Matkal units, disguised as civilian tourists, would be equipped with Uzis, small arms, and explosive charges, all hidden under their clothes.
They figured that the operation would take about "20 minutes from the first shots until PLO and Lebanese reinforcements arrived on the scene." They expected to be back on the beach then, ready to alight to the boats that would bring them back to Israel.
In addition to the three apartments, a unit from a paratroopers brigade, led by Amnon Shahak, was assigned to "hit the six-storey headquarters of the world's hijacking experts, George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine." Another paratroopers unit as well as the Shayetet 13 were to "raid weapons manufacturing facilities and fuel dumps that the PLO maintained in the Tyre-Sidon area."
The Sayeret Matkal units decided to go in not only disguised as tourists, but some of them were dressed as women as well. Ehud Barak and Amiram Levine were among the Israeli commandos who did so.
They practiced for the operation in apartment buildings in North Tel Aviv, similar in construction to those they would be assaulting in Beirut. In addition to penetration of the apartments, they practiced walking around as lovers, the men holding the "women."
Shortly before the operation Muki Betser, who was to lead one of the units, called a meeting. "'We're going on a very unusual operation,' (he) began. 'A civilian target in the heart of a city. The targets will have guards. They also might be armed, themselves. Civilians live all around them and we have to be extremely careful not to harm them.
'We have a lot of good intelligence. But the best intelligence we have is that these are people with blood on their hands.' I paused to let my words sink in. 'We are taking a relatively great risk. But we are convinced,' I said, knowing that I spoke for all the officers who planned the raid, 'that the level of risk is logical and reasonable.
If we do it right, we can get away without any harm. But anything can happen. That's true. If it does, we need to stay cool, take heart and remain confident that we know how to manage.'
I looked around at them. Only a couple of years younger than myself, I felt confident in all of them, and told them so. 'And because I have that confidence, I am convinced we will succeed.'"
At the last moment, Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of recent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joined Muki Betser's team. Yoni Netanyahu was considered by Muki Betser to be a "great fighter, terrifically motivated and powerfully courageous…" He continued to be involved in operations after this one and fell - the only Israeli commando to do so - at the Israeli raid and rescue of Israeli and other Jewish hostages at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1975.
The Sayeret Matkal not only planned the operation meticulously, but planned for unexpected errors, accidents, and interference as well.
They even practiced a bit of tom-foolery on the Chief of Staff after he put them through a particularly grueling exercise. There was no reaction from the military brass to their effrontery. "Always protected by a halo of glamour - for good and for bad - special force units are usually allowed certain liberties with respect to the formal hierarchy of the big army, and in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), no one was more special than Sayeret Matkal."
On Monday, April 9, they embarked from Haifa for the 7-hour boat ride to the coast of Beirut. The sea was calm and peaceful. The Zodiac boats were carried on larger missile boats until they approached the shore of Beirut. Then they lowered the Zodiacs into the water. They motored towards the Lebanese coast for a while, and when they were a few hundred meters off, they turned off the motors and rowed the rest of the way in.
When they got ashore, Mossad cars waited for them. Evidently the Mossad had had agents planted in Lebanon for some time before.
They got in the cars and received a report that three Lebanese policemen were unexpectedly patrolling the area in front of the apartments that they were supposed to attack. Ehud Barak made a quick decision to continue with the operation despite the obstacle. A call to headquarters could have easily led to the cancellation of the whole operation.
When they approached their target they got out of the cars and began walking like lovers, as they had planned. No one suspected them for anything else. As they passed the policemen, the policemen didn't even react to them. They got to the apartments and didn't see any guards there. Muki Betser's group went in, climbing the stairs at a half-run. They got to the door of one of the PLO men and set the explosive fuses. They waited for a signal from outside that the other two units had also set their explosives and were ready to act. They got the go-ahead. They lit the fuses and waited. When they would explode Ehud Barak would "report back to the mother ship that the operation began, setting in motion the rest of the IDF forces in Beirut that night."
Just before the fuse went off shooting broke out in the street below. The three units about ready to enter the rooms had no time to deal with that.
Muki Betser describes his part in the raid: "Finally, the explosion blew open the door in a blast of smoke. I burst in with Tzvika, instinctively taking the left-hand turn into the main corridor of the apartment, running down the hall I knew so well from my drills.
Four strides and I reached my target's office. Half a dozen empty chairs faced the desk. Behind it, filing cabinets reminded me that military intelligence wanted any piece of paper we found. To my right, said the architectural plans I memorized, was the master bedroom door. I swung in that direction, just as the door flew open.
The face I knew from three weeks of carrying his picture in my shirt pocket looked at me as I raised my gun. He slammed the door. Bursts from my Uzi and Tzvika's stitched the bedroom door. I rushed forward and kicked through the remains of the door." The PLO man, who was responsible for the Munich massacre of the Israeli athletes, was no more.
They ran quickly down the stairs to deal with the shooting they had heard just before they entered the rooms. The shooting outside was still going on.
The noise grew louder as they leaped, landing to landing, towards the bottom of the stairs and outside the building.
Muki Betser recalls: "Out the front door, I ducked into the shadow of a tree, scanning the intersection just as a burning Lebanese police Land Rover rolled through the intersection. Straight ahead, Amiram Levine in a blonde wig looked like a crazed dancer in the middle of the intersection, his tiny powerful body swinging his Uzi back and forth from target to target.
To my right, Ehud (Barak) stood in the middle of the intersection, doing the same. I added my own fire at the Land Rover, giving Amiram cover for him to run toward me. The Land Rover crashed to a halt against a building. But a second vehicle, a jeep full of reinforcements came screeching into the box of fire we created at the intersection." They took out this jeep as well.
They could hear explosions in the distance. It was, they assumed, Amnon Shahak's paratrooper unit at George Habash's headquarters.
The Mossad cars came screeching to a halt outside of the buildings and the fiery intersection they were waiting at. The Sayeret Matkal units, missions completed, jumped into the cars. Only two minutes had passed since they hit their targets in the buildings. Ehud Barak checked with the other Sayeret Matkal units. No one had been killed, but one commando had been wounded. No news as of then was known of the paratroopers who had attacked George Habash's six-storey building.
"Ehud cut off radio contact and we rushed in a crazy race down the hills of Beirut. The Mossad drivers knew the city and they knew the big American cars well enough to make them slip and slide around the corners as we raced through the city. No whooping and shouting broke out inside the getaway car. Each man sat alone with his thoughts, alert for enemy forces taking chase."
Outside of the neighborhood they had just wreaked havoc in they slowed down. Soon, before they were to turn off the road leading down to the beach, they saw a Lebanese Army troop carrier, scanning the shore. The Sayeret Matkal commandos inside of the Mossad-rented cars were tense as they waited for it to pass. The Lebanese didn't bother with them.
The commandos jumped out of the cars when they got to the beach. The operation had taken a little longer than expected - a half-hour instead of the anticipated 20 minutes.
As they motored out to sea, they found out what had happened. Three of the top PLO leaders they had intended to assassinate were dead. And George Habash's six-storey building was in rubble and ruins. In that raid, which Amnon Shahak had led, two IDF soldiers were killed . Shahak won a medal of valor as he saved the lives of wounded comrades under his command.
They didn't get Arafat, although they thought they might have gotten him there. But they had done what they set out to do.
Operation Spring of Youth is still known as one of the IDF's elite units' finest moments.
1). Colonel Muki Betser - Secret Soldier: The Incredible True Story of Israel's Greatest Commando
2). Ian Black and Benny Morris - Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services
3). Dennis Eisenberg, Uri Dan, and Eli Landau - The Mossad: Inside Stories
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