The Lavon Affair, Mossad's First Operation in Egypt

The Lavon Affair, Mossad's First Operation in Egypt

The scorching sun in the summer of 1954 was emblematic of the highly tense Egyptian political scene. Negotiations over the departure of the British from Egypt were underway, whereas General Mohamed Nagiub and leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser were at loggerheads with each other. Hot kisses between big screen stars Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif in their blockbuster "The Blazing Sun" only did little to alleviate such thorny issues.

By January, the Operation Susannah case was finally over after 13 Jews stood trial for espionage charges at the Cairo-based High Court House.

According to Al-Ahram newspaper, the defendants looked terrified during the session in which the verdict was to be returned. Maurice looked pale, a completely silent Moshe Marzouk maintained a long face and could not hold his head up, and Shmuel Azar was praying.

On 27 January 1995, Marzouk and Azar were slapped the death penalty, other defendants were sentenced to prison and hard labor while a third group was exonerated. The ruling did not mention Avraham Dar and Paul Frank -- the only two agents who escaped -- or Meir Max Bineth who committed suicide while in detention ahead of the court session.

Build-Up to a Scandal

In early 1954, Israel was fearful of how its future would unfold, particularly as then US president Dwight D. Eisenhower was not much of a staunch ally of Israel. As a matter of fact, he was eyeing thawing ties with Abdel-Nasser as the British were set to withdraw their forces from the Suez Canal, according to Yossi Melman's book "The Spies".

Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion and chief of staff Moshe Dayan believed the Arab nations were seriously contemplating avenging their 1948 humiliating defeat at the hands of the nascent Jewish state, said Mohamed Hassanein Heikal in his book "Suez Files".

Under the circumstances, the Israeli military intelligence drew out a plan for a preemptive strike against Egypt. It consisted of several steps, including recruiting young men to carry out attacks on theaters, state institutions, cultural centers, diplomatic cars and British citizens.

The purpose was to shake the international community's faith in the Egyptian regime and consequently the west would withhold Egypt-bound military aids, according to a study titled "Israel's Sacred Terrorism" and conducted by researcher Livia Rokach.

Before the execution of the plan, Ben-Gurion stepped down as Prime Minister over political disagreements and moved to a settlement in Negev. However, his allies forged the signature of the new Minister of Defense Pinhas Lavon, who was part of Moshe Sharett's cabinet, on official documents to activate the mission, according to Rokach.

Zero Hour

It is 7pm on 16 June, 1954. "The Housewives" program is underway on Radio Israel, explaining how to make an English cake. This means it is zero hour; the program is sending coded messages to the cell tasked with acts of sabotage to start their mission.

Evry Gilad was an Israeli army leader who was relieved of his duties in 1951 after being charged with stealing a fridge. He later joined Unit 131 that is specialized in sabotaging operations and black propaganda behind enemy lines, according to The Spies.

Based on intelligence directives, Gilad arrived in Alexandria in 1954 and held a franchise of a German electronics company in Egypt. He impersonated Major Paul Frank, who went AWOL after German intelligence had sent him to Palestine.

Also, Lieutenant Colonel Mordechai Ben-Tsur, the man in charge of Unit 131, recruited Major Avraham Dar who is renowned for encouraging Jewish emigration from Europe to Israel. Ben-Tsur entered Egypt with a British passport under the name John Darling, before establishing the espionage unit that operated in Cairo and Alexandria.

It is almost 11am on 2 July 1954. In Alexandria, Philip Natanson confidently approaches a mailbox into which he slides a small wrap. He tries to maintain his composure by chewing a gum. Simultaneously, Victor Levy and Robert Dassa put similar wraps in other mailboxes.

The US mail office in Alexandria was burned and people died as a result. When Egyptian investigative officer Mamdouh Salem went to the scene, he found bits of red phosphorus inside a glass case, which meant it was an arson attack caused by a chemical reaction. Nevertheless, the press did not pay attention to these details, said Adel Hamouda in his book "Operation Susannah".

On 14 July, Dassa walked into the American Cultural Association in Alexandria along with a young hot girl; he left a glass case behind. The American libraries in Cairo and Alexandria were set ablaze, which saw some of the workers and customers injured. The press referred to the incidents as electric fires.

Caught by Chance

On the evening of 23 July 1954, Police Captain Hassan Al-Manawi happened to be passing through Fouad Street in Alexandria when he suddenly heard calls for help. Natanson was storming out of Rio Cinema as his trousers caught fire. The officer threw him on the ground and rolled him over repeatedly until the flames were put out.

While the young man was later removing dirt off his trousers as he held a glass case, a bit of black powder was scattered on the ground, hence one of the cell members was arrested. While being interrogated inside Al-Attarin Police Station, Natanson told the police about Levy, admitting to being a member of an Israeli cell, Ahmed Adel, head of the studies unite of Group 73 Historians told Raseef22.

Quotes

Share TweetOn the evening of 16 June 1954, "The Housewives" program on Radio Israel is underway explaining how to make an English cake. This was the signal to start premeditated acts of sabotage in Egypt

Share TweetPolice Captain Al-Manawi happened to be passing through Fouad Street in Alexandria when Natanson was storming out of Rio Cinema as his trousers caught fire. He was the first Lavon Affair agent to be arrested

It was planned that day to plant explosive devices at a train station and Rivoli Theater in Cairo as well as Metro and Rio cinemas in Alexandria.

Security forces raided Natanson's house where they found a photo with a sentence written on its back: "Victor, Robert and Philip: friends forever". There were also videotapes explaining how to make bombs and use walkie-talkie codes. Arrest warrants were issued against the other two agents.

No sooner had Robert Dassa entered his house than a firearm was pointed at him. He had put a fire bomb in a bag placed inside the storehouse of the Cairo Railways.

According to Adel, the three friends insisted during interrogations that they had embarked onto a sabotage spree to force the Brits to leave Egypt.

The forensic report proved that the glass cases were filled with potassium chlorate, zinc, iron oxide and aluminum powder.

An investigative officer escorted Victor Levy to the cell's headquarters in Alexandria to look for the walkie-talkie the agents were using but they could not find it. Levy pointed the finger at Shmuel Azar and accused him of stealing the radio equipment. Security forces waited at the headquarters until they arrested him on 27 July, according to "Operation Susannah".

Azar led the police to the fifth agent when he confessed that the cell's funds were at Meir Meyuhas' disposal. The latter purchased EGP 500 worth of materials to make Molotov cocktails.

Thanks to Meyuhas' confessions, Egyptian security arrested Moshe Marzouk, who founded the cell's Cairo branch. Most agents started falling one after another: Marcelle Nino, Max Bineth, Eli Jacob, Meir Za'afran and Youssef Cohen. Nonetheless, the most dangerous two members of the network -- John Darling and Evry Gilad -- managed to run away.

Young woman Marcelle was the link between the group in Egypt and the high command in Paris. The payments she received amounted for EGP 1000.

Before the trial, guard Ahmed Zaher opened the door of Max Bineth's cell after he heard low moans of pain. He found the defendant bleeding after cutting his wrist.

Bineth visited Egypt three times, the last of which was in 1953. He bolstered his ties with Egyptian military leaders on the pretext of importing prosthetics from Germany for soldiers who lost limbs in action, said Richard Deacon in his book "The Israeli Secret Service".

Swap Deal

In his diary, Moshe Sharett downplays widely propagated claims that the arrested spies were tortured. "We cannot deny that our imprisoned citizens received humane treatment," he said.

According to British writer David Hirst's book, "The Gun and the Olive Branch", the members of the secret cell -- excluding Marzouk and Azar who had been executed in Egypt -- were given heroes' reception in Israel after they were freed in a prisoner-exchange deal between both countries.

In Marcelle's wedding, Moshe Dayan told her, "The six-day war has achieved enough success to release you".

In 1955, Gilad was urgently summoned to testify in the case. He blamed the failed operations on the cell's members in Egypt. But in his diary, titled "The Decadence of Honor", he puts his false testimony down to Dayan's orders that aimed at protecting Israel's image. Gilad also claimed that Mossad had sought to expose the Egypt-based agents to shame the military intelligence and cause it to lose its dominance, citing an internal power struggle.

Ben-Gurion's Military Secretary Nehemiah Argov wrote in a confidential document that was recently revealed, "We have established a sabotage unit that works as a commandos unit behind enemy lines". He said Lavon had instructed the unit to target Brits in order to leave an impression that Egyptian Islamists were the culprits, which would abysmally affect Egypt's relations with the UK.

The Israeli press delved into this case after many years, stressing that the operation was executed because the signature of Lavon had been forged.

In the late 1970s, Marcelle, Meir Za'afran and Dassa lambasted their country on TV, saying it did not exert enough efforts to instigate their release, according to Ahmed Adel of Group 73 Historians.

Moshe Sharett in his diary mentions struggles between Israel military leaders. "I have never imagined that we would reach such a horrific status," he said.

In Egypt, the Lavon Affair accelerated the establishment of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate in 1955 under the supervision of Zakaria Mohieddin.

Ibrahim Eid

An Egyptian journalist who holds a bachelor's degree in mass communication from the Cairo University. He has worked with different news websites in Egypt throughout his career.

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