In the late 1960s, the man with the legendary black and white keffiyeh was the target of multiple assassination attempts by the Jewish state, believing that his death would kill the Palestinian national movement in the bud. The leader probably does not suspect that he owes part of his salvation to the scruples of those who are chasing him.
Lt. Col. Uzi Dayan had just arrived in Nahariya with his wife, Tamar, on June 4, 1982, when a rain of rockets from Lebanon interrupted his honeymoon. While the Minister of Defense, Ariel SharonHe was flying urgently for the final preparations for Operation Peace in Galilee. He set out and joined the 188th Tank Brigade just in time to cross the border. "It was only a few days later," he recalls, "when we had just taken a position on the outskirts of Beirut, that Meir Dagan came to me to give me a very special job."
The six-man team he headed into an empty apartment has an unobstructed view of the Lebanese capital. Dubbed "Dag Maluach" ("salt fish", in Hebrew), it is in constant contact with the air force, as well as with the unit charged with wiretapping. His mission: to comb the city to locate Yasser Arafat and coordinate his elimination. In the following weeks, more than a dozen air strikes will be conducted under his orders against buildings where the Palestinian leader is suspected of having taken refuge.
"Kill them all"
This history page, long held secret, is today unveiled by the journalist Ronen Bergman in a book to be published in English *. He recounts the numerous assassination attempts by the Israeli army and secret services, beginning in the late 1960s, against the man with the legendary black and white keffiyeh. From the first Fatah guerrilla operations in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Arafat was identified as a formidable adversary. Part of the security apparatus begins to consider that its elimination would kill the Palestinian national movement in the bud. He is in turn hunted in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where he lives in hiding, then in Jordan and Beirut.
In 1979, the increasing number of deadly raids carried out by Palestinian armed groups from Lebanon reinforced the resolve of Israeli generals. "Kill them all," ordered Rafael Eitan, army chief of staff, after the killing of a civilian and his 4-year-old daughter in Nahariya.
Three years later, while preparing to deploy 76,000 troops in southern Lebanon, Ariel Sharon makes the liquidation of the Palestinian leader a priority. It will therefore Yasser Arafat a mixture of luck and prudence out of the ordinary to escape this formidable killing machine. "It was a particularly complex mission," says Uzi Dayan, "because he was hiding among the innocent and never slept for two nights in a row."
A bomb of a ton
Under pressure from their hierarchy, the men of Dag Maluach track it relentlessly and neglect no clue. "Every time we trace it," said Dayan, "we only had a very short time to assess the reliability of the intelligence, to measure the risk of causing collateral damage, to choose the appropriate ammunition, and finally to decide whether the was worth the candle. "
In the heart of the summer of 1982, the leader of the PLO becomes more and more elusive as explosions multiply in his wake. But he does not perhaps suspect that he owes part of his salvation to the scruples of the men who hunt him down. In the dim light of their headquarters, Uzi Dayan and his subordinates constantly weigh the pros and cons. The day they are informed that their target has found refuge in the basement of a building of ten floors, they hesitate for long minutes. It would take a bomb of one ton to liquidate the fugitive, and it could make hundreds of victims. At the last moment, they give up the green light.
Send a group of killers in the footsteps of a journalist
"On a number of occasions during these stalking weeks, Eitan became angry and reminded me that choosing targets was his responsibility," says Dayan. But Dag Maluach's boss also knows that the decision to hit or wait is ultimately up to him. At the beginning of July, a debate begins within the team to know if it is legitimate to send a group of killers in the steps of the Israeli journalist Uri Avnery, who is about to cross the enemy lines to interview Arafat, at the risk of putting one's life at risk. Their response is positive but the PLO's security services, suspicious, manage to thwart the plot.
On two or three other occasions, the small team is convinced they have their target in the viewfinder, but they are unlucky - like the day the missile fired on their orders sprays a local a few minutes before the arrival of the Palestinian leader. "Do not misunderstand the meaning of our hesitations," Uzi Dayan insists. We were all convinced that Arafat was a legitimate target. But it also seemed to us that we did not have the right to kill dozens of innocent people to achieve this goal. "
On August 30, 1982, after weeks of intense bombing, Dag Maluach's mission was abruptly suspended when an agreement under US pressure ended the siege of Beirut. Some 14,000 PLO fighters are allowed to leave the city by boat, under the protection of a Franco-American escort, to Athens and Tunis. "That day we had a sniper near the port holding Arafat in sight," says Dayan, but Menachem Begin, who gave his word, denied him permission to fire ... "
The truce, however, will only be short-lived. A few days after the exfiltration of the Palestinian leader, the Minister of Defense orders to find his way. "Ariel Sharon, who did not forget any Israeli victim of terrorism, felt personal hatred against him," said Reserve General David Ivry. Former commander of the Air Force, this septuagenarian now runs the Israeli subsidiary of the Boeing Group. His office, located on the 16th floor of a tower next to the Ministry of Defense, offers breathtaking views of Tel Aviv.
From the Israeli invasion in the last days of December 1982, Ivry was one of the key players in the secret campaign to kill the PLO leader. "It was ten years before Oslo," he says, "and everyone had the name of Israeli civilians killed by his fault." Several dozen times, he ordered his pilots to take off, then stand ready to target Arafat's supposed hideouts in Beirut. "Before any strike," he said, "I insisted on getting as much detail as possible about the nature of the target and the number of civilians likely to be in the area." An inaccurate science, he admits, that led to civilian casualties, but no doubt allowed his target to escape an announced death.
And the exercise got even worse when the Palestinian leader, once in Athens, disappeared into the wild. "In the fall, continues David Ivry, rumors signaling leaving for such an Arab capital multiplied. It was then that we were ordered to be ready to shoot down aircraft in full flight from which it could take place ... "
On October 23, 1982, it was approximately 4.30 pm when the Air Force boss received a message from Athens. Arafat, he is assured, has just been located at the airport and is preparing to board a DHC-5 Buffalo bound for Cairo. In the next quarter of an hour, David Ivry ordered two F-15s stationed on the Tel Nof base, south of Tel Aviv, to take off. "That day," he explains, "I personally briefed the unit commander that the pilots were prohibited from firing until I ordered them."
The general, who organized the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad sixteen months earlier, is not his first sensitive mission. But a detail, this time, crumples it. "I did not understand what he was going to do in Egypt," he says, while the agreement with Washington expressly provided for him to return to Tunis. "Once and then two, he asks Mossad to check his" while both hunters approach their target at high speed. But the more minutes pass, and more doubts deepen. Twenty Palestinians wounded during the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, it is now said, took their seats aboard the plane. And here we are talking about a brother doctor who strangely resembles Yasser Arafat. At 5:23 pm, David Ivry enters into communication with his pilots. "Turn around," he told them. You go home. "
Ariel Sharon, says Ronen Bergman, was not discouraged by these missed opportunities and even planned to shoot down airliners on which the PLO leader was suspected of having taken place. But the window gradually closed as Arafat, in the 1980s, resigned himself to negotiating a political settlement of the conflict and gained respectability. The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. She made him an untouchable actor before the explosion of violence during the second intifada woke up Israel's wrath until his death in November 2004. "Today," sighs Uzi Dayan, "I am convinced that his elimination would have changed the course of history and saved a lot of lives."
* Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel'sTargeted Assassinations, Random House.
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- Death of Arafat: the mysteries of education
- Ariel Sharon, the obstinate dream of the old warrior
Source: © How Israel vainly tracked Yasser Arafat