"Operation brothers": Online Defense interviews Mossad agent Yola Reitman

(To Francesco Bergamo)
07/08/19

Il Mossad in the collective imagination it is the best secret service in the world. The capture of Eichmann, the Six Day War and other operations helped to consolidate its reputation, but the reality surpasses the imagination and this is the story of the largest Jewish rescue ever implemented by the agency. Online Defense interviews Yola Reitman, Mossad agent operating from 1981 to 1984 in Sudan. Here is the incredible story and the character and psychological side of Yola.

For centuries in Ethiopia a Jewish community was active that had the desire to arrive in Israel. The war and the famine began among the Beta Israel, scattered in 500 villages located mainly in the North of Ethiopia, to a massive exodus on foot along the desert to arrive exhausted, hungry and decimated by bandits in the refugee camps of the Sudan, Muslim country member of the Arab League and bitter enemy of Israel. The data is not accurate but about 1.700 Jews died from diseases, violent acts and malnutrition before arriving in refugee camps.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem begin could not let their drama wear out like this and therefore gave an exceptional order to the head of Mossad: "Bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel". But to pick them up was really a crazy undertaking, because the Mossad he was not prepared for such operations. Furthermore, it was not possible to pass any Beta Israel overland for Egypt as an enemy. The sea remained.

The Intelligence Agency began to organize a team of undercover agents with particular characteristics that would not arouse suspicion: personnel that could be exchanged for Europeans. Men and women capable of operating in a marine environment and under cover as tour operators. Hefraim Halevy, director of the Mossad from the 1998 to the 2002, then in charge of the mission, said in an interview: "The operation took place in an area where we had limited reconnaissance capabilities. We had no way of knowing if we had been discovered or not. The people we recruited did not have time for adequate training. I made that decision and took the shortest route. We took some people, some Israelis, and trained them. We took intensive courses on how to operate under false identity in enemy territory "1.

The first stroke of luck helped the Mossad: a small tourist village with red roofs in disuse in a beach of the Red Sea, built by an Italian company, was ideal for the whole operation. The base was located at about 65-70 km north of Port Sudan and became the "Arous on the Red Sea" resort, which duly publicized immediately attracted many divers from all over the world. The cost of the three-year rental, paid by Mossad via dummy, it was 320.000 dollars2.

The team Mossad did things right: the resort took off as a popular destination for divers and the cover worked, so much so that theOperation Brothers closed its balance sheet with 12.000 exiled Ethiopian Jews. An incredible success, for a terribly complex operation, just think that one night in a bend at 5 km away from resort Sudanese military fell in the middle of the operation: only the cold of the chief operation prevented a tragic outcome for all. The operation continued by transporting the Beta Israel with Zodiac until offshore where there were the commandos of the Israeli Navy who took their deliveries, took them to international waters and loaded them on board the "military" ship Bat Galim.

Once the agents had heard that their cover was about to leap, within a night an Israeli air force Hercules plane disappeared leaving the vacationers, the next morning, with the surprise of not finding anyone anymore. The extraction of Ethiopian Jews continued with other operations in the coming years (1984, Op Moses, 8.000 exfiltrated; '85, Op. Joshua, 500; '91, Op. Solomon, 15.000; 2012, Op. Where's Wings, 8.000), but the resort it was no longer used.

This story, which is incredible because of the way it was set up and the large number of people saved, was possible thanks to certain characteristics of the agents and their excellent organization. (Those interested in learning more can read the beautiful book "Mossad Exodus" of Gad Shimron, one of the protagonists, and watch on Netflix the four episodes of "Inside the Mossad". On Netflix, the film has also been available for a few days "Red Sea Diving Resort").

Second John le Carré "The secret services are an indicator of the political health of a nation and the only true expression of its subconscious". What the well-known novelist could do is enough, but what specifically makes the Mossad so special, envied and admired all over the world? It is an agency so far ahead of the times that a former agent can give an interview when other agencies intelligence they don't even answer phone calls and emails. It is a question to ask, because a possible answer could be that an excellent secret service is not such only because it has more money than others, but above all because its agents have deeper and more solid motivations.

Yola, given that to do this job you need excellent uninterrupted acting skills for years, could you tell your Defense Online readers your story?

During the whole mission most of us pretended to be someone else, day and night, day after day. After a while you forget your true identity and feel completely the other. Grow in your role. Before this mission, I did not play on stage or anywhere else. I worked as a flight attendant for El Al. The Israeli airline.

Before entering the Mossad, how did you imagine it was to be an undercover operative?

Before joining the Mossad I was an avid reader of the books of John le Carré and some others. I read books about the well-known WWII intelligence operations and my favorite movies were spy movies action. I must admit that even the detective stories captured my imagination. In Israel, we have an ongoing conflict with our neighbors and military issues, espionage stories and heroic actions are many and a constant presence. Through reading, I had an idea, but reality has exceeded all imagination.

What did you do before being recruited and how did your career start as an operative agent?

Before being recruited, I worked as a flight service manager, I was also the owner of a yacht, I was a diver and obviously I spoke several languages. This was why I was considered an ideal candidate for recruitment. I obviously had to show other skills too.

How old were you?

I had 30 years, then.

What were the deepest motivations that led you to accept the assignment?

My motivation was the story of my people and the history of my family: living in the Jewish state, after almost all my family had died in the war, having to defend our life forever. And above all, wanting to do something meaningful. I had that illusion of saving the world, from childhood.

As a woman, what were the biggest difficulties to face?

At that time, for me, the biggest difficulty was to be accepted as men. When you are a woman, people tend to protect you more, as if you were facing a more serious danger. I really had to show that there was no difference. On the other hand, as a woman, I had advantages and abilities that men did not possess.

How did you manage the fear?

You put it aside and don't let it interfere with your daily actions. You are careful, cautious, but certainly not afraid.

Al resort what was your role as a facade and the real one?

My role in the resort was to manage the hotel, in every aspect, to make it look authentic. I spent the time between the rescue operations, in the resort (which was also our headquarters) and the organization of logistics, with local trucks and equipment.

I also kept in contact with key local figures, important for supplying us with fuel, information, etc.

Finally, I had to take care of our secret communication and was responsible for our budget.

How did you manage affections and work at the same time?

Affection and work. You can do it if you have the ability to free your mind and concentrate on the moment. I was able to put my personal life at a distance and completely forget about my loved ones for a while.

On a personal level, participate in the operation Brothers What contribution has it made to your character and your personality? What has improved and what has worsened?

An experience like this is an opportunity to test yourself in various situations and different areas. I think that in many ways I have improved. I had to sharpen my senses, practice my resourcefulness and strengthen self-confidence.

I became more mature and reliable. On the other hand, the taste for adventure and excitement has helped to strengthen my unconsciousness. I am still adventurous today and very restless. Perhaps these too were the traits that made me so fit for the mission.

When you were alone in your room, what ritual allowed you to maintain the psychological balance and the link with your original identity? What has allowed you not to go crazy with tension?

Alone in the room, in fact I could have gone back to being myself. I was so immersed in my role that the problem did not burden. I really liked pretending to be someone else. I kept my mind occupied with books and studies and, in any case, I had my partner next to me, the other diving instructor, who was part of the team. When we were alone there, we were against the world, a pact.

Based on your experience, as a woman, what are the psychological boundaries that should never be crossed?

There are psychological boundaries that you should not cross, but they are not different for a man. An important thing that you must remember in such a situation is that all those around you, who obviously are not part of your team, are actually enemies, even when you feel a strong friendship. You can't trust your true identity or the smallest secret to anyone, no matter how much you like it. Your life and the life of your team depend on your ability to keep people away from your inner life.

How much must an emancipated woman who works under cover adapt and submit to the local culture? How heavy is it?

My role and my title in Sudan kept me in a position where I could be very free, very dominant and with the respect of the local people. I lived far from the city, away from the crowd, therefore independent. Local culture was not something I had to submit to. On the contrary, the people of the local tribes considered me a kind of wise woman, although I was young, and came to me for medicine and advice, bringing me presents.

Women by nature are more attentive to human details. Has this peculiar ability helped you to avoid making mistakes and to counter Sudan's counter-intelligence?

In fact, Sudanese security has kept an eye on our group, often questioning us, trying to figure out what we were doing. The fact that I was a woman made them more curious, but also more indulgent in a sense. The doors opened more easily for me, important dignitaries made me friends. The whole group of people seemed normal with a female figure similar to them. This kind of friendship turned out to be important when I was secretly warned of a planned raid against us. When it happened we were prepared.

In an increasingly technologically advanced society, will the Humint world, seen on the side of women, be ever more important or will it be scaled down for the benefit of men?

I think that today, anyone with technological abilities will be able to succeed in future operations, whether it is a man or a woman. The cyber cannot completely replace Humint and there is still a fundamental role for people capable of both sexes. The world sees more and more women entering so-called male areas and it will be completely natural for women to take on any role. In fact it is already happening in the Mossad.

What advice do you feel you can give to women, even Italians, who wish to pursue this profession?

The advice I can give to any woman, Italian or not, is that they should never think that there is a profession that is not suitable for a woman, if you wish to pursue it. If they possess the requisite qualities, with regard to the character and the type of activity, they should go and do it. You are happiest when you do what you want, regardless of tradition, customs or education.

Last question ... if James Bond drinks Vodka-Martini, what does Yola Reitman drink?

Actually I love Vodka Double Espresso with ice.

1 Netflix, "Inside the Mossad"

2 Gad Shimron, "Mossad Exodus"