“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 solidify its reputation, but reality outweighs the imagination and this is the story of the agency's largest Jewish rescue ever. Defense Online 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 organizing a team of undercover agents with particular characteristics not to arouse suspicion: personnel who could be mistaken for Europeans. Men and women capable of operating in the marine environment and undercover as tour operators. Hefraim Halevy, director of Mossad from 1998 to 2002, then head 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 for the way it was set up and for the large number of people saved, was possible thanks to certain characteristics of the agents and their excellent organization. (Anyone interested in learning more can read the beautiful book "Mossad Exodus" by Gad Shimron, one of the protagonists, and watch 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 entire 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 like the other. Grow in your role. Prior to this mission, I did not act on stage, nor 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 of some others. I read books on the well-known intelligence operations of WWII and my favorite films were spy films 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 I was recruited, I worked as a flight service manager, I was also the owner of a yacht, I was a diver and obviously spoke several languages. This was why I was considered an ideal candidate for recruiting. I obviously had to show other skills as well.

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 greatest difficulty was to be accepted as men. When you are a woman, people tend to protect you more, as if you are facing greater danger. I really had to prove 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 organizing the logistics, with local trucks and equipment.

I also maintained contact with key local figures who were important for refueling, 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 have become more mature and reliable. On the other hand, the taste for adventure and excitement helped strengthen my unconsciousness. I am still adventurous today and very restless. Perhaps these too were the traits that made me so suitable 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, I could in fact be myself again. I was so immersed in my role that the problem didn't burden. I really enjoyed pretending to be someone else. I kept my mind busy with books and studies and in any case I had my partner, the other dive instructor, who was part of the team, close to me. When we were alone there, it was us 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 confide 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, Sudan Security kept an eye on our group, often questioning us, trying to understand what we were doing. The fact that I was a woman made them more curious, but also more indulgent in a way. Doors opened more easily for me, important dignitaries made me friends. The whole group of people looked normal with a female figure similar to them. This kind of friendship proved 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 skills will be able to succeed in future operations, be it a man or a woman. Cyber ​​cannot completely replace Humint and there is still a pivotal role for capable people of both genders. The world is seeing more and more women penetrating the so-called male areas and it will be completely natural for women to take on any role. It is actually 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 they want to pursue it. If they have the required qualities, as far as character and activity type are concerned, they should go and do it. You are happiest when you do what you want, regardless of tradition, customs or upbringing.

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"