Syria reactor strike: Remembering that decisive evening in September 2007

From his seat in military headquarters as IDF spokesman, Avi Benayahu witnessed the events leading up to the 2007 attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor.

By AVI BENAYAHU
March 23, 2018 18:34
Syria reactor strike: Remembering that decisive evening in September 2007

An undated image released on March 21, 2018 by the Israeli military relates to an Israeli air strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor site near Deir al-Zor on Sept 6, 2007. (photo credit: IDF)

 
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It was 2 a.m. on the eve of September 6, 2007. The prime minister, a handful of other ministers and senior IDF personnel had just dispersed from the war room known as the “pit,” leaving a senior officer on duty to deal with any surprises that might arise. Just one hour previously, everyone gathered here had finally breathed a sigh of relief that the operation had been concluded successfully. We all knew, however, that this could also be the beginning of an entirely new conflict.

I accompanied IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and his security detail up to the 14th floor of the General Staff building (aka the Kirya military headquarters). We sat in the room, just the two of us. Ashkenazi whipped out a pack of Europa cigarettes, and lit up his umpteenth cigarette of the day. We sat there looking out at the first Jewish city below us, which would soon wake up to a new day.

Then Ashkenazi turned to me and said, “Benayahu, where do you sleep at night?”

I replied, “Here, in my office on the 10th floor.”

“Go to sleep, Benayahu. Soon someone will wake up Bashar Assad and update him with the details of tonight’s events. Go to sleep, Benayahu. We might just wake up in a few hours to a Tel Aviv with a completely different skyline,” Ashkenazi said sarcastically.

I was a bit shocked, but he just smiled and started getting ready for bed.

Just four months earlier, I’d been appointed IDF spokesman for the General Staff. My main task was to rehabilitate the army and restore the public’s trust in the IDF in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War.

One day, not long after I’d begun my new position, I came upon Ashkenazi as I walked down the corridor. With a mysterious smile on his face, he whispered to me, “Go see the head of the Operations Division. He wants to update you on something.”

Since I was a seasoned journalist by trade, I couldn’t help but try to convince Ashkenazi to divulge more information, but he just said I’d find out soon enough.

Two days later, after I’d signed forms granting me preferential access to confidential material and passed a polygraph test, I found myself sitting next to Brig.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi (now deputy chief of staff) in the offices of Maj.-Gen. Tal Russo.

Russo opened the discussion, saying, “The Syrians have built a nuclear reactor with help from North Korea. It was constructed under complete secrecy and hidden from the Iranians and Hezbollah. We’re going to attack it soon. Get ready – update yourself regarding the operational process and take all necessary precautions.

“But do not discuss any of this with anyone. Go see cabinet secretary Israel Maimon – he’ll be leading the national information team.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – a Syrian nuclear reactor right under our noses? With North Korea? I would have understood if one had been built in Egypt, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. I was a newbie, but Russo and Kochavi were seasoned officers.

After a minute or so, I regained my composure and added my two cents.

“I’ll try to enlist all of the political and security information I can. But I can’t imagine Olmert would approve such a plan after what happened during the Second Lebanon War,” I warned.

They laughed and told me that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had already given his approval.
Colonel A. on the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (Marc Israel Sellem/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

“Well, you received approval to plan an attack, but let’s wait and see if you’re given the green light to proceed with it,” I replied.

I returned to my office on the 10th floor and told my secretary that I was not to be disturbed. I understood immediately that attacking a nuclear reactor in Syria was no small matter. This would be completely different from the Israel Air Force attack on the Iraqi reactor decades before. I also understood that an attack on a nuclear reactor in Syria could be the catalyst to a deterioration of the status quo and possibly even a war with Syria and Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran. And we had only just begun to recover from the Second Lebanon War, which had left us morally shattered.

I was in a complete panic about the whole thing. I looked around me at the others sitting in the room – Ashkenazi and his deputy, Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky; IAF commander Gen. Eliezer Shkedi; and Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, who was head of Military Intelligence, to name a few. Everyone there was still smarting from the last war, and steeling themselves for the upcoming release of the Winograd Report. And now they needed to quickly prepare Israeli forces for another round of war that could be even longer and more destructive.

Immediately after Olmert had charged the chief of staff with the responsibility of overseeing the attack, the IDF went into full prewar preparations, with activity around the clock. Intensive training began for regular army and reserve units. Operational plans were finalized and lessons from previous operations were reviewed. All of this, including the plans for the Deir al-Zor reactor attack, was carried out in complete secrecy.

Rescue forces were gathered and soldiers specializing in electronic warfare were brought up to speed. IDF public relations experts were ready to deal with the aftermath of such an attack. We needed to be prepared to interact with the international media, foreign governments and even the UN.

Throughout these long days, I couldn’t believe that Olmert – who had been saved by the skin of his teeth after the Second Lebanon War, when OC Northern Command, the chief of staff and the defense minister all resigned – had approved an operation that was liable to drag the region and Israel into another war. But I was so wrong. Olmert showed great commitment to Israel’s security, which he put far above his personal considerations. He demonstrated extraordinary courage and determination despite the intense pressures he faced. I felt great admiration toward Olmert.

Before and after aerial picture of the Syrian nuclear reactor site. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE).

Just before I was appointed IDF spokesperson, when I was still head of Army Radio, I remember being surprised when Ehud Barak, who was defense minister at the time, canceled a trip to Paris. How could he do that? I wondered. Looking back, I realize that Barak had been part of the top secret team made up of Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and David Ivri, who were brought together to offer their insights gathered over years of experience.

Ashkenazi put together a small team to assess the situation beforehand, and also to prepare for the aftermath of the attack. This team included his deputy, Maj. Gen. Kaplinsky; the commander of the IAF; the heads of Military Intelligence, the planning directorate, operations, research, and myself, the IDF spokesman. Most of the generals in the General Staff were not privy to this top secret information.

The date was to be set using the following parameters: heat and exposure. In other words, the important factors were the temperature of the reactor and before plans of the attack were leaked.

A number of Israeli journalists were interested in publicizing information about the Syrian nuclear reactor – namely, Barak Ravid, Ilil Shahar, Udi Segal and Roni Daniel – but every request was rejected. It was getting more and more difficult to keep the story under wraps.


Kaplinsky, who was supposed to be leaving his position, was asked to stay on by the chief of staff and defense minister, in case Israel was drawn into war. Kaplinsky’s experience was significant, and the canceling of his plans to study in the US was described in an announcement to the media as the result of a change in plans. Delays in the changing of the guard for other positions, including my own, were also announced.

Ashkenazi was busy working day and night to prepare for the success of the mission, to prevent another war from breaking out, and for a course of action if it unfortunately did. He participated in secret IAF training sessions, approved plans, perused reports prepared by the Mossad and Military Intelligence, and prepared the IDF for a potentially long and difficult war on the northern front.

The time had come. Conditions were ripe for the attack. Military Intelligence and the technological and operational branches were all prepared. Officials in the diplomatic arena were at the ready to go into action the moment the attack was completed.

A picture of all the IAF pilots that participated in the operation of bombing a Syrian nuclear reactor. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

Ironically enough, the evening of the planned attack we were all invited to the wedding of Oron, from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, and Liron, the chief of staff’s secretary.

We used this event as an excuse to explain why we were all too busy to speak with any journalists who were investigating rumors they’d heard and noticed that the lights in the Kirya had remained bright much later than usual.

When one military correspondent asked me what was going on and where I was, I was thankfully able to reply that I was busy – at Liron and Oron’s wedding.

The next question was, “Where is the chief of staff?” to which I replied that he was right next to me, eating pargiyot. I then proceeded to hand my cellphone to Ashkenazi so he could comment on the quality of the wedding fare himself.

The wedding was being officiated by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall. Ashkenazi turned to him and said, “Rabbi, I have an important mission for you to fulfill. You are to go straight from here to pray at the Kotel for the safety of IDF commanders and soldiers and the entire State of Israel.

“What’s happened?” the rabbi asked with concern.

“You must learn to carry out orders,” Ashkenazi replied with a smile.

Two hours later, we were deeply ensconced in the “pit” doing a last-minute review of the timeline. The quiet was such that it could be cut with a knife. We all stood gazing at two separate screens; one was a satellite image of the reactor in Syria, and the other was the Ynet website, which we kept checking to make sure news of the attack had not been leaked to the media. We waited, our eyes glued to the screen, praying that the attack would be a surprise, that it would be completed in full, without complications, and that all our soldiers would return home unscathed.

And so it came to pass, the operation was concluded without any snags.

The prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister were all very pleased with the outcome, but there was also a deep sense of anxiety about possible Syrian reactions. It was clear to us that the operation must be kept under complete secrecy in order to give Assad time to evaluate the situation and decide how he was going to deal with the fact that he had hidden the nuclear reactor from his closest colleagues.

The next day, the chief of staff convened a special staff meeting. The excitement was palpable since most of those present had not been privy to any details ahead of the attack. IAF commander Shkedi spoke emotionally about the young major who had taken part in the complicated and heroic plan. Ashkenazi cautioned the group about a possible escalation in violence and reviewed the preparations that still needed to be carried out in the days ahead. It was clear to everyone that everything was to be kept absolutely secret.

Colonel A., pilot in the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Rumors began circulating in the media and in the public domain that the IDF had carried out an attack deep inside enemy territory and that we had sustained a number of casualties that were being kept hidden due to the nature and location of the operation. I was being badgered right and left by journalists and editors, and I yearned to be able to tell them that the attack had been a complete success and that we’d not sustained any casualties.

Instead, I decided that since Rosh Hashana was just a few days away, I would circulate a video clip of the General Staff toasting the New Year with Defense Minister Barak. I told Roni Daniel from Channel 2 and Alon Ben-David from Channel 10, “Take a look at the video I just sent you. Do you think if any of our soldiers had been killed we’d be laughing and carrying on like that?” Later that evening, it was reported in the news that the rumor of casualties turned out to be false.

Ashkenazi appointed a team that convened twice a day to assess the situation and make decisions regarding how much information to divulge to the public. Within two weeks, it was clear to us that the journalists understood that they could not publish details about the attack, since this would make it more difficult for Assad and could even lead to the outbreak of war. Ashkenazi and the Director of Security of the Defense Establishment fought rigorously with their political counterparts who were pushing to make details of the attack public. There were a number of members of the chief of staff’s team as well who agreed with this position.

I spoke up at one of the General Staff meetings, saying, “The publication of these details would be a terrible humiliation for Assad in the eyes of his people, the Iranians, and Nasrallah, all of whom had been kept in the dark about the nuclear reactor. The Arab media would refer to the attack as the Joke of Assad the Great.”

In an effort to lighten the atmosphere, I added, “Don’t forget that here before you stand two Jews of Syrian heritage – the chief of staff and yours truly. So you can trust us – we know what we’re talking about.”

Ten years have passed since that momentous evening in the “pit.” The deterrence against Syria and Hezbollah is still strong, despite being challenged dozens of times over the years. Israel is no longer the same Israel, Syria is no longer the same Syria, and the Middle East is in a state of utter instability. We have lost many leaders, such as Meir Dagan, Peres and Lipkin-Shahak, but in the heart of Tel Aviv, you will still find the Rabin Camp (the Kirya), the General Staff tower with the “pit” that sits eight floors below ground. Day after day, night after night, IDF soldiers still gather to identify and locate threats, both nearby and far away, in absolute silence.

For years I’ve been contemplating how lucky I was to have been a part of that special team that made such historic decisions. It was so utterly important at the time that the details of the attack on the nuclear reactor in Syria not be made public, despite the fact that the IDF would have been happy to show off to the world and take credit for a job well done. Now, 10 years later, I’m happy to share with you, with the full approval of the Military Censor, the details of what took place on that decisive evening in September 2007.

The writer, a former brigadier-general, served as IDF spokesman from 2007 to 2011.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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