Ex-Israeli spy in Egypt, Marcelle Ninio, dies

Born in Egypt, Marcelle Ninio was a natural recruit because of her fluency in French and English

A minaret is seen through early morning haze on the skyline of Cairo, Egypt March 21, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/RUSSELL BOYCE)
A minaret is seen through early morning haze on the skyline of Cairo, Egypt March 21, 2018
Marcelle Ninio, an Egyptian-born Jew who was involved in one of the most highly publicized spy scandals in Israeli history, died on Wednesday – less than two weeks before her 90th birthday.
Some people refer to the scandal as the Lavon Affair, others as the Nasty Business (Esek Bish in Hebrew) and others still by its code name, Operation Susannah.
In the early 1950s, Ninio joined an espionage ring established by an Israeli agent that had a two-fold purpose. One was to bring down the regime of King Farouk, and the other was to emigrate to Israel.
As the attempts of Gamal Abdel Nasser to overthrow the king became more obvious, the espionage group which had been taught a lot about explosives, became more active and began planting bombs in public areas such as libraries, cinemas and educational centers frequented primarily by the British and by Americans.
Eventually, one of the group was caught, and this led to the capture of the others. Ninio was among the last to be arrested. As soon she heard that others in the group had been incarcerated, she rushed home and burned all the documents related to the operation,
 She was the only female in the espionage ring. She was a natural recruit because she was fluent in French and English, which she had studied at high school in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. She also attended a Jewish elementary school and was a member of the Hashomer Hatza’ir, a Zionist youth group which was focused on eventually resettling in Israel.
In all, 13 members of the espionage group were arrested toward the end of 1954 and were given a speedy trial in a military court. Two were executed by hanging; two were sentenced to life imprisonment. Ninio and her good friend, Robert Dassa, were each given terms of 15 years, and the rest received relatively lighter sentences.
Also arrested was Max Bineth, an Israeli spy, who after being tortured preferred to decide on his fate for himself and committed suicide.
While in prison, Ninio did not allow herself to brood and instead kept busy. She persuaded other female prisoners to start a basketball team, volunteered in the prison clinic and engaged in other work that prisoners were allowed to do.
There were occasional visits by members of the Cairo Jewish community who tried to help her, but there was not much that they could really do for her.
Neither Ninio nor Dassa served their full sentence. They were released in 1968 – two years early – and by February of that year, the pair were already in Israel, where the Intelligence authorities gave Ninio the rank of Lt.-Col.
Dassa went on to be a prolific journalist, working primarily in the Arabic television department of the now-defunct Israel Broadcasting Authority. He was the only member of the spy network to return to Egypt which he did following the peace treaty between the country of his birth and the country of his ancestors. He continued to visit frequently over the next 20 years.
Ninio quickly learned Hebrew and enrolled at Tel Aviv University where she studied English literature.
She had several meetings with Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion who had been in office at the time of her arrest, and who was forever thirsting with curiosity as to the role played by then-defense minister Pinchas Lavon in the sabotage operations that caused upheavals in both Egypt and Israel.
In 1971, Ninio got married, with Golda Meir as her matron of honor.
Reports of the wedding – which surprisingly were permitted by the censor – were the first public indication that members of the spy ring had found their way to Israel.
In 1988, Ninio, who had settled in Hod Hasharon, was given the honor of lighting a beacon on Mount Herzl to usher in Israel’s 40th anniversary of independence.
She and Dassa remained close friends, and upon learning of her death, Dassa posted an obituary on his Facebook account in which he called her a heroine of Israel and a soul mate.
Ninio will be laid to rest on Friday, October 25 at 11 a.m. at Kibbutz Einat.