Mossad-Shin Bet memorial sheds secrets of the past

... but guards those from "whom the fog cannot yet be lifted."

eli cohen 224.88 (photo credit: )
eli cohen 224.88
(photo credit: )
Near a multiplex cinema and a nondescript highway junction outside Tel Aviv is the place where Israel's secrets go when they get old. The names and stories are carved into limestone walls and arranged in binders at a sleepy clump of buildings known by a misleadingly dull name - the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center. They offer a unique, if fragmentary, glimpse into the exploits of the Mossad agents and intelligence operatives who have waged this country's shadow wars. Here, on a memorial wall, you can encounter names like Shalom Dani, a Holocaust survivor who became the Mossad's master forger. Dani honed his skills under cover in North Africa, taking part in the Mossad's effort to spirit thousands of Moroccan Jews to Israel before being dispatched to Argentina in 1960. There, he counterfeited the documents that allowed a team of agents to smuggle Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Nazi genocide, to his trial and eventual hanging in Israel. Nearby, in a room dedicated to people who died of old age after long intelligence careers, there is a page in a binder describing Rachel Spinner, the Mossad's longtime cook. When Jordan's King Hussein came to hold top-secret meetings with Israeli leaders four decades ago, when the two countries were still officially at war, it was Spinner who made supper. Once Israel's most closely guarded information, whatever appears here has aged and been deemed no longer worth keeping secret. The center was created as a memorial to the dead of Israel's intelligence community - the Mossad, which operates abroad, the Shin Bet, the internal security agency concerned largely with the Palestinians under Israeli military occupation, and military intelligence. The only official window into this murky world, the center exists on the line between what is secret and what is not, its content carefully vetted by a committee before being approved for public consumption. Often more is hidden than revealed: The shards of information here - the names of dead agents, the dates of their death, short biographies - seem to be only the tips of stories still submerged in secrecy. Take one of the forgotten names carved into the wall of the center's memorial to the fallen: Muhammad Kassem Sayed Ahmad. A Druse Arab agent, he was killed at a border crossing between Israel and Syria on the night of November 28, 1956. What he was doing there and how he died is still secret more than five decades later. Some of the people involved in the operation are still alive and the details could endanger them. Some ex-agents resent any details being published at all. Until the center was established in the mid-1980s, the world of Israeli intelligence was a cipher even to Israelis: The name of the Mossad chief was classified, as was virtually everything else about the service and its sister agencies. Today the Mossad chief's name and image are in the public domain - he's a bespectacled and bland-seeming man named Meir Dagan - and the agency has a Web site. So does the Shin Bet, which has even posted employee blogs. It is possible to discern traces of displeasure with this turn of events, or at least of nostalgia for the cloaks and daggers of days past. "Society has changed, and today there's more pressure from what's known as 'the public's right to know,'" said Efraim Halevy, the former Mossad chief who heads the center. "Once these things would have been considered treason." David Tzur, a retired brigadier general from military intelligence who is the center's director, says he occasionally receives complaints. "There are old Shin Bet and Mossad guys who say we're going too far in what we release," he said. The center serves as something of a meeting place for gray-haired agents in from the cold. There are programs and lectures, a theater that screens movies about intelligence success stories, and a monthly newsletter that covers developments in the intelligence world. An issue typically includes a few obituaries of elderly operatives, sometimes with a silhouette instead of a photograph, the biography always a bit vague on the details. The center grants a prize, the "Hero of Silence," to civilians, Israelis and foreigners, who have assisted Israel's intelligence services. Eight people have received the prize so far; the identities of seven are secret. The eighth is Shulamit Kishak-Cohen, a colorful Beirut matron who ran a smuggling ring bringing Jews to Israel in the 1950s. Married off to a much older businessman as a teenager, Kishak-Cohen had a lengthy romantic liaison with a married French intelligence agent and used her connections with several disreputable characters, including a casino owner, to keep her network going. Eventually arrested in the early 1960s, she was released in a prisoner exchange after the 1967 Mideast War. A visitor to the center can find traces of some of Israel's most famous covert operations. Kamal Amin Thabit, a wealthy Syrian businessman with important friends in the Syrian government in the 1960s, is here on a memorial wall, though you won't see that name. Neither will you see the name Menashe, which is how Thabit was known to the Mossad staffers who handled his incoming Morse messages from Damascus. Instead you will find his real name, Eli Cohen - an Egyptian Jew who operated in the Syrian capital for three years before he was captured and hanged in 1965. There are others who are less well known, like Sylvia Rafael. Rafael, who was born in South Africa and moved to Israel as a young woman, was jailed in Norway after her Mossad team mistakenly killed a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, whom they wrongly identified as a Black September terrorist behind the deaths of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The killing in the picturesque town of Lillehammer, and the Mossad team's subsequent bungled escape and arrest, constituted one of the service's most embarrassing blunders and led to the elimination of many of its agent networks and safe houses in Europe. Given a five-year sentence, Rafael fell in love with the Norwegian lawyer who represented her, married him, and returned to South Africa, where she died of cancer in 2005. A photograph glued next to her biography, kept in a small memorial room, shows a dark-haired woman with long silver earrings looking away from the camera. There are also spies whose existence is not even mentioned at the intelligence commemoration center, people whom "we still can't put on the wall," says Tzur, the center's director. Precisely how many is a secret. Instead, there is the following inscription: "Dedicated to the memory of those from whom the fog cannot yet be lifted, and whose names cannot yet be revealed."