Crazy plans, daring men

Everything you want in a rip-roaring derring-do narrative of Israel’s combat operations.

A helicopter waits to fly troops and equipment back after the completion of military action on Egypt’s Shadwan Island in 1970 during the War of Attrition (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
A helicopter waits to fly troops and equipment back after the completion of military action on Egypt’s Shadwan Island in 1970 during the War of Attrition
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Every paratrooper must wonder at some point why his primary job is to jump out of a perfectly good airplane and fling himself into the deadly unknown. If that went through Rafael Eitan’s head on October 29, 1956, he did not record it for posterity. Instead he led 394 of his men out of the Dakota aircraft and into the Sinai Desert near the Suez Canal.
“Let’s start the war from the end,” Moshe Dayan had said, suggesting to parachute Israelis within striking distance of the canal and create a stratagem that would bring in France and the UK, and help Israel blunt Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s strength. Israel would defeat the Egyptian army in Sinai in 1956, based partly on this daring use of deep penetration by paratroops.
No Mission is Impossible builds on numerous books that Michael Bar-Zohar has written. An official biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres, Bar-Zohar is considered Israel’s leading expert on espionage. He’s covered the paratroops and Suez before and has written a book on the Mossad with Nissim Mishal.
This book incorporates many wellknown battles of Israel, with a focus on the elite units: the Paratroop Brigade, Unit 101, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, Flotilla (Shayetet) 13, Duvdevan and other commando units. The first three chapters cover well-traveled ground in looking at the 1948, 1956 and 1967 wars.
In 1969 Israel found itself in a kind of war it wasn’t used to. Through 1967 the small country had specialized in rapid, short wars of maneuver. Facing enemies like Egypt that had an inexhaustible amount of manpower meant the smaller country had to win quickly. An attrition- style war, like the First World War, would play to Egypt’s strength and bleed the Israelis. Yet by 1969, the Egyptians had caught on to this. “In an attempt to exhaust Israel, the Egyptians had been attacking IDF forces in Sinai, causing heavy losses.”
How to put the pendulum back in the Egyptian side? General Staff officer David Elazar came up with a plan to raid Egypt’s “Green Island” fortress in the Gulf of Suez. “The goal was to undermine Egyptian confidence,” write the authors.
Like so many of these missions, it seemed like suicide. Send 40 soldiers in rubber boats to assault an island fort festooned with 130-mm. cannon batteries, heavy machine guns and 100 Egyptian troops. To maintain the element of surprise, the Shayetet, Israel’s navy SEALs, would have to swim 90 meters with 36 kg. of gear.
The raid went decently. Part of the fort was blown up, but six IDF soldiers were killed and 11 wounded; about 30 Egyptians were killed. Eitan, who ran the operation, concluded: “The Egyptians, in their worst nightmares, had never dreamed of such a daring operation.”
Another mission during the War of Attrition involved the hunt for a secret Russian- built radar station in the Egyptian desert. The radar harmed the air force’s ability to strike at Egypt. In December 1969, photo reconnaissance analysts were looking at photos when they had a surprise.
“I was going through them, I found it,” recalled Rami Shalev. “The facility was very well camouflaged, resembling two Beduin tents in the heart of the desert.”
Israel dispatched a team of 66 commandos on Super Frelon helicopters to capture the radar. Instead of destroying it, the IDF decided to steal it. At 1:45 a.m. the men scattered the few Egyptians guarding the site and detached the containers holding the radar. By daylight the radar had been choppered back to Israel – no easy task.
When we look back at this laundry list of operations, it seems unbelievable today. When Bar-Zohar and Mishal get to the recent conflicts in Gaza, the daring and honor seem to be gone from the narrative.
“Operation Cast Lead produced severe damage to Israel’s international image,” the authors note.
The book glosses over the operations in 2012 and 2014, leaving the reader to wonder whether the spirit has gone out of Israel’s commandos, or whether they simply require a new historian.
Bar-Zohar and Mishal choose to end on a positive note, detailing the 1984 and 1991 missions to rescue Ethiopian Jews. These are short, positive stories of daring Israelis who went deep into Sudan, and in 1991 to Ethiopia, to save thousands of people.
The authors seem to paint Israel’s military history as “the good old days,” and today’s battles as a “never-ending story” – more tragedy than purity of arms.