Mossad dad: A true hero of Israel

Dar was one of the pioneers of the Israeli intelligence establishment.

 FATHER AVRAHAM joined the Palmach when he was just 17 years old; at 25, he became an Israeli intelligence agent.  (photo credit: MAX YELINSON/ MAARIV)
FATHER AVRAHAM joined the Palmach when he was just 17 years old; at 25, he became an Israeli intelligence agent.
(photo credit: MAX YELINSON/ MAARIV)
Avraham Dar, who passed away recently at the age of 94, was not a typical intelligence agent. He was nothing like the cold-hearted agents who hide in the shadows like you see in old movies. Dar was a lively and funny genius who spoke five languages fluently and befriended everyone he came across. These unique traits – combined with his ability to creatively weasel his way out of even the most complicated situations – often saved Dar from death.
“My father was an actor at heart,” says his son, film director and producer Gidi Dar. “I’m the one who’s most like him in the family. No one would ever have guessed that he worked as an intelligence agent. He was super intellectual and loved history. He would adjust his behavior depending on who he was speaking with. If he was talking with an Arab, he would act just like Arabs do. If he was talking with an Englishman, he would all of a sudden be speaking and moving like they do in the UK. And he was congenial with everyone. Nothing about him was simple, and he never answered questions as a normal person would. He grew up in a European intellectual atmosphere, but he adored Arab culture until the day he died.”
Dar was one of the pioneers of the Israeli intelligence establishment. Most of the intelligence operations he participated in during his career remain confidential until this day. He was born in Jerusalem in 1925 to a British-Yemenite father who served as an officer in the British military and a mother who comes from a veteran Jerusalem family. As a child, he loved being enmeshed in a whole range of cultures and that’s how he learned five languages at mother-tongue level: Arabic, Spanish, English, Hebrew and French.
“My father grew up in Jerusalem during the British Mandate period, with echoes from the previous Ottoman rule. His friends in the neighborhood were Kurdish, English and Arab. Everyone knew how smart he was, and he finished school way ahead of everyone else. He was always playing tricks, and absolutely everyone loved him. He was very curious about and had great respect for Arab culture.
“His grandfather worked with the richest families in the world and his father was a respected soldier. The riots erupted in Hebron when he was just five years old, and he was saved by the sheikhs who hid and protected him, out of respect for my grandfather. He understood all of these different cultures deeply and his ability to move seamlessly from one scenario to another helped him in later years as a secret agent. Some people have even gone so far as to proclaim that he was the perfect spy, and I have to agree with this assessment.
“I remember my father use to tell lots of stories,” Gidi continues. “At one point, his father was put in charge of a British army warehouse. My father walked around, telling the soldiers that he was gathering walkie-talkies that needed fixing. Later, someone from the Irgun would come pick them up. But when they were leaving the army base, the Irgun members’ car broke down, and my father, with his perfect English and suave manner, was able to convince a few British soldiers to help them fix the car.
“Later, when the British began investigating the theft of the walkie-talkies, my grandfather slapped him in front of the investigators. When my father asked him later why he’d done that, he replied that this way the British would believe that he hadn’t known anything about it. Afterwards, they planted a few of the devices in Arab villages and then tipped off the British about their location. As a result, the investigators apologized to my grandfather.”
BY THE TIME Israel had gained independence, Dar had already amassed a tremendous amount of experience in the world of intelligence. When a concern arose that the Egyptians might invade by sea, Dar embarked on an intelligence gathering excursion, and was eventually captured in Cyprus. There, his captors broke his teeth with a rifle butt. Dar succeeded in escaping by dressing up as a British national, and upon returning to Israel, he was able to report on his findings – that there was no threat from Egypt at the moment.
“In another incident that took place while he was serving in the Palmach, my father happened to be visiting a friend at Kibbutz Yagur on the Black Shabbat when the kibbutz was attacked. He was sleeping when all of a sudden a Scottish soldier woke him up. My father pretended that he was a British soldier from the same village as the Scottish soldier and in that way was able to save himself. Time and again, he was able to improvise on the spot and thereby escape being killed by the skin of his teeth. We used to joke that if he hadn’t worked as an intelligence agent, my father probably would have ended up becoming a criminal.”
Dar joined the Palmach when he was just 17 years old. At 25, he became an Israeli intelligence agent and held a number of different positions. He was involved in the killing of Fedayeen in Egypt and in the establishment of the IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (aka Sayeret Matkal), took part in dozens of clandestine and illegal operations, and formed an espionage network in Egypt, including the Lavon affair – a failed Israeli covert operation, code-named Operation Susannah, conducted in Egypt in the summer of 1954.
“In actuality, the only person involved who was never charged in the Lavon affair was my father,” says Gidi. “His job had been to create an espionage network, which he accomplished. He was only 25 years old at the time that he was sent on his own into Egypt. They told him, ‘set up a spy network,’ so he traveled to the UK and created a false identity for himself – a John Darling, who was born in Gibraltar. He didn’t have any mentors or a support system. He was completely on his own. He would always tell me, ‘To lie successfully, 99% needs to be true. That way if you get caught, almost everything about you is real.’ When he reached Egypt, he befriended members of the Muslim Brotherhood. When one of his close friends suspected he was a spy, my father led his friend to believe that he was a British spy. My father had already left when the network was uncovered. He tried to rescue his colleagues, but he was told that his cover had been blown, so he couldn’t return to Egypt.”
WHEN DAR returned to Israel, he set up two espionage networks and was then asked to lead Unit 131, the Mossad’s most prominent unit. He refused the offer, however, since he believed that a more senior officer, with military experience, should be given that position. He never sought to be in the limelight, and he never hid his disappointment and anger towards those responsible for the Lavon Affair.
“My father never resorted to violence during his operations. That wasn’t his style. He’d always come up with a story and finagle his way through sticky situations. In that way, he succeeded in overthrowing Mustafa Hafez, the head of the Egyptian Fedayeen, after years of failed attempts by others. Hafez would lead killing squads across the border into Israel to kill Jews before slinking back into Egypt. Many assassination attempts had been made. One of the main goals for Unit 101 was to eliminate the Fedayeen, but Hafez was smart and wouldn’t let anyone near him. He never opened up his own mail, so letter bombs wouldn’t work.
“So, my father asked for the job. He’d befriended a Bedouin double agent and he fabricated a story, claiming that the head of the Egyptian-controlled Gaza police was cooperating with the Israelis. He confided this to the agent, and gave him a copy of the message in code inside a book, making him promise to keep it secret. Of course, the agent ran straight to Hafez and excitedly told him about the amazing intel he’d uncovered. Hafez had to open the book himself, since it included information about some of his men. When Hafez opened the book, it exploded in his face and he and all his men in the Fedayeen headquarters were killed. A similar bomb eliminated his deputy in Jordan just a few hours later. This attempt was successful since my father’s story had been so perfectly crafted.”
Dar loved living in rural areas, and twice married women from a kibbutz or moshav. He built a house in the Carmel Forest. By the time Gidi was born, Dar had already left the world of espionage. “I had a magical childhood, living in the forest with four horses and lots of weapons at home,” recalls Gidi. “We were like urban cowboys. My father drove a fancy sports car and made us feel like we could do anything we wanted. I knew he had been a spy, and that we were never allowed to talk about it with anyone. People nicknamed him ‘the farmer.’ I would tell my friends that my father had been all over the world, but none of them believed me. They would call me a liar and then usually we’d end up in a fistfight. He was like an Israeli James Bond. His life’s mission had been to work for the welfare of the State of Israel. He was unhappy with the corruption he saw around him, but was still optimistic about what lay ahead in our future.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.