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'For by wise guidance you can wage your war': Mossad's mysterious history

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You’ll know him for hard-hitting dramas like Homeland and Billions. Now, in Damian Lewis: Spy Wars, the acclaimed star proves that truth really is stranger than fiction, at least in the world of espionage. Incredible stories of spycraft are brought to life with pulse-pounding reconstructions – some almost too incredible to be believed.

A case in point is the epic story of how the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, came up with an audacious plan to smuggle Ethiopian refugees to Israel in the 1980s. These were Ethiopian Jews, a little-known ethnic group whose origins are shrouded in conflicting accounts from ancient history and folklore. 
 
Desperate to escape civil war, the Ethiopian Jews were secretly aided by the Mossad, who came up with the idea of creating a fake holiday resort in neighbouring Sudan. Billed as ‘the diving and desert recreation centre of Sudan’ and boasting ‘breathtaking views of the heavens, aflame with millions of stars’ (according to the glossy brochures produced by the Mossad), the resort would be the perfect cover for smuggling the Ethiopian refugees to the safety of Israel.

Israeli intelligence from the outset occupied a shadow realm

It’s a story that highlights the ingenuity of the Mossad, one of the world’s most mysterious organisations. In fact, ‘mysterious’ doesn’t quite cover its unique reputation. While other agencies, like the CIA and MI6, are certainly renowned and feared around the world, the Mossad has taken on an almost mythic status in the popular imagination – a status enhanced by the widely-held perception that it’s effectively above the law.
 
In the words of Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, author of Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, ‘Israeli intelligence from the outset occupied a shadow realm, one adjacent to, yet separate from, the country’s democratic institutions. A deep state.' 
 
Bergman concedes that ‘The justification was that anything other than complete secrecy could lead to situations that would threaten the very existence of Israel.’ The context of the Mossad’s creation emphasises that point: it came into being in December 1949, just over a year after the Israeli declaration of independence, when the young nation had already been battered by the first Arab-Israeli War. 

Having an elite group of intelligence agents was regarded as essential for the well-being of the new, besieged state. This thinking was highlighted by the original motto of the Mossad, which was a line from the Bible: ‘For by wise guidance you can wage your war’.
 
But the mission of the Mossad has not been entirely consistent over the decades. For example, the organisation is still perhaps best known for its daring 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, who had fled to South America after the war. Yet, while the mission itself was a spectacular feat (the Mossad agents sedated Eichmann and passed him off as a sick airline employee to smuggle him out of Argentina), and while his trial was a seminal, cathartic moment for the Jewish people, casting a new and lasting light on the Holocaust, the Eichmann operation didn’t really fall under the Mossad’s remit of protecting Israel from its enemies. 

In fact, according to research by journalist Ronen Bergman, the Mossad made a conscious decision to turn away from Nazi hunting when military bigwig Meir Amit took over the organisation in 1963. As Bergman puts it, ‘Meir Amit told me very openly: I prefer to deal with threats of the present than ghosts of the past.’ Amit made good on this vow when he sent an agent, Eli Cohen, to infiltrate the Syrian government – a story dramatized in the recent Sacha Baron Cohen series, The Spy.
 
In the 1970s, however, the Mossad was once again deployed on a mission based on a moral imperative rather than geopolitical necessity. This was Operation Wrath of God, in which Mossad operatives carried out assassinations of those they believed were connected with the Munich massacre of 1972, when a Palestinian terrorist group killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team.
 
The operation has since provoked much controversy, with some arguing that many of the people killed – such as a Palestinian translator gunned down in Rome, and a PLO representative slain with a bomb planted in his telephone – had nothing to do with the Munich massacre. 
 
That said, many targeted killings widely regarded as the work of the Mossad have been indeed been carried out for clear strategic purposes. A striking example is the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a key operative in the militant Palestinian nationalist organisation Hamas, who had been implicated in smuggling weapons for use against Israel.
 
A hit squad, generally assumed to have comprised members of the Mossad, was dispatched to the Dubai hotel where Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was staying, carrying out a swift execution which made it look at first like he’d died from natural causes. The assassins’ use of forged passports to enter Dubai, including UK passports, caused a diplomatic outcry. 

The apparent ability of the Mossad to carry out such brazen, ruthless, targeted killings (the agency is also suspected of being behind the assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012) is a large reason why it has such a fearsome reputation on the world stage. According to Gordon Thomas, author of Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of Mossad, the Mossad even has a breakdown of ‘rules’ for assassinations, laid down by former boss Meir Amit, which includes stipulations such as ‘there will be no killing of political leaders, however extreme they are’, ‘there will be no killing of a terrorist's family unless they are also directly implicated in terrorism’, and ‘the executioner is no different from the state-appointed hangman or any other lawfully-appointed executioner.’
 
According to Thomas, each new member of the kidon – the special department within the Mossad which is allegedly responsible for assassinations – is given a copy of these rules. 
 
Of course, the Mossad’s prowess has also been demonstrated in other, non-lethal ways. One of their most well-known targets was Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician who leaked news of Israel’s nuclear programme to the British press in 1986. The Mossad deployed a female agent to befriend Vanunu and lure him on holiday to Italy, where he was snatched by more agents and spirited away to Israel. As a consequence of this classic ‘honey trap’ operation, Vanunu would spend 18 years behind bars. 
 
Secretive, determined and relentless, the Mossad is said to currently encompass more than 7,000 members, making it one of the largest intelligence agencies in the Western world, second only to the CIA. And, with many of its newer employees are focused on cyber activity, the Mossad is likely to remain a major player in world affairs – even if the full extent of its activities will always be the stuff of speculation and legend.