In the Eighties, a Red Sea diving resort was opened in Sudan. Except the whole place was actually run by Mossad, as a cover for an extraordinary secret scheme – to rescue Jews from Ethiopia. For the first time, the former agent behind the mission reveals what happened. By Ben Machell.
It is a scorching hot day on the Red Sea coast, the sun sits high in a cloudless sky and holidaymakers from across Europe and the Middle East are relaxing on a white sandy beach. The year is 1982 – think Speedos, bikinis and the smell of suntan oil and cigarettes drifting on a warm breeze – and these men and women are all enjoying their stay at a nearby resort. The Arous Holiday Village is in Sudan, 160km or so south of the Egyptian border, and is a new operation. Comprising a large clubhouse flanked by a dozen or so pretty whitewashed bungalows with red tile roofs, the resort specifically markets itself as a watersports destination. Its colourful brochure breathily promises "Adventure, à la carte," and features stagey shots of attractive models windsurfing and posing in scuba gear, as well as photographs of the kaleidoscopic array of sea life to be encountered among the nearby coral reefs. It is, the brochure concludes, a resort "unique in all the world".
The guests at Arous, who range from serious scuba enthusiasts to Khartoum-based diplomats and senior Sudanese government officials, pass their days in the easy company of the resort's small team of staff and diving instructors. These employees are mostly European and are young, fit and friendly, sharing drinks and jokes with guests at the clubhouse come sunset, even putting on the occasional amateur stage show. The resort itself is the brainchild of a wiry 37-year-old French anthropologist called Dani, who had been studying the tribes of the region when he came across these 12 empty white cottages some 50km north of Port Sudan. He discovered that they had been an attempt at a holiday resort that had been abandoned after going belly-up. Dani, though, believed he could make something of it. With the help of an investor and the blessing of the Sudanese government, he renovated the site and relaunched it as the Arous Holiday Village, which by 1982 is doing very well. Travel agents across Europe are booking clients in for two-week stays. The guestbook sings with the praise of happy customers.
There is just one small detail. It simply isn't real. The entire operation is a front. Dani is not really a French anthropologist. The cheerful diving instructors are not really diving instructors. They are all, in fact, agents for Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel. In reality, just about everybody who works at Arous is an Israeli agent operating under deep cover, from the pretty resort manager at the front desk to the guy who runs the kitchen. There is secret communication equipment hidden in the resort's diving equipment store room. The investor that helped Dani turn the failed resort around is none other than the state of Israel. Arous genuinely is a resort "unique in all the world". Just not for reasons anybody – from the guests to the Sudanese government – could ever have guessed.
Why? Why, almost 40 years ago, did the Israeli government authorise the creation of a fake diving resort staffed by secret agents on the coast of a hostile country? As a member of the Arab League, Sudan had, at least on paper, been at war with Israel since 1967. So to operate under their noses in this way would, if discovered, be a gross provocation. The risk was huge. But the benefits were judged to be worth it. Because the resort itself was part of an even more audacious project of subterfuge. Between 1979 and 1984, in a programme known as Operation Brothers, Mossad saved the lives of thousands of Ethiopian Jews fleeing war, famine and persecution by smuggling them to Israel via Sudan.
At night, agents posing as workers at the Arous resort would collect dozens of men, women and children from the teeming refugee camps of southern Sudan, and drive them back to the resort where, in a nearby cove, Israeli commandos would meet them before escorting them in small motorboats to a naval ship disguised as a merchantman. Later in Operation Brothers, terrain-hugging C-130 Hercules cargo planes would penetrate 720km into Sudanese territory, land on remote patches of scrubland, collect hundreds of Ethiopian Jews and then return to Israel without detection. By the operation's conclusion, more than 7,000 people had been rescued from Sudan without anyone discovering how or why.
At reception I get flustered and sign him in as 'Dani Smith'. He pulls me up on my ropey spycraft.
Over the intervening years, details surrounding Operation Brothers have become known. Last year, Netflix released The Red Sea Diving Resort, a thriller based loosely on the events. The one person who has not spoken at length about his involvement is the very man who planned the whole thing: the Mossad agent known simply as "Dani".
But this is about to change. In Raffi Berg's forthcoming book Red Sea Spies, a thrilling and meticulous account of the operation, Dani's own account is finally placed front and centre. Which is how, one afternoon, I come to be sitting across from a 75-year-old former Mossad agent in the Times office. I say "former", though this doesn't quite seem to be the case. "Officially, I retired many years ago," says Dani. "But even after you retire, they can still call you. So you never really retire."
His surname is not for publication or general dissemination. When he arrives and I have to sign him in at the front desk, I get a bit flustered and give his name as "Dani Smith". He later pulls me up on this ropey spycraft, his complaint being that it's not exactly the most believable alias. "Smith?" he scowls. "You should have said 'Cohen'."
He is short, with grey hair but a straight back and concrete handshake. He has a composed, business-class air to him, and when we sit down he takes the chair facing the room's only door – a habit he says he has never lost – and looks across the table with heavy, appraising eyes. If this makes him sound intimidating, then that's not entirely the case because he is also funny and expressive, peppering his conversation with old KGB idioms and jokes about the CIA.
He is at pains to stress that while there is a temptation to look at the daring events of Operation Brothers in retrospect and marvel at how slickly the whole thing came together, in reality he was just desperately making everything up as he went along, because there was no established procedure for the mission. "There was nobody I could ask for advice, because we had never done this before."
Dani was born in Uruguay and moved to Israel when he was 16. "When I arrived it was 1961, Israel's bar mitzvah," he says. "I was a Zionist. I wanted to live there. I wanted to be part of that adventure."
He joined the army, became a paratrooper, saw active service in the Six Day War, then the Israeli War of Attrition, then the Yom Kippur War, rose to the rank of company commander, before being recruited by Mossad in his late twenties. Multilingual and with a reputation for lateral thinking and decisiveness, he began to make a name for himself within the agency.
However, the opportunity to lead Operation Brothers would never have come about if it had not been for the election of Menachem Begin as the prime minister of Israel in 1977. Since the 19th century, it had been known that there were remote tribes in the Ethiopian highlands claiming to be Jews. Their origins remain shrouded in myth, but their own belief is that their ancestors had been Israelites driven from their homeland in biblical times and that they would one day be returned. They called their lands "Beta Israel" but, detached from the wider world, they practised a form of Judaism that had not evolved in line with mainstream practices. And so while the people of Beta Israel were considered a curiosity, they were not considered genuine Jews and thus did not qualify for Israeli citizenship.
But following his election, Begin reversed this policy. By the late Seventies, the estimated 36,000 Jews of Ethiopia faced the combined threats of creeping famine, internal insurgencies and increasingly violent persecution. In Begin's eyes, this now made them Jewish enough. "Bring me," he announced, "the Jews of Ethiopia."
All the soldier had to do was press the trigger. I thought it was the end for me. But he hesitated.
This was easier said than done. Dysfunctional diplomatic relations between the two countries meant direct travel was not permitted, while the remote, mountainous location of Beta Israel made any kind of covert mass extraction impossible. Dani was tasked with finding ways of bringing them to Israel without sparking a regional conflict, although nothing seemed realistic.
A possibility emerged in 1979. A young, educated Ethiopian Jew named Ferede Aklum had escaped his country and made the long, treacherous journey north into Sudan. Aklum was living in a refugee slum outside Khartoum and sold his wedding ring in order to pay for a telegram, which he sent to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a US organisation which provides assistance in the resettling of Jewish communities in danger. "I am in Khartoum," his message went. "I ran away from Ethiopia. You know why."
Dani travelled to Khartoum on a fake passport and posing as an anthropologist. Somehow, he was able to track down Aklum and begin a partnership – a profound friendship – that would save the lives of many. "We became very close," says Dani. "We always called each other 'brother'. And it was not just an expression. I think we both felt it."
It became clear to both men that if other Ethiopian Jews could be convinced to follow Aklum's footsteps up into Sudan then it would be that much easier to find a way to get them to Israel. For one thing, Sudan had a coastline. For another, the growing refugee crisis in Sudan meant large groups of Ethiopians moving north would not arouse suspicion. A message was sent back to Beta Israel and, starting as a trickle before eventually becoming a deluge, the Jews set off on a journey they hoped would end in their Promised Land.
For two years, Dani and Aklum followed a simple but daring plan. Aklum would scour refugee camps for his people and Dani would smuggle them out in the back of a 4x4, then drive them to Khartoum at night, often driving round or simply running army roadblocks. They would be kept in safe houses before Dani, having engaged in some light subterfuge by posing as an aid worker, would secure them passports from the Sudanese interior ministry. Now with official travel documentation, the Ethiopian Jews would be flown out of Khartoum to European cities, from where they would be met by Mossad agents placed on the first flight to Israel. By 1980, some 800 Ethiopian Jews had been smuggled out of Sudan in this way.
Throughout this time, Dani had to maintain his cover as a French anthropologist. "You have to act like a normal person," he says. "There was a white community in Khartoum and clubs where they go to drink beer and mingle with what you would call the ruling class of the country. Senior officers in the army. Senior clerks in different ministries. Businessmen." He began to move in these circles. He would sometimes play tennis with the president of Sudan's brother. At one party, he met the chancellor of the University of Khartoum, who insisted he give a lecture on east African anthropology. "And I said, 'Yeah, why not!' I couldn't refuse. So I gave it a go." He had, in fact, been carrying out some anthropological fieldwork and note-taking to help maintain his cover story, so he still thinks the lecture was a partial success, even if he cribbed a load of material from the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Although Dani had a wife and two young daughters at home he was, according to his cover story, single. "And a normal single man is usually considered to have some needs, right? And so if you don't have a girlfriend, the people you meet will try to …" he trails off, shrugging coyly.
Hook you up with people? "Hook you up with people! Yes. Even my Sudanese friends tried to do that with Sudanese girls." Dani did have at least two steady girlfriends during this period, including the daughter of a wealthy Armenian businessman and a young Italian woman whose brother was a professional crocodile hunter, although things fizzled out with her after she turned out to be more antisemitic than Dani could stomach.
One of the greatest lessons for me as a Jew is that you don't abandon another Jew to their fate.
All the while, though, Dani and Aklum – who had been made an official Mossad agent – were smuggling Ethiopian Jews out of the swelling refugee camps and getting them on to commercial flights out. Dani insists that we understand these Jews were not passive participants being "rescued" so much as equal partners in the operation. They had all chosen to come north, and chosen to face extraordinary dangers in doing so. At least 1,560 Jews from Beta Israel are known to have died on the trek to Sudan.
"They had to walk from their villages, hundreds of kilometres, until they reached the Sudanese border, which was not always possible. Both the Sudanese and Ethiopian armies were trying to stop them. And then in the refugee camps there was constant danger of death. There was no food, no water, no sanitation. And on top of the risks that all refugees face, they were also Jews. They would sometimes be recognised by their former neighbours, the Christian Ethiopians, who would go to the Sudanese secret service and tell them, 'These are Jews! These are Jews!'"
By 1981, it was clear that there were far more Ethiopian Jews lingering in the refugee camps than could ever be sneaked on to airliners. Which is when the plan for the Arous Holiday Village came to life, as it could serve as a headquarters for a series of covert naval evacuations. Dani – well, Mossad – purchased the abandoned site for US$250,000 ($403,000), but he knew for the ruse to be convincing, the resort had to appear a success. To begin with, the number of guests were inflated by inviting retired Mossad agents. "They got a nice week's stay in the village," says Dani, brightly. "They were fighting over who got to go."
The stakes, though, were incredibly high. It wasn't just the presence of more Mossad agents in Sudan; it was now the disguised Israeli navy vessel loitering off the Sudanese coast and the teams of Israeli commandos who, come nightfall, would arrive on the beach and then whisk the Ethiopians away. "Politically, it would have been a catastrophe if we were caught," says Dani.
And the problem was that, by now, the Sudanese knew something was up. Refugees vanishing from camps? Rumours of white men leading them off into the night? Dani had become friends with a senior member of the Sudanese secret service who began asking him questions one night over cognac.
"'Have you any Jewish friends?' I said, 'Yes, of course. Some studied with me in university.' 'I see. And how are they, these Jews?' I said, 'You know, like everyone else. They can be bad. They can be good.'" Then the Sudanese intelligence officer leant forward. Did Dani know, he wondered, any black Jews?
"I said, 'What? Black Jews? Never seen one in my life.' And he said, 'You're an anthropologist and you don't know there are black Jews! They come from Ethiopia and into the camps, and they are kidnapped by Zionists!'" Dani says, explaining that the suspicion was that Israel was snatching the Ethiopians to use as cannon fodder. "I just said, 'Wow. I didn't know that.'"
At that moment, he says he fully expected armed guards to burst into the room and haul him away. It never happened, and the two men finished their drinks still friends. Dani chuckles at the memory. "If he reads that, he will have a heart attack. If he's still alive."
One night in 1982, the entire operation almost came to a bloody end. A platoon of Sudanese soldiers had been spotted approaching a cove near the resort where, at that very moment, hundreds of refugees were being rushed aboard motorboats by Israeli commandos. Dani, along with a few other undercover agents, rushed to meet the Sudanese force in an attempt to distract them. The boats had almost all slipped away by the time one of the Sudanese soldiers noticed the final vessel heading away. He sprayed bullets into the water. Dani knocked him to the ground, where a wrestling match took place. At one point both men realised that the barrel of the rifle was wedged into Dani's belly. "All he had to do was press the trigger. I thought that was the end. But he hesitated."
The commanding Sudanese officer broke the two men up and demanded to know what Dani was doing. Miraculously, Dani was able not only to convince him that he had been taking resort guests on a midnight dive for lobsters, but also that he was furious their lives had been put in danger and would be complaining to the authorities. It turns out the platoon had only been looking for smugglers and things were eventually smoothed over.
The final stage of Operation Brothers saw Dani and his team ferrying Ethiopian Jews to remote locations where, suddenly, huge low-flying C-130 planes would swoop down from the night with no visible lights, land, collect their cargo and return to Israel undetected. Dani says it is wrong, though, to use the word "cargo". "To me, they were not packages. I met each and every one of them, even if it was for five minutes. I held the children in my arms. I hugged the fathers and grandfathers."
By the end of Operation Brothers, Dani had helped to smuggle 7,054 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He returned home in 1984. His wife had by now divorced him – "She'd had enough" – but he wanted to see the two girls he had barely seen in years. "It's not easy. For four years of their life, there are no photographs of my daughters with their father. Nothing. But things get better with time."
Today, there are more than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, up from just a handful 40 years ago. "Which is a miracle. I don't think something like that has ever happened." Dani is deeply involved in their community and says that their life in Israel can still be a struggle as they face racism from fellow Israelis. "Israeli society, unfortunately, is not tolerant. It is like any other. We haven't learnt the lessons of history. We should be the last people to be intolerant."
The children he rescued are now in their forties, and invite him to family feasts and weddings. The rabbi who officiated at the wedding of Dani's son from a later relationship had been scrambling into one of the commando boats when the Sudanese soldier opened fire, and watched as Dani wrestled him to the ground. "He remembers it all."
Before he leaves, he says that he does not believe there was anything particularly special about him. What he did have, though, was absolute certainty about the necessity of his mission. "Being a Jew is not a simple thing," he says, smiling and sighing. "And for me, one of the greatest lessons as a Jew is that you don't abandon another Jew to their fate. You have to do everything to extract them from any situation. Wherever they are."
Written by: Ben Machell
© The Times of London