Israeli Air Force F-16A Netz 243, flown by Colonel Ilan Ramon in Operation Opera.
Friday, June 7, 1981, was the eve of the Festival of Shavuoth (“Pentecost”), the celebration of God giving the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. Thousands of Israelis assembled in the synagogues, but thousands of others preferred to celebrate on the country’s golden beaches. And so it was that at 4:00 P.M., the festive crowds sunning on Eilat’s southern beach saw eight F-16s roaring in the blue sky, passing at low altitude over the Gulf of Eilat and continuing into Saudi Arabia. The F-16 had taken off from the Etzion airbase in Sinai. Eight F-15 fighter jets followed close behind. By coincidence, King Hussein of Jordan was, at that moment, sailing in his royal yacht in the Gulf and saw the jets passing overhead. He immediately transmitted a warning to his military, requesting that the armies of the surrounding countries be notified but, for whatever reason, the alert wasn’t shared. This was a good thing, because Israel’s air force planes were en route to Operation Opera, the destruction of the nuclear reactor being built next to Baghdad by Saddam Hussein.
The planning of the operation had begun years earlier. On August 26, 1976, Iraq had signed a deal with the French government for the construction of a nuclear reactor that the French called Osirak and the Iraqis referred to as Tammuz. The French also committed to supplying Iraq with eighty kilograms of 93-percent-enriched uranium, enough to produce an atomic bomb. When Israel found out, by its intelligence sources, it launched a diplomatic effort to prevent the reactor’s delivery to Iraq. A nuclear weapon in the hands of Saddam Hussein could be a terrible danger for our very existence, the Israeli envoys explained to their counterparts in Paris. But all their efforts to convince the French that they were dealing with the devil failed miserably. According to foreign sources, the torch was then passed to the Mossad, which sabotaged several parts of the French reactor before they could be loaded onto ships for Iraq. But the damage was repaired and the construction of the reactor proceeded, to be completed within a short period. After his election as prime minister in 1977, Menachem Begin reached the conclusion that the only remaining option was military intervention. Defense Minister Ezer Weizman recommended a military operation, as did the IDF new chief of staff, Raful Eitan. Laying the groundwork for the mission was assigned to David Ivry, the commander of the air force. A brilliant colonel, Aviem Sella, would take on the meticulous planning of all aspects of the operation at IAF headquarters, along with several young officers. It soon became clear that the reactor would be fully operational by September 1981, and Begin decided to hit it in the spring. The program initially submitted by the air force was called Ammunition Hill.
An unexpected contribution to the planners’ efforts came, of all places, from Iran. The Islamic Revolution had taken place in 1979, transforming Iran from a close American ally into a sworn enemy of the United States. Israel had concluded a deal with the U.S. government for the supply of F-16s, but the scheduled delivery was still far away, as other “clients” had a priority. After the Islamic Revolution in Teheran, however, the planned delivery of F-16s to Iran by the United States was canceled, and the White House agreed that the planes be given to Israel instead, ahead of schedule.
The F-16s turned out to be much better suited to the Iraq mission than Israel’s other air force planes. According to the plan, eight F-16s would carry out the attack, with eight F-15 fighter jets escorting them while serving as a flying command station. The pilots and flight crews began training in secret, using a model of the reactor built in the Negev Desert. The IDF chief of staff himself participated in one of the simulated attacks, wanting to see from the navigator’s seat whether the preparations could meet expectations. At the end of the simulation, General Eitan said nothing, taking off for home in his own light plane. Next to him sat Sella, who badly wanted to hear the senior commander’s opinion. But Raful remained silent.
Raful Eitan had a place apart in the Israeli military elite. The tough, close-mouthed soldier was the descendant of a family of Subotniks, a sect of Russian peasants who had converted to Judaism and immigrated to Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century. The Subotniks settled in Galilee and became the best farmers in Israel. Raful, too, was born and raised on a farm at moshav Tel Adashim and remained an olive grower and a carpenter all his life, while emerging as a fearless fighter in the Palmach and the IDF. One of the first officers to join Arik Sharon’s paratroopers, he had received the much coveted red (“battle”) lining to his silver wings, after jumping with his battalion at Mitla and opening the Sinai campaign. He fought in all of Israel’s wars, was severely wounded in the Six Day War, carried out several commando missions with his paratroopers and was among the staunchest defenders of the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War. In 1978, the tight-lipped, scarred warrior replaced Motta Gur as IDF chief of staff.
In the flight back north, he didn’t speak for a long time, even though he knew what Aviem Sella wanted to hear from him. Finally, after half an hour in the air, he murmured, “The government will authorize this.”
Aviem Sella let out a sigh of relief.
Yet, many major figures in the security establishment opposed the mission, including the head of military intelligence, Yehoshua Sagi; the head of the Mossad, Yitzhak Hofi; Ezer Weizman, who by then had left the defense ministry and changed his mind; and Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, who went so far as to threaten to resign. Patiently and methodically, Begin began convincing his cabinet of the operation’s importance, persisting until he had won the ministers’ support. Operation Ammunition Hill was set for May 8, 1981. That day, everything was in place. The pilots were sitting in their planes, already prepared for takeoff, when Begin received a letter from opposition leader Shimon Peres, a former minister of defense, pleading that he call off the attack, fearing that the international community would respond harshly and that Israel would be as isolated as, borrowing words from the Book of Jeremiah, “a juniper in the desert.” Begin feared that if Peres, the opposition leader, knew about the top-secret mission, others might know as well and the secret would leak, jeopardizing Ammunition Hill. He therefore decided to delay the mission but was far from giving up. The operation was given the new code name Opera, and a new date—June 7.
Placed at the head of the octet of planes that would attack the reactor was Ze’ev Raz, a commander of one of the F-16 squadrons and a native of kibbutz Geva, in northern Israel. Leading the second group was the squadron commander Amir Nachumi. Among the pilots were Amos Yadlin, later the head of military intelligence, and Captain Ilan Ramon, the group’s youngest member. Ramon was inexperienced but had served as the squadron’s navigation officer, and had particularly impressed Raz when he calculated and then proved that it would be possible to carry out the attack without refueling in midair, despite the trip’s 960-kilometer distance.
David Ivry decided that the planes would be gassed up when the engines were already running, an unusual and risky process. He also ordered the pilots to dump the detachable fuel tanks en route, despite the danger that they might hit the two bombs, each weighing a ton, that would be hanging under each plane’s wings. The mission carried considerable danger: at that time, Iraq was deeply enmeshed in its brutal war with Iran, and it was reasonable to assume that the reactor would be defended by missile batteries and fighter planes. The pilots had no doubt that their F-15s would be forced to face off against numerous MiGs.
They knew they were taking enormous risks. If they were attacked by the enemy, their chances of survival were almost nil. Even if a pilot, whose plane had been hit, managed to parachute into Iraqi territory, hundreds of miles away from home, he would most probably be captured, cruelly tortured and put to death. Yet every pilot who heard about the mission volunteered to be among the chosen few.
On June 7, they set out, crossing the Gulf of Akaba, flying above the northern Saudi Arabian desert, bypassing Jordan from the south, penetrating Iraq and cutting across the Euphrates River as they neared their target. One of the prominent landmarks on the flight path was supposed to be an island at the center of a lake. Raz saw the lake and looked for the island, but it had disappeared. Doubts arose in his mind—perhaps they were flying over the wrong lake? Only later did the squadrons learn that the flat island had been submerged after heavy rains in the region caused the water level to rise.
The nuclear reactor eventually appeared to them, surrounded by high, thick defensive walls that were the pride of Saddam Hussein. Raz initiated contact with his comrades, urging them to increase altitude lest they run into electrical wires or tall power poles in the area. But one fact astonished everyone: no air defense was in place! Not a single MiG was visible in the sky nor was a single missile fired at them. A few negligible antiaircraft cannons fired some shells, but they missed.
The planes plunged toward the reactor, dropping their bombs at a thirty-five-degree angle. A portion of the explosives obliterated the dome covering the reactor; others carrying timed fuses penetrated deeper and blew up the center of the internal installations, the true core of the core. Most hit their target, and the reactor was completely destroyed. One pilot erred and dropped his bombs on an adjoining structure.
In total, the run over the reactor lasted eighty seconds, with the planes then immediately turning back toward Israel. As procedure required, the commanders called on each of the pilots to identify themselves, one after another, as “Charlie.” All did so, except for Ramon. He didn’t respond to the repeated calls of his commanders; only during his debriefing did it come out that he had feared a tardy MiG attack and had believed, being the last in the formation, that it was he who would be hit. He was so focused on the “imaginary battle” that he had ignored the calls on the radio. But he eventually opened his mouth, and the mission’s lost boy was found. (Ramon was to become the first Israeli astronaut, but died tragically in 2003 in the crash of space shuttle Columbia.)
Nevertheless, the pilots felt certain that on their way home, they would encounter Iraqi MiGs scrambled to intercept them: planes that would take off from the H3 airbase, located in western Iraq and close to the Jordanian border, could easily attack them as they returned to Israel. But nothing happened. Not a single Iraqi plane raced to meet them, and all sixteen jets arrived home safely. A foreign attaché who had been staying in Baghdad at the time later said that the reactor’s air-defense commander had been sitting in a Baghdad café, and his underlings hadn’t managed to reach him. He was hanged in a public square in Baghdad the next day, under Saddam Hussein’s orders.
In the course of the attack, ten Iraqi soldiers and a French engineer staying in the structure next to the reactor were killed.
Back home, news of the incredible operation was received with immense excitement. Those who had opposed the mission—everyone except Shimon Peres—acknowledged their error and heaped praise on the mission and the pilots. Not so with the foreign nations. Israel was harshly denounced at numerous international forums. U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a friend of Israel, joined the chorus of condemnation, even imposing sanctions on Israel: a temporary freeze on weapons deliveries.
The dark prophecies of the mission’s opponents—that Saddam Hussein would build a nuclear weapon within two or three years—would prove completely false. Only in 1991, during the first Gulf War, did Israel’s allies come to understand how important its mission had been. Dick Cheney, the Bush administration’s defense secretary (and later, the U.S. vice president), thanked Israel during the war for its “daring, dramatic action.”
The IDF chief of staff awarded a citation to Ze’ev Raz for the flawless mission. Raz insisted that all the participants deserved a medal, though one air force commander would claim, “What do they deserve medals for? They showed up at the game and the other team never set foot on the field.” But the comment ignored the psychological effort, daring and determination of the pilots who had carried out the assignment.
After the mission was over, Israel published the Begin Doctrine, which stated that Israel would prevent any hostile Middle Eastern country from developing nuclear technology, because of the danger that an atomic weapon would be used against Israel.
ZE’EV RAZ, FIGHTER PILOT AND LEADER OF THE IRAQ ASSAULT
“Ironically, I’m proudest of something else. During the Yom Kippur War, I was sent from Ramat David to the Sinai to intercept enemy planes. I was flying a Phantom. Suddenly, a MiG appeared in front of us, and my navigator locked in on it; the missile’s infrared radar also started buzzing, because it sensed the plane’s heat. But I didn’t fire the missile. My navigator shouts, ‘Ze’evik, why aren’t you taking down the plane? Bring it down already!’
“And I don’t fire. Something seems unclear. Why is this MiG flying alone? Why is it here? I came within a distance of four hundred meters, cannon range, and suddenly he breaks off and flies to the side. And then I saw: it’s not a MiG. It’s our Mirage!
“Several years go by, a short time after we established the Hawk Squadron, and David Ivry, the commander of the IAF, called me. It certainly couldn’t have been easy for him because, during my pilot training, I had struggled a bit, and he barely gave me my wings. He asked me, ‘Think about the reactor in Baghdad. Long range, low altitude: can we do this?’ I went to my navigation officer, Ilan Ramon, and he told me it’s possible.
“We did it without refueling in the air, and the Americans truly couldn’t believe it. Only afterward, when we returned, did I find out that one of the pilots, Elik Shafir, had discovered a glitch in his fueling system before takeoff. Instead of getting off the runway and handing off his place to someone else, he took off with less fuel and flew, carrying out the bombing and landing on his last drops of fuel. I told him, ‘Elik, that was crazy, but in your place, I would have done the same thing.’”