Israeli Intelligence in the 1967 War
By Doron Geller
There were a number of factors that led to the stunning Israeli victory in June 1967. Years before the war broke out Wolfgang Lotz had penetrated the highest levels of the Egyptian military and political establishments to obtain vital information on Egypt's defense and contingency plans. Eli Cohen had done the same in Syria. There were many more like them, who remain unknown and anonymous.
In August 1966, too, the Iraqi Air Force pilot, Munir Redfa, flew his Soviet-made MiG-21 to Israel, a defection that benefited Israel greatly in terms of its Air Force's ability to train against an aerial adversary.
With the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, existing tensions only increased with the rise on cross-border infiltration and Arab terrorist attacks on Israelis. The capture and hanging of Eli Cohen in Damascus in 1965 only fuelled the flames. Arab attacks in turn led to Israeli retaliation, culminating in an Israeli dogfight with Syrian planes over the Golan Heights on April 7, 1967. Syrian gunners had shelled the settlement of Tel-Katzir below the Golan Heights shortly beforehand. The Israeli Air Force sent out IAF planes to take out Syrian guns, Syrian planes rose up to defend them, and the IAF shot down 6 Syrian planes to no Israeli losses.
Chief of Israeli General Staff Yitzhak Rabin warned that Israel would not remain passive in the face of provocation. The Syrians, alarmed by their show of weakness, were nervous about Israeli conclusions and intentions. Thus the Syrians looked to the Egyptians to back them up.
Nasser, as the undisputed leader of the Arab world, took up the challenge. On May 14 and 15 lead units of two Egyptian divisions rolled into the Sinai Peninsula. He placed the Egyptian Army on full alert.
The move took the Israeli Intelligence Services by surprise. According to Service estimates, the Arab armies would not be ready for war until 1969-70. The Egyptians had large numbers of forces tied down in Yemen backing the anti-Saudi, anti-royalist forces there. In addition, since the conclusion of the Sinai War of 1956, the Sinai had been effectively demilitarized. United Nations peacekeeping forces had been stationed there as an Israeli precondition for the withdrawal of her forces from the Sinai following the war.
It was true that as early as 1960, following skirmishes on the Israeli-Syrian border, Egypt had sent large forces into the Sinai with the intention of "deterring Israel from attacking Syria." But the Egyptian troop deployments of May 1967 were different. "Unlike 1960, when the Egyptians had entered secretly so that their eventual withdrawal could be low-key and honorable, there was no radio silence in this operation, no secrecy; in fact, the sight of Egyptian tanks in a bright sand camouflage en route to push the Jews into the sea was covered with great glee by the Arab media."
Israeli Military Intelligence (Aman) had only a few hours' advance warning of the Egyptian move into Sinai. Even so Aman was not overly worried. The Israelis thought that Nasser "would order his army and tanks to withdraw after a show of force had put Israel in its place." This was despite the fact that the Soviets were clearly stirring up trouble in the region. "Perhaps wishing to instigate a conflict in order to humiliate Israel, or to instill a sense of invincibility in the Arab camp, the Soviets gave the Egyptians and Syrians false information about nonexistent IDF troop movements and about American intentions.'" On May 13, the Soviets had told Anwar Sadat, Nasser's deputy who was on a visit to Moscow, that Israeli troops "were massing and intended to invade Syria." The Soviet leader had mentioned 11-13 Israeli brigades massing on the border with Syria, of which Sadat quickly informed Nasser.
The Soviets probably did not intend war. They thought both Israel and the Arabs would stop short of the brink, but they were wrong. It seems the Soviets completely underestimated Israel's ability and willingness to defend her rights. In a by now rather famous conversation Moshe Sneh (leader of the Israel Communist Party) had with the Soviet ambassador to Israel, Sneh said: "'Israel will win the war.' The Soviet ambassador responded: 'Who will fight? The espresso boys and the pimps of Dizengoff Street?'"
Still, on May 15-16, the Israelis were confident. That changed on May 16, when Nasser asked UN Secretary-General U Thant to withdraw UN forces from the Sinai. U Thant quickly complied, leaving no international forces between Egypt's army in the Sinai and Israel's borders. In fact, the speed with which U Thant complied with Nasser's request may have surprised even Nasser. If Nasser's intentions were only to bluff, then, having gone this far, he could not pull back from the brink for reasons of face.
By May 19 the Egyptians had deployed six divisions in the Sinai. Israeli Intelligence chief Meir Amit "proposed that Israel publish abroad aerial reconnaissance photographs of the massive Egyptian deployment…" with the idea of justifying Israel's mobilization of her reserves, which had begun on May 16. However, the Israeli leadership rejected the suggestion.
On May 20 Israeli Intelligence learned that Nasser had recalled three Egyptian brigades from Yemen. This was ominous. The same day Egyptian forces took over Sharm El-Sheik, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. At midnight on May 22 Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran, at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba, thus closing off Israel's only shipping route through the Red Sea. This was a clear causus belli, which had been understood since 1956 - Israel's shipping routes through the Red Sea would not be impeded.
Military Intelligence Chief Aharon Yariv attended the Cabinet meeting the following morning in Tel-Aviv, with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol present. He announced: "'The post-Suez period is over…It is not merely a question of freedom of navigation. If Israel does not respond to the closure of the Straits, there will be no value to its credibility or to the IDF's deterrent power, because the Arab states will interpret Israel's weakness as an excellent opportunity to assail her security and her very existence.'" He called for immediate military action, as did Air Force chief (and Israel's current president) Ezer Weizmann.
Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin was more reserved but on May 23 he agreed with Yariv's and Weizmann's assessment that Israel should take the initiative and make the first strike. But Prime Minister Levi Eshkol preferred to continue with the diplomatic route, hoping that Western powers would solve the issue.
On May 30 King Hussein of Jordan made a surprise visit to Nasser in Cairo. While there had been a lot of animosity between Nasser and Hussein in the past, they made up and signed a mutual defense pact. Jordan was brought "into a joint military command with Egypt." An Egyptian general was put in command of Arab forces on the Jordanian front.
While Soviet warnings may have preempted the crisis and U Thant's decision to withdraw UN forces upon Nasser's request deepened it, the joint Egyptian-Jordanian military pact made war almost inevitable.
On June 2 the Israeli Cabinet decided in principle on war. The military realized the dangers of waiting any longer: more Egyptian troops would arrive from Yemen, and the Soviet Union would continue with its supply of weapons to Egypt. Moreover, it was understood that the United States and Washington would do nothing to break Nasser's blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba.
More than that, Military Intelligence was also aware of the weakness of Egyptian preparations and morale. Yariv asserted that "the Egyptians were still busy pushing units across the canal and were doing so in such haste that some of their troops had been left without food and water for two days running." Some of them arrived at the front in traditional Arab peasant dress, "as there had not been time to issue them with uniforms."
Mossad Chief Meir Amit returned from consultations in Washington and was convinced that the Americans supported an Israeli first strike. On June 4 the Cabinet decided on war, and on the morning of June 5, the Israeli attack began.
Egyptian pilots woke up to the sounds of their planes exploding on the ground that morning. The Israeli Air Force destroyed 304 out of 419 Egyptian aircraft on the ground, 53 out of 112 Syrian planes, and Jordan's entire 28 plane Air Force. The IAF even struck at Iraq's western most airbase at Habbaniya, destroying ten planes on the ground.
Israel's main attack on the Egyptian airbase came in two waves. IAF planes flew over the Mediterranean and then east to attack Egypt's Sinai bases. At 12:15 p.m. Israel attacked the Syrian and Jordanian Air Forces, putting them mostly out of action. With the Arab Air Forces out of the way, Israel rolled into the Sinai, Jerusalem and the West Bank and took them over completely within three days. On the sixth day of the war Israel took the Golan Heights, putting the northern Galilee out of the range of Syrian guns, as well.
Israel's tremendous military success came not only as a result of the high level of training, expertise and courage of her pilots and soldiers, but also as a result of accurate intelligence. As Samuel Katz writes; "It is safe to assume that in no time in the history of modern warfare has a nation been equipped with such an intimate portrait of the enemy's disposition, deployment, abilities and inabilities as was the IDF…on the morning of June 5, 1967." King Hussein of Jordan later said; "'Their pilots knew exactly what to expect…their pilots had a complete catalogue of the most minute details of each of the thirty-two Arab air bases, what objectives to strike, where, when and how. We had nothing like that.'" Israel's Intelligence had been so attentive that they knew the exact timing of Egyptian patrols and their air routes. Air Force commander Motti Hod told Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin on June 4: "'For the past two weeks, we have been keeping a watch on the precise movements of the Egyptian air force…at first light they take off on patrol, staying up for an hour. Then they return to base and go off for breakfast. Between seven and eight, everything is dead, and 7:45 in the morning is the ideal time for us.'" That was the exact time that the Israeli Air Force struck.
The groundwork for the successful penetration of the Egyptian and Syrian militaries was laid by Wolfgang Lotz and Eli Cohen, but many other spies, both Israelis and Arabs - and sometimes European or American non-Jews - also worked on behalf of Israel. Ali al-Alfi, the masseur to both Nasser and his successor Anwar el-Sadat, may have spied on behalf of Israel. He was accused by the Egyptians of doing so and was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 1979.
Anwar Ephraim was a Military Intelligence agent who was believed to be "responsible for organizing a massive and, if reports of the celebration are correct, frenzied party for the pilots of (an air force base) just outside of Alexandria. The party was thrown on June 4, "less than twelve hours before the preemptive Israeli blitz…" They drank and ate and watched belly dancers until the "wee hours of the morning", and a little before Israeli pilots prepared for takeoff, Ephraim left Egypt on an international flight. Another Israeli became a close personal friend of an Egyptian belly dancer, who was presumed to have been privy to many state secrets.
An Egyptian officer provided much valuable information to the Israeli Army in the days leading up to the Israeli preemptive strike of June 5. Nor was Israeli Intelligence restricted to the Egyptian or even the Syrian Military. They had accurate knowledge of Jordanian politcal and military installations too. "After the war Samir ar-Rifai (an assistant to King Hussein), told Western reporters that a lone IAF Super Mystere had attacked King Hussein's office in the Royal Palace in Amman on the afternoon of 5 June. The Israeli plane 'machine-gunned the king's office at point-blank range with a precision and knowledge of its target that was stupefying,' ar-Rifai said.
The Israelis had also invented or made good use of existing electronic gadgets to decipher enemy movements or intentions, as well as to listen in on conversations.
The best-known example of Israel's technical ability and advantage during the 1967 War was the capturing of a conversation between Nasser and King Hussein of Jordan on the second day of the war, June 6. At the time most of Nasser's Air Force had been wiped out, but he didn't tell that to King Hussein. Nevertheless, things were not going well for either of them, as can be understood from the conversation:
"Nasser: How are you? The brother (Nasser referring to Hussein) wants to know if the fighting is going on all along the front…Do you know that the US is participating alongside Israel in the war? Should we announce this?…Should we say that the US and Britain (are participating) or only the US? (Nasser later did broadcast that the Americans had taken part in the initial, decisive air assault, in order to explain away the defeat.)
Hussein: The US and England.
Nasser: Does Britain have aircraft carriers?
Nasser: Good. King Hussein will make an announcement and I will make an announcement… we will make sure that the Syrians (also) make an announcement that American and British aircraft are using their aircraft carriers against us…(Meanwhile), our aircraft have been attacking Israel's airfields since this morning."
This conversation was carried out over the public telephone system and was tapped "by two veteran Aman (Military Intelligence) officers using Second World War vintage equipment." Their commanding officer told them "'It's worth millions. Make four copies.'"
Aman Chief Aharon Yariv opposed the publication of the conversation, fearing that it would reveal the extent of Israel's eavesdropping capabilities and thus encourage the Arabs to upgrade their systems. But he was overruled by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who believed it would have great political effect; the conversation would show that the Arab leaders would shamelessly lie for their own ends (and to make it appear as if Israel was incapable of such military action on her own), as well as to drive a wedge between Nasser and Hussein. The message made it clear that despite the fact that Nasser was aware of the heavy losses he had suffered at that point, he neglected to inform his ally Hussein.
The publication of the conversation indeed did lead "the Arabs to considerably upgrade their communications security, rendering Aman's electronic eavesdropping much more difficult. One senior intelligence officer said later that the publication cost Israel 60 per cent of its Sigint (Signal Interception) capability in the Arab states.'" On the other hand, the Arabs no longer knew if what they said was being heard or not.
At 2 p.m. on June 6, Military Intelligence made a very important interception in terms of ground operations "of Nasser's general order to his forces in Sinai to fall back to the Suez Canal, following the major breakthroughs by Israeli divisions led by General Israel Tal (on the northern Sinai axis) and General Ariel Sharon (southern axis) early that day. This enabled the IDF General Staff to decide on opening an offensive against Syria in the southern Golan Heights three days later."
The Israeli breaking of the Egyptian military code enabled them to confuse the Egyptian army and air force with false orders. Israeli officers "ordered an Egyptian MiG pilot to release his bombs over the sea instead of carrying out an attack on Israeli positions." When the pilot questioned the veracity of the order, the Israeli Intelligence officer gave the pilot details on his wife and family." The pilot indeed dropped his bombs over the Mediterranean and parachuted to safety.
Another major incident occurred when an Israeli Intelligence agent impersonated an Egyptian officer and instructed a lost battalion in the Sinai away from Israeli lines. After the ceasefire was declared the Aman officer guided the Egyptian unit towards a POW camp, where the Egyptian tanks and soldiers were taken under Israeli control.
Israeli Intelligence also confused the Egyptian Army about its real intentions regarding invasion routes. These broadcasts worked so well that major Egyptian units waited for advancing Israeli tank units that never came - they had simply bypassed the Egyptians and made their way all the way to the Suez Canal.
Many other measures of Israeli Intelligence ingenuity never came to light. But Intelligence played a major part in the winning of the war. In the years to come, with greatly expanded borders acquired as a result of the 1967 War, Israeli Intelligence at all levels would grow in importance and sophistication as she struggled to deal with the new challenges, many of them unforeseen before the great victory of 1967.
Source: The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1992-2005, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente. This material may not be republished without the permission of the copyright owner.