Operation Spring of Youth is the codename for an IDF raid in 1973 during which commandos infiltrated Beirut and killed high ranking Palestinian terrorists.
In the Fall of 1972, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists, calling themselves "Black September," infiltrated the Athletes Village at the Munich Olympics, kidnapped and then later murdered 11 Israeli athletes. Israel's most elite and secretive military unit, Sayeret Matkal, was immediately put on the alert after the massacre and the Mossad was tasked with tracking down and eliminating the Palestinian terrorists who were connected with the attack.
Beirut was a mixture of the old and the new in the 1970's, but certainly the "most Western city of the Arab world", complete with high-rise hotels, banks, casinos, "French and Italian boutiques", beautiful beaches with bikini-clad Lebanese women (a rarity in the Arab world), and not far away, ski resorts which together attracted "the wealthiest of tourists and Arabs seeking political freedom in the Lebanese capital."
In 1973, Beirut had not yet collapsed into the smoldering inferno of destruction that it became known for over the next two decades as a result of fierce infighting among the rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Moslems, Maronite Christians, and the mountain Druze. At that time a balance among these groups still existed, though it was tenuous, and the tenuous nature of co-existence meant that a strong government did not impose its will on the population. Having been forced out of nearby Jordan by King Hussein in September 1970, the PLO hastily took the opportunity which presented itself, moved its forces into Lebanon, and took effective control over much of South Lebanon and West Beirut, which they used as a base for terrorist operations against Israel.
In February 1973, Ehud Barak - commander of Sayeret Matkal - obtained photographs and precise intelligence information about the whereabouts of three PLO arch-terrorists in Beirut and he immediately went to work planning and brainstorming ideas about how to take out these men. The Israeli intelligence reports not only knew the exact locations of the terrorists but also had obtained the exact architectural plans of the buildings they lived within.
Barak's plan involved entereing Beirut from the sea on Zodiac boats - rubber inflatables with outboard engines - and then making their way to the designated targest while disguised as tourists. According to the Mossad's intelligence, from the beach the attacking units "needed to get to the targets, about ten kilometers inside the city." There would be three units sent to attack, one each for the three individual apartments, plus a guard unit to stand outside to defend against Lebanese police or PLO backup.
In the end, it was decided to use three cars driven by Mossad operatives who knew the city well. They would drive the fighters to the apartments and pick them up after the operation was finished. The Sayeret Matkal units, disguised as civilian tourists, would be equipped with Uzis, small arms, and explosive charges, all hidden under their clothes. In addition to the three apartments, a unit from a paratroopers brigade, led by Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, was assigned to "hit the six-story headquarters of the world's hijacking experts, George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine." Another paratroopers unit as well as other soldiers from the Shayetet-13 were to "raid weapons manufacturing facilities and fuel dumps that the PLO maintained in the Tyre-Sidon area."
The operation was scheduled to take about "20 minutes from the first shots until PLO and Lebanese reinforcements arrived on the scene" and all the soldiers were expected to be back on the beach ready to alight on the boats that would bring them back to Israel by that time.
The Sayeret Matkal units decided to go in not only disguised as tourists, but dressed as women as well. Barak and Amiram Levine, who would stand guard outside the apartments during the raids, were among the Israeli commandos who did so.
They practiced for the operation in apartment buildings in North Tel Aviv, similar in construction to those they would be assaulting in Beirut. In addition to penetration of the apartments, they practiced walking around as lovers, the men holding the "women." The Sayeret Matkal not only planned the operation meticulously, but planned for unexpected errors, accidents, and interference as well.
Shortly before the operation Muki Betser, who was to lead one of the units, called a meeting:
"'We're going on a very unusual operation,' (he) began. 'A civilian target in the heart of a city. The targets will have guards. They also might be armed, themselves. Civilians live all around them and we have to be extremely careful not to harm them. We have a lot of good intelligence. But the best intelligence we have is that these are people with blood on their hands.' I paused to let my words sink in. 'We are taking a relatively great risk. But we are convinced,' I said, knowing that I spoke for all the officers who planned the raid, 'that the level of risk is logical and reasonable. If we do it right, we can get away without any harm. But anything can happen. That's true. If it does, we need to stay cool, take heart and remain confident that we know how to manage.' I looked around at them. Only a couple of years younger than myself, I felt confident in all of them, and told them so. 'And because I have that confidence, I am convinced we will succeed.'"
At the last moment, Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joined Muki Betser's team. Netanyahu was considered by Betser to be a "great fighter, terrifically motivated and powerfully courageous" and he continued to be involved in secret operations until he was killed during the Israeli raid and rescue of Jewish hostages at Entebbe in 1975.
On Monday, April 9, the group of commandos embarked from Haifa for the 7-hour boat ride to the coast of Beirut. The Zodiac boats were carried on larger missile boats until they approached the shores of Beirut where they were then lowered into the water. The soldiers motored towards the Lebanese coast until they were a few hundred meters off and then turned off the motors and rowed the rest of the way.
Once ashore, they got in the waiting cars drive by Mossad agents and immediately received a report that three Lebanese policemen were unexpectedly patrolling the area in front of the apartments that they were supposed to attack. Barak made a quick decision to continue with the operation despite the obstacle - a call to headquarters could have easily led to the cancellation of the whole operation.
When they approached their target, the soldiers got out of the cars and began walking like lovers as planned. No one suspected them for anything else - the policemen didn't even react when the soldiers passed right by. They got to the apartments and didn't see any guards. Muki Betser's group went in, climbing the stairs at a half-run and set explosive fuses to the door of one of the PLO men. They waited for a signal from outside that the other two units had also set their explosives and were ready to act. They got the go-ahead, lit the fuses, and waited. When they would explode, Barak would immediately "report back to the mother ship that the operation began, setting in motion the rest of the IDF forces in Beirut that night."
Betser describes his part in the raid:
"Finally, the explosion blew open the door in a blast of smoke. I burst in with Tzvika, instinctively taking the left-hand turn into the main corridor of the apartment, running down the hall I knew so well from my drills. Four strides and I reached my target's office. Half a dozen empty chairs faced the desk. Behind it, filing cabinets reminded me that military intelligence wanted any piece of paper we found. To my right, said the architectural plans I memorized, was the master bedroom door. I swung in that direction, just as the door flew open. The face I knew from three weeks of carrying his picture in my shirt pocket looked at me as I raised my gun. He slammed the door. Bursts from my Uzi and Tzvika's stitched the bedroom door. I rushed forward and kicked through the remains of the door."
The PLO terrorist responsible for the Munich massacre of the Israeli athletes was no more. Betser and his men quickly ran down the stairs to deal with some shooting they had heard just before entering the rooms. As they neared the bottom of the stairs, the shooting and noise from outside grew louder.
"Out the front door, I ducked into the shadow of a tree, scanning the intersection just as a burning Lebanese police Land Rover rolled through the intersection. Straight ahead, Amiram Levine in a blonde wig looked like a crazed dancer in the middle of the intersection, his tiny powerful body swinging his Uzi back and forth from target to target. To my right, Ehud (Barak) stood in the middle of the intersection, doing the same. I added my own fire at the Land Rover, giving Amiram cover for him to run toward me. The Land Rover crashed to a halt against a building. But a second vehicle, a jeep full of reinforcements came screeching into the box of fire we created at the intersection."
Quickly, the Mossad cars came screeching to a halt outside of the buildings and the fiery intersection. The Sayeret Matkal units, missions completed, jumped into the cars - only two minutes had passed since they hit their targets in the buildings. Barak checked with the other Sayeret Matkal units; no one had been killed, but one commando had been wounded. No news was yet known about the paratrooper unit which had attacked George Habash's six-story building.
"Ehud cut off radio contact and we rushed in a crazy race down the hills of Beirut. The Mossad drivers knew the city and they knew the big American cars well enough to make them slip and slide around the corners as we raced through the city. No whooping and shouting broke out inside the getaway car. Each man sat alone with his thoughts, alert for enemy forces taking chase."
Once outside of the neighborhood they had just wreaked havoc in, the get away cars slowed down. Soon, before they were to turn off the road leading down to the beach, they saw a Lebanese Army troop carrier scanning the shoreline. The commandos were tense as they waited for it to pass but the Lebanese didn't bother with them.
The commandos jumped out of the cars when they got to the beach. The operation had taken a little longer than expected - a half-hour instead of the anticipated 20 minutes.
As they motored out to sea, they found out what had happened. Three of the top PLO leaders they had intended to assassinate were dead. And George Habash's six-story building was in rubble and ruins. In that raid, which Amnon Shahak had led, two IDF soldiers were killed . Shahak won a medal of valor as he saved the lives of wounded comrades under his command.
Though the commandos did not assassinate PLO chief Yasser Arafat, though they thought they might have gotten him, the mission was still a glaring success. Operation Spring of Youth is still known as one of the IDF's finest moments.
Amiram Levine, who dressed as a woman and stood guard with Barak outside the building, rose to the rank of major-general and served as commander of the northern command. He served as Deputy head of the Mossad.
Sources: 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.
Colonel Muki Betser - Secret Soldier: The Incredible True Story of Israel's Greatest Commando.
Ian Black and Benny Morris - Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services
Dennis Eisenberg, Uri Dan, Dennis Eisenenberg - The Mossad-Inside Stories: Israel's Secret Intelligence Service
Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman - Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community
Stewart Steven - The Spymasters of Israel