Thirty years ago next week – shortly after 5:30 p.m. on June 7, 1981 – Israeli fighter jets flew undetected through hundreds of miles of Arab air space and rained fire from the skies over Baghdad, laying waste an atomic reactor and depriving a brutish dictator the potential for mass destruction.
“The precision of the bombing,” marveled a French technician who viewed the wreckage, “was stupefying.”
Ze’ev Raz, the mission’s lead pilot, recalled years later in an interview with The Jewish Press that “things happened there that to this day we have no explanation for. For instance, according to all calculations the Iraqi radar systems were supposed to have spotted us at least 15 minutes before the bombing despite the fact that we flew at very low altitude.
“That’s why we had eight and not four F-16 fighters, because we thought for sure the Iraqis would spot us and send several MIGs to try to down us. We thought we would encounter heavy resistance.
“Don’t forget, the Iraqis were threatened by Iran too, so for sure they had their radar system and fighter MIGs on alert. We never thought we would take them by such complete surprise. But they didn’t do a thing.
“Here is another inexplicable thing: King Hussein was vacationing in Aqaba and saw us on our way toward Iraq. He immediately phoned Amman – our intelligence picked up the whole conversation then – and reported it to them. But those idiots ignored it and didn’t do anything . Of course it was a miracle. How is it possible that even after we bombed the reactor not one plane tried to down us?”
Miracle or not, the world was outraged. Voices that had been silent for years, while Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein courted the feckless nations of the West in his quest for nuclear bombs, were suddenly raised in a chorus of indignation:
“We don’t think [Israel’s] action serves the cause of peace in the area.” – French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, whose country supplied Hussein the ill-fated reactor.
“Provocative, ill timed and internationally illegal.” – U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield.
“Armed attack in such circumstances cannot be justified; it represents a grave breach of international law.” – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“Israel’s sneak attack…was an act of inexcusable and shortsighted aggression.” – New York Times editorial.
“[The attack] did severe damage to the hope in which Israel’s true security must lie: the hope of realistic relations with all its neighbors.” – New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.
“[Israel has] vastly compounded the difficulties of procuring a peaceful settlement of the confrontations in the Middle East.” – Time magazine.
Innocent souls unschooled in the machinations of diplomatic flimflam were no doubt mystified by the uproar.
After all, wasn’t the act of separating a ruthless tyrant from a state-of-the-art nuclear arsenal a good thing?
And wasn’t Saddam Hussein, at the very time of the Israeli attack, a year into his bloody invasion of Iran?
And hadn’t Hussein worked long and hard to earn the nickname “Butcher of Baghdad”?
Iraq had never been reticent in displaying its animosity toward the Jewish state. When the Arab League organized an “Inter-Arab Command” in the months before Israel’s birth, an Iraqi general was placed in charge, and at the conclusion of the first Arab-Israeli war, Iraq refused to sign an armistice – in stark contrast to the Arab front-line states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
More recently, nine Jews had been hanged in Baghdad in 1969 on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel.
Iraq’s interest in nuclear technology dated back to 1959, when the Soviet Union, looking to expand its influence in the region, agreed to provide Baghdad with a reactor, enriched uranium and a team of scientists and engineers. After several delays – the Iraqis accused the Russians of dragging their feet – the reactor finally went operational in 1968.
Though the Soviets upgraded the reactor’s output (from two to five megawatts) three years later, they steadfastly refused to supply the Iraqis with any material that could have been used in the manufacture of nuclear bombs.
Iraq in the early 1970s had come under the de facto control of Saddam Hussein, though officially Hussein was second in command to General Ahmed Hassan-al-Bakr. Described by those who knew him as “power hungry to the point of insanity,” Hussein destroyed his political enemies, in the process raising the practice of torture to an art form. His stated goal was to succeed the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser as undisputed leader of the Arab world.
Possession of nuclear weapons was central to Hussein’s ambitions. But since the Soviets had unequivocally rejected the Iraqis’ requests on that score, the search was on for a country more willing to deal. Fortunately for Hussein, his rap sheet of bloodshed and megalomania meant nothing to the French, who loved to make new friends, particularly ones swimming in oil.
In 1974 France’s foreign minister, Michel Jobert, went to Baghdad and pledged any assistance Iraq might need to build up its technological infrastructure.
“I am happy,” Jobert said in a toast to his Iraqi hosts, “that your great country will now have the means to restore its past glory.”
Not to be outdone by Jobert’s groveling, the French prime minister, Jacques Chirac, paid a call on Hussein the following year and proclaimed the Iraqi dictator a “great statesman whose qualities will lead his people toward progress and national prosperity.”
It wasn’t long after Chirac’s visit that France agreed to build a nuclear reactor in Iraq – strictly for research purposes, both sides claimed.
“Research” was, of course, the last thing on Hussein’s mind, and he let it be known he was in the market for a hot cell – a piece of equipment that would enable Iraq to develop weapons-grade plutonium. Italy proved eager to sell Iraq what it needed, and at that stage only the blind or the French could fail to see what Hussein had in mind.
All the while Israel had been keeping a wary eye on Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. When Menachem Begin took office in 1977, he stepped up behind-the-scenes efforts to prevent Iraq from becoming a nuclear threat. The U.S. was Begin’s best hope, but the Carter administration, for all its talk of the need to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, was less than energetic in pursuing the matter.
As Israel’s diplomatic efforts foundered, pressure of a different sort was brought to bear on the Iraqis. In April 1979, just days before the French were scheduled to ship the nearly completed reactor to Iraq, saboteurs infiltrated a warehouse near the port of Toulon and attempted to blow up the reactor’s core. Damage, however, was relatively minimal.
Fourteen months later, the head of Iraq’s nuclear program was killed in his Paris hotel room.
Israeli agents were believed responsible for both incidents.
By early 1981 the only question remaining for Begin was when to launch an attack on the reactor. The operation was postponed on more than one occasion when members of Begin’s cabinet voiced concerns over how the U.S. would react to the attack.
For his part, Begin expected a sharp reaction from Washington, perhaps even a U.S. vote to condemn Israel in the UN. But, he thought, it would all be so much window-dressing. Ronald Reagan had defeated Jimmy Carter the previous November, and Begin regarded President Reagan and his secretary of state, Alexander Haig, as warm friends of Israel.
As winter turned to spring, Begin began bracing himself for a final decision to strike at Iraq. He’d informed Labor party leader Shimon Peres of the plan to bomb the reactor. Peres made clear his opposition to the idea. Begin now knew the operation would bring harsh reaction not only from the outside world but from within Israel as well.
Adding to his uncertainty, Israelis would be heading to the polls in just a few weeks. Begin was locked in an extremely tight race with Peres and feared he would be accused of staging the raid as an election ploy. But he had an even greater fear – one that convinced him of the need to act before the election and a possible Peres victory.
“He really believed that Peres would never have the guts to order the raid,” said a Begin aide. “And Begin couldn’t bear the thought of Israel living in terror of an Iraqi bomb.”
The F-16 pilots were Ze’ev Raz, Amos Yadlin, Dobbi Yaffe, Hagai Katz, Amir Nachumi, Iftach Spector, Relik Shafir, and Ilan Ramon (who would go on to become Israel’s first astronaut, only to perish in the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003).
Begin summoned his cabinet to his home in Jerusalem. “Welcome, my friends,” he greeted the assembled group. “At this very moment our planes are approaching Baghdad.”
Not long afterward, Begin received the message he’d been anxiously awaiting.Thereactor had been destroyed and the pilots were on their way home.
“Baruch Hashem,” Begin exclaimed. “What wonderful boys we have.”
In Israel, news of the raid set off an atmosphere of euphoria not felt since the 1976 Entebbe rescue. As expected, the Labor opposition was highly critical of the operation and its timing, but the criticism was quickly toned down once Peres and his colleagues realized how out of sync they were with the mood in the street.
The U.S. reacted much the way Begin thought it would. The Reagan administration voted to condemn Israel in the UN, and several F-16s scheduled for shipment to Israel were held back a few weeks. At the same time, President Reagan called Begin to assure him of his continued support.
“Technically,” Reagan would write years later, “Israel had violated an agreement not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge … but I sympathized with Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Begin survived the international firestorm of criticism and went on to win reelection. His defense of the raid was blunt and emotional.
“The Iraqis were preparing atomic bombs to drop on the children of Israel,” he told a gathering of foreign correspondents in Jerusalem several days after the attack.
“Haven’t you heard of one-and-a-half million little Jewish children who were thrown into the gas chambers? Another Holocaust would have happened in the history of the Jewish people.
“Never again, never again. Tell your friends, tell anybody you meet, we shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal.”
Many of Begin’s Israeli critics would admit to having second thoughts in the weeks and months following the raid.
“Up to this point in time, the fact is that I was not right,” conceded Labor’s Mordechai Gur.
“It was a triumph, no diplomatic harm was caused and Israeli deterrence was reinforced,” said Abba Eban.
Moshe Dayan may have put it best: “Not one Arab would shed a tear were Israel to vanish off the face of the map…. To me, the raid was a positive action. Iraq was producing nuclear weapons against Israel, and we were obliged to defend ourselves.”
It took the rest of the world a little more time to come to grips with Saddam Hussein, but few illusions remained by the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990.
In 1981 the Soviet Union had characterized the attack on Saddam’s reactor as “an act of gangsterism”; nine years later the Soviet chief of staff called it understandable.
In the fall of 1990, as an American-led coalition prepared for war with Iraq, U.S. defense secretary Dick Cheney publicly thanked Israel for its action.
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The General Staff originally wanted us to carry out the bombing after sunset so it would be harder for the Iraqis to attack us on the way back. But I was opposed to that. I thought if we did the bombing after sunset there wouldn’t be enough light and our planes would miss their target – so I insisted that the bombing take place before sunset.
As a result, we flew back as the sun was setting. But since the planes were traveling at such a fast speed, the sun was out all the time and never set. It was as though it remained standing in the middle of the horizon.
At that time we pilots all radioed each other reciting the same exact biblical verse – Joshua 10:12: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and moon, over the Valley of Ayalon.”
You know, as I am recalling this now I am getting goose bumps.