affi Berg’s debut Red Sea Spies (Icon Books) lifts the lid on one of the Mossad’s most astonishing operations. In the early 1980s, secret agents smuggled Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan and on to Israel while masquerading as staff at a fake diving resort – all under the noses of the Sudanese authorities and guests. In this excerpt, members of the Mossad team, led by commander Dani, who leased the resort under the guise of the director of a travel company, get the site ready for business.
In between operations, there were only two members of the team permanently at the village (later on, at busy times extra Mossad agents who were not specifically part of the mission would be drafted in to help out). When Yola arrived, it was just she and Rubi for four months. In the run-up to an operation, Dani’s team would start trickling in, one after the other. London-born Halevy, the head of the division, himself went twice, posing as Navco’s bookkeeper. After an operation, the agents would depart, with just the resort’s manageress and a diving instructor staying on.
After getting the kitchen running, Yola started on the bed-rooms, clearing them out and cleaning them up. The rooms on the north side of the main building and a few on the south were reserved for guests. The others were set aside for Mossad agents and for storing diving gear and secret equipment, including the two modified air cylinders. The store room was out of bounds except for the management.
By the winter of 1982, refurbishments were finished and the village was properly ready for business (it ended up cost-ing nearer $100,000 than the estimated $1.1 million that Noam had calculated). So far it had been catering for small numbers of local guests, but to keep the Tourism Corporation happy, the resort had to begin attracting foreign tourists and diving enthusiasts. It was time to start publicising, in a low-key way, the holiday village run by secret agents.
One of the travel agencies which had sent divers to resorts in the Sinai was Irene Reisen, a small, Israeli-owned company in Zurich, specialising in diving holidays. Rubi knew the director, ‘ZL’, and contacted him. He told ZL he had relocated and was ‘doing something for Israel’ but without mentioning the Mossad.
‘Only I’m not Rubi,’ he told him, ‘I’m now called James.’ He told him about Arous, and asked him to sell it as a sublime holiday experience for scuba divers and adventure-seeking travellers.
ZL contacted Michael Neumann, a local biology student and diver, who he would sometimes pay to scout out new des-tinations, and asked him to go and check out Arous.
The idea appealed to Neumann, so, in November 1982, he and a friend – a sales manager at Euro Divers, a Zurich-based company specialising in diving holidays in the Maldives – went down to Port Sudan. From there they got a lift on the back of a truck and travelled up to Arous (Neumann had to first obtain a new passport, because his current one had Israeli stamps, which would have barred him from Sudan). Once there, Neumann says, he sensed there was more to the place than met the eye.
‘There was this village with a central building and all these bungalows and nothing around it at all, on this bay,’ he recalls. ‘There were two people working there – a woman and a guy. They said they were European but their accents made me not so sure.
‘There was this big open-plan restaurant and we would have our meals there. The man and the woman would be sitting in one corner and we would be assigned a table in a completely different corner and we were the only four people there. I thought that was a little unusual, for the staff of a diving resort to do that, especially with people who had come to check out the place in order to then bring tourists.
‘They kept themselves to themselves, but then of course we were diving together every day and after a while we started sit-ting together, and went out in the Zodiac; and then things were a little strange because the guy would take off at dusk in the Zodiac and he would come back at night completely shattered.’ Neumann had taken publicity shots at Arous and they were used in a glossy advertisement which the Mossad produced by the thousands, distributing them in travel agents and dive stores across Europe.
‘Arous. A wonderful world apart,’ read the headline set against an azure sky above a turquoise sea. Underneath, an idyllic scene of whitewashed chalets on a sun-drenched beach. The poster was illustrated with exotic scenes, including a blonde, tanned bikini-clad woman, diving cylinder on her back, a pair of blue-cheek butterfly fish, a scuttling ghost crab and a Sudanese man and woman smiling warmly (it was Abu Medina and Noora, the head chambermaid). It also showed, from behind, the figure of a man in blue trunks and a dark top walking across the sand. The man was Rubi, who intentionally got himself into shot as a stunt for his amusement.
The advertisement alluringly promised ‘adventure à la carte’. ‘Rarely has nature been so generous or so varied,’ it said. ‘Exotic fish of many kinds swim by, their brilliant hues enhanced by the exceptional clarity of the water. Here, too, are turtles, mantas, bottle-nosed dolphins, graceful sailfish and, in the depths, various species of sharks.
‘Cormorants, cranes, flamingos, ospreys and pelicans wing their way through the unpolluted air. At night, after the land-scape colours have paled, there are breathtaking views of the heavens, aflame with millions of stars.
‘At the end of an active day, relax in the friendly atmosphere of the games room. Have a refreshing drink, a game of darts and then an excellent meal in the Arous restaurant, where fresh fish is served daily.’
The resort was, it said, ‘unique in all the world’ – a claim which in this case was without doubt true.
The advertisement provided information on how to get there, including flights from nine countries in Europe, as well as from Jeddah and Khartoum. It advised that visas were required for overseas visitors, which, it said, could be arranged by ‘the Sudan Tourism Corporation, or Navco Aviation Co’. It gave the address of Navco as Rue des Alpes, Geneva.
Dani and Salah Madaneh, the head of the Port Sudan tourist office, drew up a price list, based on the tariffs from the time of the Italians. Rates began at US$65 per night for a single occupancy, half-board, to $120 per night for a double room, full-board. There was no charge for children under three years old. There were also prices for various water sports including windsurfing, water-skiing and boat trips (the sole windsurfing board came from a surf shop in Tel Aviv and had been smuggled into Sudan). Boat trips, the price list said, included the use of ‘shuftascopes’ – or, to use the proper name, hydroscopes – a glass-bottomed instrument for peering into the water. The word was a portmanteau invented by Abu Medina, based on the Arabic word shuft (‘look’).
It offered introductory diving lessons with diving equip-ment for hire, and day trips to Arbaat and Suakin, an ancient port famed for its Ottoman-era coral buildings, 65 kilometres south of Port Sudan. Navco marketed the resort, putting advertisements in Tauchen (‘Diver’) magazine in Switzerland and in Sudanow, a local monthly English-language magazine read by expatriates.
The uniqueness of the holiday village caught the attention of divers and independent travellers looking for something different. The first foreign bookings were made, and groups began to arrive, flying into Khartoum, then taking a connecting flight to Port Sudan. There they would be picked up by Ali the driver and taken on the long, bumpy ride to Arous.
Within weeks, the resort was almost sold out. A letter sent by the liaison office of the Sudanese Tourism Corporation to a planned large delegation of military attachés in Khartoum in December 1982 urges final confirmation as ‘the village is nearly booked by tourists from Europe’. It shows the following provisional tally of attachés and their families with reservations for 27–31 December: France – up to eleven guests, six rooms; Britain – up to nine guests, four rooms; West Germany – at least four guests, one room; USSR – four guests, two rooms; Sudan – two guests, one room; US – two guests, one room; Ethiopia – one guest, one room; and an unidentified ‘Colonel Tucker’ – four guests, two rooms.
One of the most regular visitors to the resort was a French military attaché by the name of Christian de Saint-Julien. A veteran of the Algerian War, Saint-Julien would come with his wife and child for holidays. He was well-liked by the Israelis, but never knew who they really were. He would sit and talk with them about things going on outside, with the agents playing naive. They would ask him questions that would sometimes yield intelligence, including, according to one of the operatives, ‘military secrets’, without elaborating. They made sure he was looked after and always came back.
Diplomats from the highest level came to stay at Arous. They included the US Ambassador to Sudan, Constantine William Kontos and his wife, Joan, and the US Ambassador to Egypt, Alfred Leroy Atherton Jr (a Middle East expert who had helped to negotiate the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt) and his wife, Betty. The Egyptian Ambassador, Ahmed Ezzat Abdullatif, was also a guest, and would while away the hours chatting and playing backgammon with the diving instructors, unaware that they were Mossad. Abdullatif was not the first Egyptian to stay there. Once, before it had officially opened, a unit of Egyptian soldiers on a training exercise in the area were put up in the village for a couple of days, at the hospitality of Rubi and Gad, where they played football together and talked over cups of tea.
Once, on the last day of their holiday, three European ambassadors went fishing. The sun was beating down and it was unusually hot. Their flight to Khartoum was due to leave at 4pm that afternoon, but at midday the Tourism Corporation radioed the resort to say they had been informed that the Saudi pilot had decided to leave early. The ambassadors were out at sea with no means of communication. Flights from Port Sudan had never before left on time, let alone early, and sometimes did not even go at all, so to miss the flight would have left them stranded. A manageress jumped into one of the cars and drove at high-speed to the airport (in reality, it barely qualified as such, being little more than an airstrip with some benches). She ran onto the plane and grabbed the pilot.
‘Listen, you have three ambassadors in Arous now,’ she told him. ‘If you leave without them, I’ll make sure there’ll be a diplomatic incident between their countries and Saudi Arabia, and I’ll see to it that they know it’s all your fault!’
The pilot was flustered but agreed to wait until four. Nobody got off the plane, and it stayed sitting there for hours, along with goats and sheep which were customarily transported in the cabin. The heat was stifling and the air conditioning switched off. The ambassadors arrived, on time, oblivious to the hold-up.
Apart from the diplomats, most of the guests were ordinary tourists or Westerners working in Sudan, or, occasionally well-heeled Sudanese nationals. A handwritten register from the village shows visitors from Britain, Switzerland, Germany, the US, Spain, Sweden and France, with diverse jobs, including engineers, teachers and a ‘dairyman’. Others came from locally based operations such USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), Mobil Oil and the British Red Cross. Among guests recorded as having stayed there were an Iraqi manager of the National Bank of Sudan and the ‘Sudanese director of the president – office of the Council of Ministers’ – both of whose countries were technically at war with Israel. Some of the handwritten entries are annotated with obser-vations, including: ‘lovely family’, ‘chatterbox’, ‘miser’, and, somewhat intriguingly, ‘CATASTROPHE!!!’.
American Emily Copeland was working as a local hire for the UNHCR when she went to stay at Arous. She had been near the border with Eritrea carrying out surveys of refugees suffering from malnutrition, when someone suggested a trip to the village.
‘At the time, that was really the only place international staff could go that would be a vacation break within the country,’ she says. ‘So, a bunch of us went up to this dive resort for a few days of R&R.
‘After you’ve been in the camps – and I’d been doing this for six months – it was the first place of its kind I had seen. The only other places where you could go and relax were like the Sudan Club [a British colonial-era institution in Khartoum], but you had to have an invite to get in.
‘Arous was really beautiful. They had these lovely little vacation cabins and you’d go out on boats and go diving or snorkelling. The underwater scenery was just breathtaking.
‘I remember the European staff all looked young and really healthy and fit, and at dinner time, people would say: “Why the heck [build a resort] here?” Of course, the answer was it was totally gorgeous and unspoilt, and people were saying: “Wow, I hope they can make a go of it.”
‘The interesting thing was,’ she continued, ‘nobody knew they were Israeli. If it was a front, it was a pretty good one, because they really provided a service. They seemed very legitimate.’
The holiday village was also a welcome place for overseas staff of companies mining for gold in the Red Sea Hills.
‘It was our chance to escape every now and again,’ recalls Briton Phil Newall, who worked for Robertson Research con-sultancy, which ran an operation in the Gebeit mine, about 90 kilometres north-west of Arous. Newall remembers Arous as a ‘stunning place, with very impressive diving gear, and a bunch of well-toned guys’.
He and three colleagues visited at a time when there were no guests. ‘It was very exciting but it just struck you, as soon as you went in this place, it was weird. It was all very tidy – every-thing looked really new and shiny. It was bizarre because there were so many people there to help you, but no one actually staying there.
‘It was like “Yeah, come in, what do you want to do? Snorkelling? Sub-aqua?” Whatever we asked for they said “Fine. You can use this or that”, and we just paid a few dollars.
‘The thought in my mind at all times was: “How has this company managed to put all this infrastructure in place and there’s nobody here at all? Who’s paying for this?” But they were very friendly – it’s as if they were just happy to have us there.’ Some guests were not who they seemed to be. On one occasion, three American visitors arrived and asked to stay for two weeks. The Mossad staff immediately suspected they were spies. ‘I think if they came with a sign on their forehead saying “CIA”, they couldn’t have been more obvious,’ one agent recalls. ‘Even though they were all divers, there was something about their behaviour.’ It is possible the CIA agents were sent to check out the resort which had sprung back to life on a barren stretch of coast. This created the strange situation of undercover US and Israeli agents trying to outfox each other with neither knowing for sure who the other was. If the Americans did put two and two together, they never let on.
One CIA agent who definitely did go there was one of the predecessors to Milton Bearden, the CIA station chief in Khartoum. Bearden himself stayed away, but his predecessor was part of the Mossad’s emergency contact plan, so the Israelis knew him and he knew them. ‘We mingled with the guests, but we pretended of course not to know him,’ another of the undercover staff recalls. ‘Of course, he knew what was going on, but he never gave a sign and we never gave a sign.’
However, there were at least two occasions when guests did uncover the truth – incidents which threatened to put the whole operation at stake. Both times, the guests were Jewish – which paradoxically, being more attuned to the idiosyncrasies of Israelis, carried more risk than non-Jewish guests.
The first time happened when an agent was with a group of guests on a dive. One of them, a Swiss man, noticed that the agent made a hand signal for ‘Okay’, used in the military instead of the more common ‘thumbs up’. He asked the agent a question in Hebrew, and the agent inadvertently replied with the Hebrew word ‘ken’ – ‘yes’. Alarmed at his slip-up, the agent tried to cover up.
‘What did you say?’ he asked.
‘Look, I understand you’re Israelis,’ the man replied. ‘But don’t worry, I’m not going to say anything.’
The agent pretended to be puzzled, as if he did not know what the guest was getting at in the hope the man would doubt himself. But his verbal blunder rang like an alarm bell in his head and he hurriedly went to find Dani.
‘I’m burned!’ he told him, explaining what had happened. ‘Right,’ said Dani, thinking quickly. ‘I’ll sort it out.’
The guest was back in his room when there was a knock at the door. He opened up to find Dani there, looking serious.
‘You were on a dive with one of the instructors,’ Dani said, making a statement rather than asking.
‘Yes,’ replied the man.
‘I understand you have questions,’ Dani put it to him.
The man responded keenly. ‘I know who you are,’ he said.
‘But don’t worry, I won’t say anything.’
‘That’s right,’ said Dani, ‘because I see you have requested a night-dive. Well I’m going to tell the diving instructor to take you to a special reef where there are sharks who love kosher meat.’
‘No … no … I didn’t …’, stuttered the man.
‘Be careful what you say and who you say it to, because we have ears everywhere,’ Dani warned him, before leaving the room.
The man did not mention it again for the rest of his stay and the Israelis heard nothing more afterwards.
*All pictures courtesy of Raffi Berg.
We hope you have enjoyed this article! Unlike many other publications, we do not have a paywall. In order to continue this way, and to make sure that our writers are paid fairly for their work, we are totally reliant on those who can afford to do so, and who care about the Tel Aviv Review of Books, to help support our work. Please consider making a donation. Many thanks!
Raffi Berg is the Middle East editor of the BBC News website. A journalist for more than 25 years, he has reported extensively from Israel in times of war and peace. He is a former student of the London School of Economics and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.Read more
An excerpt from Haggai Ram's book about hashish in Mandatory Palestine and Israel.
An excerpt from Yishai Sarid's new novel about a historian who specializes in leading tours of concentration camps in Poland.
An intimate conversation with the acclaimed Israeli filmmaker.
An interview with the newest member of the Tel Aviv Review of Books editorial team.