With the capture of Saddam Hussein, one of Israel’s urban legends finally can be confirmed.
Israeli media revealed Tuesday that the Tze’elim disaster, a 1992 military accident in which five Israeli soldiers were killed at a Negev training base, came as the army’s top commando unit was rehearsing a complex plot to assassinate the Iraqi leader in retaliation for his Scud salvos during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Though that scenario had been rumored for years, it officially was kept under wraps by military censors and top military brass.
Israel’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, called the release of the information this week “irresponsible.”
“Some things should be kept to ourselves rather than shared with the world,” he told reporters.
Media reports describe a bold and brutal plan. A team from Sayeret Matkal — Israel’s version of the Delta Force or the SAS — would be airlifted quietly to Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, where he was expected to attend the funeral of his father-in-law, who was dying of diabetes-related ailments.
They would hit Saddam with guided missiles and in so doing restore to the Jewish state the deterrent power it had enjoyed in the region. Many believed Israel had forfeited its deterrent power by not responding to Saddam’s Scuds during the war.
“The mission was seen as a strategic necessity, not some macho stunt,” Danny Yatom, a former Sayeret Matkal member and Mossad chief, told Channel 1 television.
The exact type of weapon that was to be used against Saddam still is a state secret. According to security sources, it was an Israeli-made missile that, using a miniature camera fitted into its nose, can be visually guided to its target and fitted with a variety of warheads suiting different needs.
Israel sometimes uses an adapted version today, fired from helicopter gunships, to target Palestinian terrorists, the sources said.
But it all went drastically awry on Nov. 5, 1992. During a rehearsal run at the Tze’elim military base, the missile misfired and slammed into the commando team, killing five.
The Israeli military chief of staff at the time, Ehud Barak, left the scene as medics moved in to help.
Though Barak was cleared of criminal culpability in the incident — he was needed in a command capacity overseeing the response to the incident, rather than administering first aid — charges that he fled the scene would haunt him throughout his political career.
Ironically, one of the few survivors of the botched test was Eyal Katvan, the soldier “playing” Saddam; he ended up hospitalized with serious injuries.
The mission was then called off and Saddam was spared.
Labor legislator Ephraim Sneh, who was a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in 1992, said then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had ordered the assassination operation.
“The credit should be given to the prime minister because it was his courage to approve this operation,” Sneh told The Associated Press.
Israeli radio said the troops involved were volunteers and understood that they were to “fight to the death” or commit suicide in Iraq rather than allow themselves to be captured.
Though the Military Censor’s Office lifted the gag order on the Tze’elim affair on Monday, the reports caught the top brass by surprise.
But Yatom was unfazed.
“I am confident that Sayeret Matkal has and continues to carry out missions which will never be known, and rightly so,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.