It was Emanuel Alon’s first time in Damascus. Few minutes earlier he had laid his luggage in his hotel room on the tenth floor at Hilton Damascus. The young Israeli commando fighter asked his local ‘contact’ to take him to the square where, few years ago, the infamous Israeli spy Eli Cohen was hanged.
The two drove to the square where the ‘host’ pointed to a spot that was reminiscent of blurry black and white pictures of a scaffold that were published in Israeli newspapers --- pictures that became inscribed in the conscience of every Israeli kid of that generation. Alon trembled. “Oh my God,” he thought, “I might end up dying the same way.”
Operation ‘Blanket’ to bring Jews from Syria to Israel was launched in 1970 and lasted few years, during which several sorties to Syria and Lebanon were carried out. The operations were highly dangerous, required the acute skills of commando and Mossad fighters, and proved an expensive endeavor for the State of Israel.
At times, the difficult operational conditions, the hostile territory, or the raging sea, entailed the cancellation of “shipments” of Jewish immigrants. It takes a lot of nerve to give the green light for the execution of an operation that involves so much risk and investment, yet involves a relatively small number of potential immigrants.
The plan was conceived and launched in a Tel Aviv complex in the early 70’s following information stemming from Hafez Assad’s Syria about
the dire living conditions of Jews in Damascus and Halab. Intelligence reports had it that young Syrian Jews were willing to risk their lives to leave Syria via Lebanon. Through the help of smugglers many Jewish girls attempted to cross from the Syrian-Lebanese border, yet not everyone made it. Some were arrested and imprisoned, others were shot dead, and few were tortured. Only a lucky handful made it to Israel, thanks to prime minister Golda Meir who instructed the Mossad to act.
La Cosa Nostra was summoned to operate in hostile territory. That was the nickname a group of naval commandos, recruited to the Mossad for their professional skills and their command of foreign languages, French in particular, chose for themselves. They soon became a hit in Israel’s top intelligence agency.
The Mossad soon realized the potential for success in drafting young fighters from commando units for its intricate missions abroad, especially in Israel’s hostile Middle Eastern environment.
One of the missions took place on a windy winter evening of 1972. A naval warship sailed in a northerly direction and anchored kilometers off the Syrian shore. Well-armed commandos under the command of a veteran commander, Officer Gadi Carol, boarded inflatable rubber boats. Seconds later they were joined by three young men wearing civilian clothing. Their faces were covered in kaffiyehs and in waterproof bags they carried guns among other things.
The team sailed towards the Syrian coast: a long and exhausting journey.
Soon before dusk, the three Arab-looking men, jumped in the water and patiently waited for the silhouette of their ‘guide’ to appear in the darkness. That was Jonathan, a commando who became a top-notch Mossad agent.
Jonathan landed in Damascus a few days earlier, where he met a local ‘contact’, made all the necessary preparations and carefully picked up the landing beach.
Jonathan, nicknamed ‘Prosper’ collected his friends by car. Emanuel Alon, or ‘Claude’ as his friends called him, was among the passengers. The three commandos wore dry clothes and drove to Damascus, as if nothing happened.
As the three Israeli agents got to know the Syrian capital through Jonathan, the local ‘contact’ had prepared organized bus tours for Jewish girls aged 15 to 20, who heard about the prospect of getting to Israel through word-of-mouth.
‘Claude’ and his friends sat in the front seat of the bus that carried the first ‘shipment’ of Jewish immigrants to a coast off which the Israeli naval ship was eagerly waiting the return of its smaller rubber boats, hopefully loaded with young Jewish immigrants.
Following a long tiring sail the ships finally arrived loaded with a handful of young females, who were hurriedly taken on board and hidden in a cell. The ship’s crew members were summoned to the command bridge.
“It was unbelievable,” says Dina Kadmi one of the girls as she recalls that day. “After a bumpy trip, the discreet escape from home and until the meeting on the ship, we were bursting with excitement. We realized that Israel is getting closer. We fully respected instructions to keep quiet about our journey so that others still waiting in Syria, perhaps relatives, won’t get harmed,” Kadmi says.
After each successful trip part of mission ‘Blanket’, an emotional scene filled the Naval Port of Haifa. Young Syrian Jews, mainly females, held their breath till the last minute, when they set foot in Haifa and burst in joy.
Secret house in Beirut
Most immigrants were instructed to make it from Syria to a secret house in Beirut, where another local ‘contact’ organized their transport to a Lebanese beach from which they were shipped to the Israeli military ship.
Crossing the border into Lebanon was a highly risky maneuver, yet young Jews from allover Syria were willing to put their lives on the line to make it to Israel.
No one ever new who was helping the young immigrants on their journey to Israel, but all new that help was there if needed.
Yitzhak Shoshan, a Mossad agent who made Syria and Lebanon his home before the establishment of the state as a member of the Palmach, took on himself the duty to oversee the smuggling of Jews from Syria to Lebanon.
Shoshan convinced a childhood friend from his birthplace of Halab to make a small ship he owned in a port south of Beirut suitable for the transportation of “students.”
“There were fears that Syrian might find out about the secret house in Beirut to which some of citizens are fleeing and ask Lebanese authorities to extradite them. We brought the Naval Force into the picture and conducted a series of fast evacuations from the Lebanese shores,” Shoshan recalls.
The Syrian bride
Years after the mission, Emanuel Alon arrived at the wedding of a relative. He looked at the bride and thought her face looked familiar. He recognized her instantaneously: she was on of the young Syrian Jewish girls he had rescued from Syria. Alon congratulated the bride and asked her from which country did she immigrate to Israel. The bride went pale and stuttered a few words.
“From Syria? In the sea?” Alon asked with a big smile.
The bride nearly fainted in astonishment, yet seconds later she jumped on Alon’s neck and kissed him. “It’s you. You took me out of there.”
“And this,” says Alon, “is worth all the danger.”