Moreno vs. Dirani: Sayeret Matkal's bold mission in Lebanon crucible

A new book about the mysterious Israeli hero Emmanuel Moreno reveals fresh details about an elite IDF commando operation to capture the terrorist who held the long-lost Israeli pilot Ron Arad

Tal Danino, Yoni Rotenberg|Updated:
It was all very matter-of-fact. Husky voices, aerial photographs of the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon and cigarette smoke fill the war room at the IAF headquarters. More guests show up: General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) officers about to lead an unconventional operation who, with their hosts, determine scenarios, alternative plans for the eventuality of glitches and oversee arrangements for all the equipment and forces involved.
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They inspect every last critical detail for the success of an operation demanding a long flight to and from the destination with a complex flight route and a very heavy load. Every last pound must be accounted for in planning fuel quantities and carrying capacity.
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(Photo: Gadi Kabalo, Avigail Uzi, IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
The squadron commander reads the list of equipment and forces one last time for squadron authorization. Without looking up from his list, he concludes: “Furthermore, you’ve been asked to factor in the weight of one more passenger for your return flight, correct? “
No one responds. It’s obvious and had been stated in the meeting with their blue-uniformed counterparts who had been sure to leave space for Mustafa Dirani on their return journey but had kept their hopes to themselves. Until now. In a brief exchange of glances, without uttering a word, they made a decision worth a thousand staff meetings.
“Two” they inform him. “We need two spots on the helicopter on the way back.”
Although never discussed overtly, it was crystal clear. Mustafa Dirani was to be interrogated as aggressively as necessary in his home – until he reveals the whereabouts of Ron Arad. And if Ron is in the vicinity, they’re not leaving without him. They’ll put him on the helicopter and bring him with back home to Israel. Although not a word was spoken, the sheer quantity of shoulder-launched missiles, machine guns and grenades loaded onto the helicopters spoke for themselves. They were more than ready.
This was the second time the unit had prepared for abducting Dirani. The last time round, in the winter of 1993, they were missing the conditions they were waiting for to set the operation in motion. Mustafa Dirani lived most of the time in a crowded quarter of Beirut that would not allow them to quietly infiltrate and disappear with him before all hell broke loose.
Only on certain days, usually holidays and family vacations, he would return to his village in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley where he felt safer and was rather complacent about his own security. This was the very opportunity for which the unit’s intelligence had been waiting.
They had been waiting for this man for so long for good reason. Dirani had been right next to Ron Arad from the very beginning. As the Shi’ite Amal movement’s intelligence man, he had interrogated Ron for days and knew exactly where he was hidden. Even when he broke away from Amal to join Hezbollah, he made sure Ron remained under his control. He transferred Ron from Beirut to the villages. He started making contact with Iranian sources in Lebanon about them taking Ron into their custody.
Israeli intelligence knew for certain that Dirani was holding Ron Arad until 1988, but a black hole had developed since then. In the fog of war in the fighting the in village of Meidoun, unknown forces abducted Ron from the house where he was held. Dirani activated all his connections to find out where the Israeli pilot was and who had abducted him, but was met with a wall of silence. From that day on, the State of Israel didn’t know where Ron Arad was, and wasn’t sure Dirani himself knew either. In May of 1994, he was the closest person to Ron Arad that known to Israeli intelligence.

Clean, quiet, surgical precision

The operation plans involved a multi-pronged attack: Three teams from three different directions planned to reach Mustafa Dirani’s bed and grab him as quickly as possible. The Dirani’s bedroom was on the second floor in between the children’s room and the kitchen. The plan was for the first team to enter via the front door, break through it and ascend the staircase to the bedroom. This was the largest, best-equipped force led by the unit commander and his deputy. In repeated dry runs, the other teams beat the main team to the target. The operation was taken in a different direction.
At this stage, the unit commander, Shahar Argaman and the commander, Herzi Halevi realized that the main team would arrive a few seconds later and would serve as a second wave, playing a supportive role in quickly wrapping up the operation in the case of complications. A head-to-head contest developed between the two forces breaking through the second floor: Lior Lotan’s squad versus that of Ron Scherf and Emmanuel Moreno.
A cry sounded out: “Initiate Exercise.” Three teams set out. The paces are precise, like learned danced steps, shaving off valuable seconds in a race against the clock. Lior’s team is quick to open a titanium ladder and lean it against the balcony of the children’s room. At the very same second, Ron and Emmanuel’s team do the same on the kitchen balcony.
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מוסטפא דיראני ב-2004 בישראל
מוסטפא דיראני ב-2004 בישראל
Mustafa Dirani in Israel, 2004
(Photo: Avigail Uzi)
A few seconds later, each team awaits the “go” order. From the moment it sounds over the communication system, the forces break in and attack the second floor from two separate directions. The target: to make the short distance to the bed, through the guards doubtlessly stationed on the floor - before Dirani has time to wake up and reach for the gun under his pillow.
It was a close fight. Lotan’s team would win one round, Scherf’s the next. Each time, the losing team would debrief to see what lessons they had learned and decipher which mistakes had lost them valuable split seconds. Emmanuel and Lior competed hard - bringing the entire force to almost unimaginable capability. This was exactly what was required to take Dirani alive with no one in the force getting hurt - and minimum chaos in the village. But, after hundreds of repeated dry runs, the question of which team would make it to Dirani first and which would carry on surveying the house remained unanswered.
On Thursday, May 20th all preparations had been completed and the operation was set in motion. In the unit’s auditorium at the Sirkin army base, the officers were holding a final briefing. The chief of staff, Barak also arrived to inspect the forces’ readiness for the last time.
It was a transition period in the unit’s leadership, as Doron Avital stayed on to accompany the Argaman, the new commander, through this complex operation. In the air-conditioned hall, they discussed and debated for the final time. Should the operation be trigger-ready? On the one hand, reaction to danger would be faster. On the other, light fingers on the trigger could, in the commotion, take out Dirani and defeat the whole purpose of the operation.
Barak was determined. Standing behind a small podium in the center of the room, he said: “I expect clean, quiet, surgical precision. As far as I’m concerned, the perfect execution is if you don’t fire a single bullet and no one is killed. Definitely not civilians or Dirani’s family members. Be sharp. Be quick. And bring him here with no casualties.” He turned to leave, then remembered to release the unit officers with a salute. Barak was quick to salute those same officers the next time they met.
The next stop was the IAF Technical College in Haifa. With great anticipation, they were waiting in the smoking corner. Emmanuel had found a functioning vending machine at the end of the camp and, to pass the time and relieve the tension, was sipping his can of Coke extremely slowly. Pacing to and from the bathroom area, Lior appeared the palest and most anxious. Unlike the others, he was married and he had a bad feeling about it all. Veteran battle foxes have a heightened sense of smell when it comes to operation glitches.
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אהוד ברק, הרמטכ"ל ה-14
אהוד ברק, הרמטכ"ל ה-14
Ehud Barak as IDF chief of staff
All eyes were on the intelligence unit. In a room crammed full of aerial photographs and encrypted radios, the intelligence officers were waiting for intelligence from their sources in the field to confirm the presence of the operation’s target in the house in the village of Kasarnaba. No helicopter takes off without, what military jargon refers to as, an “indication.”
They sat in Haifa awaiting such a sign. It wasn’t coming. As the hours passed, their window of opportunity for operating under the cover of darkness was contracting. The commanders needed to make a decision. Doron looked at his watch again. The chief of staff called again, and the operation was postponed to the following day. Everyone was disappointed. Except for Lior - who felt a great sense of relief.
The operation was been planned for Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice. On Friday night, 24 hours later, dozens of soldiers were woken from their uneasy sleep at the Haifa base and were called to board the helicopters.

A split second before victory

In the first part of the operation, the air force took center stage: Relying on the pilots’ honed skills, corps headquarters planned a diversionary ruse: To conceal the helicopter force from enemy radars, the two heavy helicopters carrying the soldiers, equipment and two vehicles flew low over the wadis of the Beqaa Valley. The soldiers paid dearly in the battle for the pilots’ fun.
It’s always the same in the crowded cabin: The deafening sound of the rotors, slowly but surely, blocks everyone’s train of thought. One’s mind is overcome with a deep sense of serenity derived from total concentration on what is about to happen. Senses become sharpened, and every last detail of the operation is registered deep in one’s flesh. And then, out of this quiet, a melody plays. Emmanuel mumbles the words of the Shlomo Arzi song: "Because somewhere in the ocean of broken sadness, there’s a raft. It’s drifting. It’ll be back.”
“Commander. A storm’s coming. We’re preparing to maneuver over the sea.” The disrupted voice over helicopter walkie-talkie breaks his train of thought. In a few minutes’ time, his raft will land on the ground for a few moments and pour the soldiers out and the vehicle and will start moving west beyond the sea. They’ll be waiting for them there, hoping to bring Ron Arad back from the ocean of great sadness. The helicopters are left under the command of Captain Nir Poraz who will, in a few months’ time, fall in the failed rescue attempt to release Nachshon Waxman.
They get in the vehicles. Total secrecy must envelop the route from here to Dirani’s bedroom door. The vaguest suspicion -one wrong move - and the operation has gone down the drain. The two drivers making their way through the Lebanese roads almost close their eyes. The long hours memorizing the roads had paid off and the vehicles soon park on a hill overlooking the village. The Yezdi team, functioning as a cover and observation unit, positions itself next to the vehicles. The rest – Lior Lotan’s unit and those of Ron Scherf and Shahar Argaman and Herzi Halevi – start advancing quietly toward the target.
Over the past months, Emmanuel had become very familiar with Ron Scherf’s behind. He’d been walking behind him at a uniform pace, imitating his stops, bends and hand movements with which he commanded the unit. Each lamp post, every low fence or open window is the enemy. They skillfully sneak up, getting within touching distance of the target. Yezdi reports over the walkie-talkies: “All clear. No one recognized you.” The stage of reaching the target is now successfully completed.
By agreed hand gestures, Shahar disperses the snipers to the four corners of the fence surrounding the house’s courtyard. Any suspicious advance from the surrounding streets or from the yard will find themselves in the snipers’ deadly crosshairs. Although it’s a holiday, the night is quiet – boding well for the soldiers. The village is fast asleep. The commanders’ gazes all turn to Shahar. He slowly raises his right hand, making a gun shape with two fingers, pointing twice toward the house. They go in.
The performance of a regular person, under extreme pressure and scrutinizing eyes, would generally plunge. Emmanuel, however, becomes much sharper in these instants. He enters the courtyard with his team. They flank the house from the left and lean the ladder against the utility balcony on the second floor. The model that the intelligence unit had built for them had proven perfect. They smoothly run through all the stages and make sure everyone has arrived.
Lior kicked in the door and immediately recognized Dirani, his wife and young daughter who had just been woken up by the screaming. In a split second, he sees Dirani slip his hand under the pillow and draw a loaded pistol. This is the critical moment - the moment on which the entire operation rests
Peeking through the kitchen door, they see exactly what they expected to see: At this late hour, the space is empty and the pathway to the bedroom is clear. With the use of a breaching kit, they smoothly open the balcony door and approach the bedroom door. They switch over from their short uzis to silenced pistols.
The following stage was supposed to be getting up close to the bedroom door and receiving permission from the commander to break in. But a single second stood between them and their victory against Lotan’s team.
The walkie-talkie sounded “go” as screams of terror shook the house.
Emmanuel was somewhat comforted when he found out, later on the way back, why Lior was early. It involved a lot of luck, but also a great deal of courage and inventiveness. As Emmanuel and Ron were climbing the ladder, Lior’s team climbed up the other wing into the balcony of the children’s bedroom. As Lior peered through the glass door, he saw what would, in any other context, be a heartbreaking scene. But his mind, geared toward the operation, understood it as an operational advantage.
Besides Dirani’s sleeping children, the bodyguards had also taken a nap following the hearty festive meal. The path to Dirani and his wife’s bedroom was now clear, with critical seconds shaved off the time. With acute hand gestures, he instructed two team members to overpower the sleeping bodyguards. With Sharon, he got up close to the door, and requested permission to break in.
Lior kicked in the door and immediately recognized Dirani, his wife and young daughter who had just been woken up by the screaming. In a split second, he sees Dirani slip his hand under the pillow and draw a loaded pistol. This is the critical moment - the moment on which the entire operation rests. With the instincts of a predatory animal, with both legs, he dives onto the bed and with his left hand, deflects Dirani’s pistol and with the silenced pistol in his right hand, strikes a blow to Dirani’s head.
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Emmanuel Moreno
Emmanuel Moreno
Emmanuel Moreno
This is what Emmanuel and Ron see as they break into the room. Ron realizes that the bedroom incident is over and quickly starts purging the bottom floor of the enemy and collecting intelligence material. But Emmanuel notices something unusual. The blow to Dirani’s head hadn’t knocked him out he still struggling with Lior. But on this night of strangulation and beatings, Dirani’s wife also chimed in, her screaming threatening to wake up the whole village.
All three fell off the bed and hit the floor. Emmanuel was quick to join Lior in his efforts to overpower Dirani who was soon cuffed with his hands behind his back. The little daughter was placed in the next room and his wife was taken to the other corner of the bedroom.

All is fair to find Ron

90 seconds. That’s the time allotted for Avihud and Ran to interrogate Dirani in his bedroom, hoping that the fear and element of surprise would make him chant Ron Arad's whereabouts. The next 90 seconds would determine whether, despite the enormous risks, Sayeret Matkal’s finest would remain in the heart of Lebanon and bring Ron Arad home, or whether they would pack up and get back on the helicopters.
The seasoned officers are familiar with procedures in Lebanon. From the moment the “bowl is turned over”, i.e., the force’s status has changed from undercover to open conflict, whistles and screaming bring the village menfolk out of their homes and indiscriminate gunfire sweeps the streets. If there’s no information about Ron, they have to get out of there.
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רון ארד
רון ארד
Ron Arad
(Photo: Family album)
Avihud opens very aggressively. This is a quick-fry interrogation. There’s just no time for slow cooking. He uses threats, physical force and, as planned, targets Dirani’s weak spots – everything’s kosher on the way to Ron. The whole house is buzzing with military activity - but in the bedroom, there’s a different kind of noise: Dirani’s wife in the corner of the room won’t stop with the deafening screaming. A high-pitched female voice crying out for help serves as an instant wake-up call for the neighbors.
Lior and Emmanuel look at each other. What should they do with her? Emmanuel’s thinking may be a bullet to her head. Maybe he should hit her with the end of the gun? His conscience won’t let him do any of those things. As he’s wondering how to get her to be quiet, Emmanuel comes up with a solution: He bends down, lifts up the blanket that had fallen off the bed in the struggle, and wraps it around Dirani’s wife, covering up her bare arms. Her unkempt hair is now concealed. Her dignity is restored.
A single strike of ingenuity, competence and ethics brought silence to the room. As if nothing had happened, Emmanuel got up and just walked to the ground floor.
There’s not much time left now remains for the interrogation and packing up. Avihud realizes that he has to step up the pressure. He gestures to Lior to carry out what they had practiced. They grab little Ali from the room and threaten the parents: “You and your wife are finished. You won’t get out of here alive. But you can save your son, Ali’s life. You can save him if you tell us where the pilot is."
Although this was what they had practiced, Avihud and Lior knew the chances were down to zero. Dirani’s face suddenly changed. In the first moments of the break-in, before he had time to get to grips with what was going on, Dirani’s face was one of fear and confusion. This is the best combination for extracting secrets from people under interrogation. But Lior noticed a moment when he clearly pulled through. His eyes were filled with cunning, his lips twisted with malice. From that moment, he was rock hard and the soldiers realized that they’d be leaving without Ron Arad.
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 הרצי הלוי
 הרצי הלוי
Herzi Halevi
(Photo: Shalev Shalom)
Their time was up. The village was now waking up, meaning they have to pack up as quickly as possible. They gather on the bottom floor, together with the captive tied to a stretcher, and prepare to leave. Sharon, who had proceeded to the ground floor, had managed to fill a huge sack with intelligence folders, observation logs, maps and four rather fancy F-22 pistols with wooden gunstocks. The unit that had broken into the house was now gathered and counted on the ground floor. From this moment until the helicopters showed up, Herzi Halevi was in charge. He had received a succinct message from Yezdi and the four snipers surrounding the house. He gave the order: “We’re leaving.”
They made a few feet from the house’s front door to the wall around the yard while the sound of gunfire woke the sleeping village. The snipers immediately identified Dirani’s brother who lived in the second wing of the two-story house and who was shooting firing a clumsy hunting rifle into the darkness. Herzi fully understood that they would be exposed the moment they started pacing. There wasn’t much time, especially as the gunfire had woken the village. Herzi recalled Barak’s instructions: No unnecessary shooting. A surgical operation. He had an idea.
He gestured to the four snipers who instantly understood and activated the laser pointers on their sniper guns shining a menacing red dot on Dirani’s brother’s forehead. Four red dots to the center of the forehead to be precise. Dirani the brother knew his time was up and, in a blind panic, threw the rifle on the ground and fled indoors. All this without pulling a trigger, and with almost no harm caused. Only the following morning, when the adrenaline had subsided, would they remove from their bodies tiny metal pellets disseminated from the hunting rifle bullets.

'Another two minutes and we’re all dead'

A new set of sounds began filling Kasarnaba. Loud whistles from house to house. The sound of a car hitting the gas, then screeching to a halt. Sporadic gunfire on every street. Almost the whole village is awake now, but they haven’t yet understood what’s going on and where. The race to get out of the village is becoming more urgent. The stretcher to which Dirani is tied doesn’t make moving quickly easy. Herzi leads the way oscillating between operational creeping around and running full speed, looking forward to the moment they disappear into the darkened bushes surrounding the village.
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עמנואל מורנו (משמאל)
עמנואל מורנו (משמאל)
Emmanuel Moreno (left)
(Photo: IDF Spokesperon's Unit)
The exposed part of the path is coming to an end as the whistles and gunfire in the nearby streets stop. Herzi can already see a happy ending when suddenly an unexpected incident threatens to destroy the whole operation. Ten feet from them, a local woman in a doorway, spots them and starts screaming. Herzi knows that in a matter of seconds, her screaming will be heard in the nearby streets and dozens of weapons will be aimed at them. It’s the same dilemma all over again.
Emmanuel leaves no time to deliberate. He confidently approaches the woman. Something in her softens as he draws closer. He leans in toward her and, in perfect Arabic, whispers in her ear “Ma’am, you can be calm.” She seems confused. She’s not fully convinced. He continues: “There was a problem here, but we’ve dealt with it. You can go back to sleep.”
The human alarm that had almost ruined the whole operation, turns on her heal and silently goes back into her house. Herzi smiles and remembers the story they tell about Emmanuel that if he were to enter a random kibbutz dining room and start up a conversation with a fellow diner, within a few minutes, the diner would be fully convinced that he was the kibbutz secretary.
Herzi breathes a half-sigh of relief as they approach the jumbled terraces on the outskirts of the village. Only a few hundred feet of a sharp incline now remain to the spot where Yezdi is waiting for them with the vehicles. But the route they had sailed through on the way in, was much harder on their way out.
The end is in now sight, but Emmanuel is once again drawn into the tension of retreat. They pull an M72 LAW anti-tank missile out of the carrier. Between them, they mark a red line which, if crossed by the car, they launch the missile. They can already hear the helicopter blades
As the minutes pass, the situation becomes clearer for the armed men around the village. From the accounts they had gathered, they understood that Israeli commando units are taking Mustafa Dirani in the direction of the hill overlooking the village. In an amateurish rage, they start scattering Kalashnikov rounds onto every hill. Emmanuel and his friends climb up through the olive groves and pray that the next bullet flying past their ear won’t find its way into their bodies.
It’s a hard climb, even for soldiers who’ve practiced great distances with heavy loads. Ladders, intelligence material, hammers, a breaching kit, shoulder-launched missiles and the stretcher with Dirani on it. Carrying all this, while advancing crouched between the twisted trees and high terraces, made it intolerably hard. Dirani fell off the stretcher several times, so the soldiers decided to carry him the final few hundred feet on their shoulders. There’s suddenly a loud shout: “Ouch.” Shahar Argaman had been shot in the leg.
The combat doctor runs to Shahar and asks him where he was hit. Shahar shows him the entry hole in his leg: A 7.62 fired from a Kalashnikov causing a bloody and menacing wound. The doctor starts rummaging through his bag to find the right equipment. He then hears a voice above him: “Are you crazy?” Herzi shouts. “Another two minutes and we’re all dead. Bandage him and let’s move.” They carry on crawling uphill with another soldier who, instead of carrying anything, was himself being carried. At this rate, the promising success may well end in disaster.
Herzi is on the walkie talkie. He has an unusual request. They’re very nervous at the command post: the head of intelligence, the chief of staff, all the top brass. We’re asking for permission to leave behind some of the equipment. It’s a hard call to make. It’s not simply loot from which the terrorist will benefit. It’s unique equipment that would expose the unit’s capabilities. But the objective is greater. In weighing up the damage and the advantages, Herzi receives permission to leave behind the titanium ladders and the hammers. One last push and they’re back in the embracing safety of the vehicles.
Emmanuel’s heart wants to explode out of sheer pride and joy. But it’s too soon. It’s not over until the helicopters land in Haifa. The vehicles speed toward the landing zone, while helicopters make their way from the sea. And then, suddenly a halo of headlights is spotted in the mirrors, trying to catch up to the vehicles. “Push hard on the gas” Herzi urges the driver. But the vehicle chasing them isn’t letting up. The landing pad is closed now. Herzi checks the map, but he’s still not sure. Will they manage to get themselves and the equipment onto the helicopter before the vehicle chasing them catches up? Should they stop to neutralize the threat?
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ליאור לוטן
ליאור לוטן
Lior Lotan
(Photo: Gadi Kabalo)
“Lior, Emmanuel. Come with me.” Herzi gives orders: “We’re staying here to ambush the car behind us until everyone’s on the helicopter.” The end is in now sight, but Emmanuel is once again drawn into the tension of retreat. They pull an M72 LAW anti-tank missile out of the carrier. Between them, they mark a red line which, if crossed by the car, they launch the missile.
They can already hear the helicopter blades. Lior turns around and reports that both have landed. The soldiers, the captive and the two vehicles are quickly bundled into the cramped cabin. They now have to decide: Will they be able to take off before the car arrives or, just at the end of the operation, will the IDF pull the trigger for the very first time? “Let’s move” Herzi decides. As a pair of headlights turn into a white car with rifles sticking out of the windows, the two helicopters are already heading south, disappearing into Wadi Ibrahim.
Lt, Col. Emmanuel Moreno is the only fallen IDF soldier whose photograph has never been published. He fell in a Sayeret Matkal special operation 17 years ago. Now, for the first time, a new book has been published telling the world story of the courageous warrior.
The book’s authors are Lt. Col. (Res) Tal Danino, Moreno’s friend from their time at the pre-military training program at Eli, and journalist Yoni Rotenberg, editor of the “Besheva” newspaper. They spent a year interviewing 80 people in Emmanuel’s life. The book, published under the IDF censor, tells Moreno’s life story to the point he was killed in a Sayeret Matkal operation in Baalbek, Lebanon, a few days following the end of the Second Lebanon War.
First published: 23:51, 08.12.23
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