by David Hirst
Excerpts from his book: The Gun and the Olive Branch,
1977, 1984, Futura Publications
July 1954 Egypt was plagued by a series of bomb outrages directed
mainly against American and British property in Cairo and Alexandria.
It was generally assumed that they were the work of the Moslem
Brothers, then the most dangerous challenge to the still uncertain
authority of Colonel (later President) Nasser and his two-year-old
revolution. Nasser was negotiating with Britain over the evacuation
of its giant military bases in the Suez Canal Zone, and, the Moslem
Brothers, as zealous nationalists, were vigorously opposed to
any Egyptian compromises.
It therefore came as a shock to world, and particularly Jewish
opinion, when on 5 October the Egyptian Minister of the Interior,
Zakaria Muhieddin, announced the break-up of a thirteen-man Israeli
sabotage network. An 'anti-Semitic' frame-up was suspected.
Indignation increased when, on 11 December, the group was brought
to trial. In the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett
denounced the 'wicked plot hatched in Alexandria ... the show
trial which is being organized there against a group of Jews who
have fallen victims to false accusations and from who mit seems
attempts are being made to extract confessions of imaginary crimes,
by threats and torture . . .'49 The trade union newspaper Davar
observed that the Egyptian regime 'seems to take its inspiration
from the Nazis' and lamented the 'deterioration in the status
of Egyptian Jews in general'.50 For Haaretz the trial 'proved
that the Egyptian rulers do not hesitate to invent the most fantastic
accusations if it suits them'; it added that 'in the present state
of affairs in Egypt the junta certainly needs some diversions'.51
And the next day the .7erusalem Post carried this headline: 'Egypt
Show Trial Arouses Israel, Sharett Tells House. Sees Inquisition
The trial established that the bombings had indeed been carried
out by an Israeli espionage and terrorist network. This was headed
by Colonel Avraharn Dar --alias John Darling-- and a core of professionals
who had set themselves up in Egypt under various guises. They
had recruited a number of Egyptian Jews; one of them was a young
woman, Marcelle Ninio, who worked in the offices of a British
company. Naturally, the eventual exposure of such an organization
was not going to improve the lot of the vast majority of Egyptian
Jews who wanted no-thing to do with Zionism. There were still
at least 50,000 Jews in Egypt; there had been something over 60,000
in 1947, more than half of whom were actually foreign nationals.
During the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the populace had some
times vented its frustration against them, and some were killed
in mob violence or by terrorist bombs. In spite of this, and of
the revolutionary upheaval which followed four years later, few
Jews-including the foreign nationals-left the country, and fewer
still went to Israel. A Jewish journalist insisted: 'We, Egyptian
Jews, feel secure in our homeland, Egypt.'52
The welfare of Oriental Jewry in their various homelands was,
as we have seen, Israel's last concern. And in July 1954 it had
other worries. It was feeling isolated and insecure. Its Western
friends-let alone the rest of the world-were unhappy about its
aggressive behaviour. The US Assistant Secretary of State advised
it to 'drop the attitude of the conqueror'.53 More alarming was
the rapprochement under way between Egypt, on the one hand, and
the United States and Britain on the other. President Eisenhower
had urged Britain to give up her giant military base in the Suez
Canal Zone; Bengurion had failed to dissuade her. It was to sabotage
this rapprochement that the head of Israeli intelligence, Colonel
Benyamin Givli, ordered his Egyptian intelligence ring to strike.
Givli's boss, Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon, and the Prime Minister,
Moshe Sharett, knew nothing of the operation. For Givli was a
member of a powerful Defence Ministry clique which often acted
independently, or in outright defiance, of the cabinet. They were
proteges of Bengurion and, although 'The Old Man' had left the
Premiership for Sde Boker, his Negev desert retreat, a few months
before, he was able, through them, to perpetuate the hardline
'activist' policies in which he believed. On Givli's instructions,
the Egyptian network was to plant bombs in American and British
cultural centres, British-owned cinemas and Egyptian public buildings.
The Western powers, it was hoped, would conclude that there was
fierce internal opposition to the rapprochement and that Nasser's
young r6gime,faced with this challenge, was not one in which they
could place much confidence.54 Mysterious violence might therefore
persuade both London and Washington that British troops should
remain astride the Canal; the world had not forgotten Black Saturday,
28 January 1951, in the last year of King Farouk's reign, when
mobs rampaged through downtown Cairo, setting fire to foreign-owned
hotels and shops, in which scores of people, including thirteen
The first bomb went off, on 2 July, in the Alexandria post office.
On 11 July, the Anglo-Egyptian Suez negotiations, which had been
blocked for nine months, got under way again. The next day the
Israeli embassy in London was assured that, up on the British
evacuation from Suez, stock-piled arms would not be handed over
to the Egyptians. But the Defence Ministry activists were unconvinced.
On 14 July their agents, in clandestine radio contact with Tel
Aviv, fire-bombed US Information Service libraries in Cairo and
Alexandria. That same day, a phosphorous bomb exploded prematurely
in the pocket of one Philip Natanson, nearly burning him alive,
as he was about to enter the British-owned Rio cinema in Alexandria.
His arrest and subsequent confession led to the break-up of the
whole ring-but not before the completion of another cycle of clandestine
action and diplomatic failure. On 15 July President Eisenhower
assured the Egyptians that 'simultaneously' with the signing of
a Suez agreement the United States would enter into 'firm commitments'
for economic aid to strengthen their armed forces.55 On 23 July
--anniversary of the 1952 revolution-- the Israeli agents still
at large had a final fling; they started fires in two Cairo cinemas,
in the central post office and the railway station. On the same
day, Britain announced that the War Secretary, Antony Head, was
going to Cairo. And on 27 July he and the Egyptians initiated
the 'Heads of Agreement' on the terms of Britain's evacuation.
The trial lasted from 11 December to 3 January. Not all the culprits
were there, because Colonel Dar and an Israeli colleague managed
to escape, and the third Israeli, Hungarian-born Max Bennett,
committed suicide; but those who were present all pleaded guilty.
Most of them, including Marcelle Ninio, were sentenced to various
terms of imprisonment. But Dr Musa Lieto Marzuk, a Tunisian-born
citizen of France who was a surgeon at the Jewish Hospital in
Cairo, and Samuel Azar, an engineering professor from Alexandria,
were condemned to death. In spite of representations from France,
Britain and the United States the two men were hanged. Politically,
it would have been very difficult for Nasser to spare them, for
only seven weeks before six Moslem Brothers had been executed
for complicity in an attempt on his life. Nevertheless Israel
reacted with grief and anger. So did some Western Jews. Marzuk
and Azar 'died the death of martyrs', said Sharett on the same
day in the Knesset, whose members stood in silent tribute. Israel
went into official mourning the following day. Beersheba and Ramat
Gan named streets after the executed men. Israeli delegates to
the Egyptian-Israeli Mixed Armistice Commission refused to attend
its meeting, declaring that they would not sit down with representatives
of the Cairo junta. In New York there were bomb threats against
the Egyptian consulate and a sniper fired four shots into its
This whole episode, which was to poison Israeli political life
for a decade and more, came to be known as the 'Lavon Affair',
for it had been established in the Cairo trial that Lavon, as
Minister of Defence, had approved the campaign of sabotage. At
least so the available evidence made it appear. But in Israel,
Lavon had asked Moshe Sharett for a secret inquiry into a matter
about which the cabinet knew nothing. Benyamin Givli, the intelligence
chief, claimed that the so-called 'security operation' had been
authorized by Lavon himself. Two other Bengurion proteges, Moshe
Dayan and Shimon Peres, testified against Lavon. Lavon denounced
Givli's papers as forgeries and demanded the resignation of all
three men. Instead, Sharett ordered Lavon himself to resign and
invited Bengurion to come out of retirement and take over the
Defence Ministry. It was a triumphant comeback for the 'activist'
philosophy whose excesses both Sharett and Lavon had tried to
modify. It was con-summated, a week later, by an unprovoked raid
on Gaza, which left thirty-nine Egyptians dead and led to the
Suez War Of 1956.57
When the truth about the Lavon Affair came to light, six years
after the event, it confirmed that there had been a frame-up-not,
however, by the Egyptians, but by Bengurion and his young proteges.
Exposure was fortuitous. Giving evidence in a forgery trial in
September 1960, a witness divulged on passant that he had seen
the faked signature of Lavon on a document relating to a 1954
'security mishap'.58 Bengurion immediately announced that the
three-year statute of limitations prohibited the opening of the
case. But Lavon, now head of the powerful Histradut Trade Union
Federation, seized upon this opportunity to demand an inquiry.
Bengurion did everything in his power to stop it, but his cabinet
overruled him. The investigation revealed that the security operation'
had been planned behind Lavon's back. His signature had been forged,
and the bombing had actually begun long before his approval --which
he withheld-- had been sought. He was a scapegoat pure and simple.
On Christmas Day 1960,the Israeli cabinet unanimously exonerated
him of all guilt in the 'disastrous security adventure in Egypt';
the Attorney General had, in the meantime, found 'conclusive evidence
of forgeries as well as false testimony in an earlier inquiry'.59
Bengurion was enraged. He issued an ultimatum to the ruling Labour
party to remove Lavon, stormed out of a cabinet meeting and resigned.
In what one trade unionist described as 'an immoral and unjust
submission to dictatorship', his diehard supporters in the Histradut
swung the vote in favour i)f accepting Lavon's resignation. Lavon,
however, won a moral victory over the man who twice forced him
from office. In the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, students
demonstrated in his favour. They carried placards reading: 'Bengurion
Go to Sde Boker, Take Dayan and Peres with You. We do Not Accept
Leaders with Elastic Consciences.'60 The affair rocked the ruling
establishment, split public opinion, forced new elections and
contributed largely to Bengurion's eventual disappearance from
But Lavon was not the only real victim. There were also those
misguided Egyptian Jews who paid with their lives or long terms
of imprisonment. It is true that when, in 1968, Marcelle Ninio
and her colleagues were exchanged for Egyptian' prisoners in Israel,
they received a heroes' welcome. True, too, that when Miss Ninio
got married Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defence Minister Dayan
and Chief of Staff General Bar Lev all attended the wedding and
Dayan told the bride 'the Six-Day War was success enough that
it led to your freedom'.61 However, after spending fourteen years
in an Egyptian prison, the former terrorists did not share the
leadership's enthusiasm. When Ninio and two of her colleagues
appeared on Israel television a few years later, they all expressed
the belief that the reason why they were not released earlier
was because Israel made little effort to get them out. 'Maybe
they didn't want us to come back,' said Robert Dassa. 'There was
so much intrigue in Israel. We were instruments in the hands of
the Egyptians and of others ... and what is more painful after
all that we went through is that this continues to be so.' In
Ninio's opinion, 'the government didn't want to spoil its relations
with the United States and didn't want the embarrassment of admitting
it was behind our action'.62
But the real victims were the great mass of Egyptian Jewry. Episodes
like the Lavon Affair tended to identify them, in the mind of
ordinary Egyptians, with the Zionist movement. When, in 1956,
Israeli invaded and occupied Sinai, feeling ran high against them.
The government, playing into the Zionist hands, began ordering
Jews to leave the country. Belatedly, reluctantly, 21,000 left
in the following year; more were expelled later, and others, their
livelihood gone, had nothing to stay for. But precious few went
49. Jerusalem Post, 12 December 1954.
5O. 13 December 1954.
51. 13 December 1954.
52. Berger, op. cit., p. 14.
53. love, Kennett, Suez: The Twice-Fought War, McGraw-Hill, NY,
1969, P. 71.
54. Ibid., p . 73.
55. Ibid., p. 74.
56. Love, op. cit., P. 77.
57. See p. 198.
58. New York Times, 10 February 1961.
60. Jewish Chronicle, London, 17 February 1971.
61. Ha'olam Hazeh, 1 December 1971.
62. Associated Press, 16 March 1975.