Israel – Operation Thief

“Operation Thief,” Israeli  Intelligence’s first major coup,  straddled the desperate months  just before and after the State  came into existence.

One of war’s most important  principles is that a battle prepared  for is a battle half won.  Field Marshall Erwin Rommel  learned this lesson in 5702/1942  when his superior troops were  decimated at El Alamein, largely  because Allied submarines and  bombers sunk the majority of his  supply ships en route.

As Israel braced for independence  in 5708/1948, Jews and  Arabs scrambled to have the  upper hand on the day the anticipated  war would erupt. In early  February, 5708/1948, a Swissair  four-propeller Douglas DC-4 Skymaster  bounced down the bumpy  runway of Tel Aviv’s primitive  airport and hurtled off to Paris.  Inside, two sworn enemies sat a  few rows apart.

In the first class compartment  was a Syrian officer, Captain  Ahmad-Aziz Kerine, on his way  to buy arms from Czechoslovakia.  Behind him sat Ehud Avriel,  representative of Rekhesh, the  arms buying agency of the outlawed  Haganah. He was traveling  to Prague on a similar mission, to  procure weaponry for the desperately  under-equipped Jews.

Once in Europe, Avriel discovered  that Kerine had made an  arms purchase that radically  upset the Jewish/Arab balance of  power. Although Kerine’s purchase  of 6,000 rifles and 8 million  rounds of ammunition seems  puny by modern standards,  weighed against the fact that  Israel’s grand total of rifles was  10,073, the Syrian’s acquisition  was a major catastrophe. 

In a desperate attempt to even  the odds, the Haganah initiated  what became known as “Operation  Thief.” One way or another,  the Jews were determined that  the Syrian arms must never reach  their destination. Time was of  the essence. The rifles had  already been loaded onto an  ancient Italian liner, the SS Lino,  and were en route to Syria.

The initial plan was to bomb  the boat. Although the Jews had  no access to bombers at the time,  they planned to accomplish this  mission by the simply rolling  bombs onto the boat from a  transport plane’s doorway. Veteran  Jewish World War II pilots  roared off from European  airstrips and scoured the  Mediterranean for three days,  searching for a sign of the Italian  liner without success. The SS  Lino seemed to have been swallowed  up by the waves. Where  had it gone?

The enigma was solved on  March 30, when it was discovered  that the ship had been  ordered back to a Yugoslavian  port for some unknown reason.  But the very next day, Rekhesh  agents in Yugoslavia cabled  Colonel Fouad Mardam, Quartermaster-  General of the Syrian  army an alert:


The SS Lino was underway  again and, once more, the Jewish  pilots resumed their game of  hide-and-seek. This time, however,  a fierce storm prevented their  success. The Haganah was on the  verge of sending a yacht to sink  the liner when they discovered  that the SS Lino had returned to  port again, this time because of  engine trouble and the storm.  The boat was now docked in  Molfetta, Southern Italy.

A fierce electoral battle was  raging in Italy at the time  between the Christian Democrats  and the Communists. A  Haganah supporter phoned a  Christian Democratic newspaper  and “informed” a friend there  that the Communists were docking  arms. The Communists  promptly insisted that the arms  belonged to right-wing parties  that wanted to take over the  country by force. The alarmed  government arrested the ship’s  crew and towed the SS Lino to  the military harbor of Bari. 

However, the ship’s captain  quickly proved that the whole  thing was a mistake and it was  more than likely that the ship  would soon be released. In addition,  rumors circulated that the  British were pressuring Italy to  release the ship. The Jews came  up with a new plan – to blow up  the ship in the harbor. A Palmach  commander, Yosef Dror, and  three comrades disguised a fiveton  truck to look like a U.S.  Army crop-spraying vehicle, hid  explosives in a drum labeled  DDT, and set off for Bari.

In Bari, Dror and his team  patched together a primitive  mine, consisting of TNT packed  in the inner tube of a motorbike  tire, inflated a rubber dinghy, and  tried to row across the harbor  towards the Syrians’ boat. Unfortunately,  a British destroyer was  docked nearby, splaying its  searchlights over the water the  whole night. When the Jews  made a second attempt the next  night, the activity aboard the  destroyer was even greater. Suddenly,  at 1:30 a.m., the destroyer  pulled out of harbor and the SS  Lino was a sitting duck.

Within minutes, Dror and his  men slipped into the water,  attached the mine and fled. At  4:00 a.m., there was a violent  explosion, sinking the ship and  its rifles beneath the waves in  less than ten minutes. By then,  the Jews were already on their  way to Rome and no one had the  faintest idea who was behind the  sabotage.

Before long, however, the Syrian  premier ordered a salvage  operation.

“These weapons are vital for  us,” he told him. “Yet by failing  properly to notify the Italian government  of their true ownership,  they are at the bottom of Bari  harbor, blown up by one or other  of the political factions. I demand  that the Italian government be  now informed about our legal  claims and also that they be lifted  from the harbor and handed to  us.”

Protected by a thick layer of  grease, the rifles were none the  worse for their subaquatic experience.  Meanwhile, the State of  Israel was declared on 5 Iyar. War  broke out and keeping the guns  out of Syrian hands was more  urgent than ever. The warehouse  holding the rifles was under  heavy guard and the Jews would,  once again, have to wait until  they were en route to Syria.

To transport the guns, Mardam  bought the SS Argiro, a 250-ton  ex-Navy ship, for a million lira  from the Menara Shipping  Agency in Rome. Little did he  know that the hotelier who had  directed him to the company had  been bribed by the Israelis. Nor  was he aware that the Menara  company had close ties with the  Jewish underground ever since  the days of illegal immigration to  Palestine. 

Just before setting sail from  Rome, the ship’s captain reported  that two of his crew members  were ill and replaced them with  Jewish agents. The SS Argiro  arrived in Bari and embarked  with its load of weapons on the  morning of August 19. Mardam  flew back to Syria, satisfied that  his job was done. Out on the high  seas, the SS Argiro developed  engine problems and a fishing  boat that “happened to be in the  vicinity” volunteered to help.  Two Israeli agents climbed  aboard and, together with their  two colleagues who were already  on board, they seized control of  the ship.

The agents radioed to Israel  and, near Haifa, the SS Argiro  was met by two small Israeli  naval vessels. The men and  weapons were transferred to the  Israeli craft and the SS Argiro was  sunk.

Back in Syria, Colonel Mardam  was condemned to death for suspected  complicity with the  Israelis. To save his life, Israel  revealed the whole plot to the  Syrians via the French embassies  in Tel Aviv and Damascus, and  “Operation Thief” came to its  conclusion without bloodshed.

Although “Operation Thief”  helped alleviate the arms balance,  a higher percentage of Jews  died in the Independence War  than in any other Israel-Arab  conflict, partly because of the  weapons disparity. The 6,373  Israelis killed comprised nearly  one percent of the Jewish population  in Eretz Yisroel which numbered  only 650,000 at the time.

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