Back in the 5710s/1950s, Israel tried to weaken Egypt by stirring up enmity between the Land of the Nile, Great Britain and the United States. The operation was such a failure that it is remembered ever since as the “Esek Bish,” or the “Bad Business.”
The story began, around the year 5710/1950, when Colonel Gibli of Israeli Military Intelligence decided that it was time to create a fifth column in Egypt, that would be prepared to act in the event of war. He wanted to create a team of “sleeper” agents, who could be activated in time of need.
This task was delegated to an Israeli agent, Avraham Dar, who arrived in Cairo in summer of 5711/1951, disguised as a British businessman, John Darling. One of his first calls was on Dr. Victor Sa’adi, head of an undercover organization, called “Together,” that was devoted to smuggling Jews to Israel. The two men recruited local Jews and divided them into two cells.
The Cairo cell was headed by Dr. Moshe (Musa) Marzouk, who worked in the Jewish Hospital of Cairo, and the Alexandria cell was led by a 24-year-old schoolteacher, Moshe Jacques Azar. Unfortunately, the agents all eventually became friendly, and, ultimately, this made the whole set-up collapse.
In 5712/1952, one cell member, Marcelle Ninio, set up a travel agency so that she could arrange for trips to Israel for the other members, via Europe, without provoking too many questions. During the next two years, the youngsters were taken to the Army Intelligence School, outside Yaffo, where they were taught radio communications, sabotage and espionage.
Once back in Egypt, they began to stock up on explosives. Darling returned to Israel while his trainees were left on standby. Their job was to do nothing until Israel pressed the emergency button.
ISRAEL GETS UNEASY
Meanwhile, in 5712/1952, antimonarchists in the Egyptian army made a secret connection with the two top CIA (America’s Central Intelligence Agency) agents in the Middle East and toppled King Farouk. In addition, CIA operatives helped leaders to set up the subsequent republic and the CIA helped provide Abdel Nasser’s personal security when he took over the presidency in 5714/1954. Israel did not like this cozy, covert relationship.
On top of that, Britain was considering abandoning its hold on the Suez Canal. The Canal, which opened in 5619/1859, had originally been dug, over the course of ten years, at the cost of 125,000 lives. British and Egyptian negotiators in Cairo were ironing out the details of an orderly evacuation of the Canal Zone by the British Army.
Once this was completed, an important buffer between Israel and Egypt would no longer exist. Israeli Intelligence learnt that an agreement between Britain and Egypt had been drafted and the evacuation from the Canal Zone was imminent. This report was not completely accurate, but the damage was done.
To keep the Western powers wary of Egypt, Israel conceived the outlandish “Esek Bish” plot, which was calculated to build a wall of antagonism between East and West. The basic idea was to fool Egypt, Britain and America into thinking that British and American institutions were being attacked. The Egyptian government would blame Communists and Fundamentalists, the country would see the with unrest, and London and Washington would, hopefully, view the Cairo government as unstable and unreliable for many years to come.
To instigate this foolish scheme, Israel sent an agent, Avraham Seidenberg, to Egypt to lead the cells in a daring operation, officially known as “Operation Susannah.” The agent had previously spent nine months in Germany in order to perfect his cover as German businessman and S.S. veteran, Paul Frank. Then he joined the German community in Egypt and contacted the Alexandria cell.
He was not impressed with the group’s professionalism, however. He made his first contact with cell member, Phillip “Henri” Nathanson. Seidenberg knocked at his door, and was greeted by a middle-aged woman. “Is Phillip in?” he asked in English, to conceal his Israeli identity. “Ah!” the woman exclaimed. “You must be Robert (Seidenberg’s codename).”
Apparently, the whole family was anxiously waiting for ‘Robert, the spy’ to show up!
On June 2, 19-year-old Phillip Nathanson and Victor Levi went out with incendiary devices and planted three of them in mailboxes at the main Post Office of Alexandria.
A corner of the building caught fire by mistake, and the operation was a dismal failure. Little damage was done and the incident was censored by the press.
On July 10, an Israel radio announcer declared, “And here is the answer for Mrs. Saatchi. To improve the coffee party, add English cake or something similar.”
This was a coded message to Seidenberg, instructing him to attack a British target or “something similar.” On July 14, the Cairo and Alexandria cells hid small incendiary explosives, disguised as spectacle- cases, in the libraries of the American cultural centers in Cairo and Alexandria. The small bombs were concealed in book covers and brought into the libraries. Fishskin bags, filled with acid, were placed on top of nitroglycerin bombs. After a few hours, the acid ate through the bags and ignited the bombs that had been placed in the library shelves, just before closing hours. The resulting damage was enormous. The Egyptian government was fooled and made a wave of arrests among members of the local Communist Party and of the Moslem Brotherhood organization.
The country was thrown into high alert and policemen prowled the streets, keeping a sharp lookout at public places.
Unfortunately, however, only Egyptian and Israeli papers carried the story and it was practically ignored overseas. More action was necessary.
Encouraged by their success, the saboteurs decided to mount their next attack on July 22, the second anniversary of the overthrow of King Farouk. They produced five more fire bombs and picked three targets: Cairo’s main railway station, a theater in Cairo, and the Rio Theater in Alexandria.
On the appointed date, the bombs failed to explode. In Alexandria, young Phillip Nathanson was waiting in line to enter the Rio Theater when his pocket burst into flames. Bystanders and Captain Hassan el-Manadi of the Alexandria Special Branch helped to douse the flames. Afterwards, the policeman noticed the burned-out glasses case in Nathanson’s pocket and realized that he had collared one the saboteurs.
Operation Susannah subsequently collapsed. The young Jews knew each other well and, before long, every member of the organization had been caught. Only the ringleader, Seidenberg, was left at large. Israel learnt that the operation had failed when they received his desperate cable:
“PIERRE AND COMPANY WENT BANKRUPT. I REMAIN HERE TO SAVE WHATEVER CAN BE SALVAGED OF OUR INVESTMENT. PLEASE ADVISE. RELI (a codename).”
Four days later, Egypt officially announced that they had arrested ten men and one woman on charges of sabotage and spying. Seidenberg calmly sold his car and headed back to Israel via Europe. Ironically, Israel accused him of having turned in the Jewish cells and condemned him to ten years’ imprisonment.
Meanwhile, Egypt tried the saboteurs in Cairo. Two of them, Dr. Moshe Marzouk and Samuel Arza, were condemned to death and the others were sentenced to long prison terms.
After fourteen years in Egyptian jails, four of the Jewish prisoners reached Israel in the prisoner exchange following the 5727/1967 Six-Day War, although their presence in the country remained an official secret for four years, until 5731/1971, when Prime Minister Golda Meir announced her intention to attend the wedding of the female cell member, Marcelle Ninio. The Israeli government never officially admitted that the cells had been trained and directed by Israel until 5735/1975.