Israel – sabotage in Egypt by Egyptian Jews

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. 

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:


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.

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