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Was It the Finger? by Dr. Mori Bank

Lt.Col. Zeev Raz, squadron leader of the Israeli Air Force's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, recently met with a select group to reconstruct the details of that mission and relate them to today's predicament, in which a nuclear Iran seems closer than ever.

As Raz related details of the dramatic mission, conducted just before Shavuos; the examples of hashgacha pratis came in such rapid succession that one could imagine his story being told word for word by a Maggid. Though he gave over the facts in a dry matter of fact manner, as if he were debriefing his commanders after the mission, at one point he had to admit, "If I were a believer I would say that this "mission's success" was the Hand of G-d."

 

Harav Baruch Horowitz, Rosh Yeshivas ‘Dvar Yerushalayim’ and the program organizer, set the tone for the meeting. Just before the Osiraq attack, the Prime Minister Menachem Begin, zt’’l sent a representative to Rav Eliezer Menashem Mann Shach, zt"l, asking that the Ponovezh Rosh Yeshivah, zt’’l, pray for Am Yisroel  who were again facing an imminent threat of another holocaust, this time atomic.

 

Begin was a man who was not shy about quoting verses of faith," said Rav Horowitz,relating an episode he had heard from Begin's personal adviser, Yehudah Avner:

"Avner was present at a meeting between U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian Premier Anwar Sadat and Begin, in which President Carter told Begin, “You have to give over territories to the Palestinians, because if you don't, you'll lose the support of the United States. You have no choice at all!” Begin responded by humming a familiar niggun - one that was sung in the concentration camps.The people around him thought that the Prime Minister might be experiencing some sort of emotional stress or breakdown; perhaps the pressure was too much. Begin then added  words to the niggun –“ani maamin, ani maamin. . .” He explained that Jews are a people of faith, and even under the worst situations. The people in the camps thought that that was the end of the Jewish people, as the Nazis kept drilling into them, saying that there was no hope. The Jews responded by singing this song and others, like: “Mir velen zei iverleben - we will outlive you.” These were the songs that kept the faith alive and that ultimately, Am Yisroel would survive and flourish. That message brought President Carter to tears, as he confessed that he also believed in the Creator.

The attack on Osirak was carried out under the leadership of this man of faith, a prime minister who believed in the ultimate salvation of Israel by G-d, even if all the other nations had given up on us - and he brought this faith to the pilots, the heroes of that mission.

In the mid-s 70s Israel learnt that France would be selling a nuclear reactor to Iraq similar to the one it had sold Israel a decade earlier - one that was not designed to produce nuclear weapons, but whose capabilities could be enlarged to do so. This was clearly what Iraq intended since, as an oil-rich nation, it had no need to develop alternative energy sources.

Diplomatic pressure was applied on France to desist from this dangerous sale, but to no avail.

By 1981, it was clear that the reactor would soon become radioactive, after which time an attack on it would cause catastrophic results similar to Chernobyl.

The clock was ticking, but how could they strike at a target so far away, beyond the range of the F-16’s? Raz recalls that he gave the assignment to Ilan Ramon zt’’l, who would later become Israel’s first astronaut in space. He assigned Ilan to see if he could do it, because the problem was the range: how to make it to Baghdad and back. After all of Ramon's calculations, and the advances in midair refueiling, there simply would not be enough fuel for the mission. Until Raz came up with what he calls a Jewish trick. "We went against the plane's training manual and tested a way to jettison the extra fuel tanks  once they were empty, thus making the planes much lighter and saving fuel. The manual absolutely forbids this, and with good reason, because releasing an empty fuel tank when there are 1,000 kilogram bombs right next to them on the wings of the plane is an unthinkable danger. If the empty tank so much as touches the bomb, it explodes. We saw no alternatives, so we tested thoroughly it and found that it could be done."

But even with the problems of political backing and range of the planes addressed, other factors were still compelling against carrying out the attack.

"According to Ilan's projections, the Iraqis would have us in their sights for 15 minutes, even if we took the best route under the best conditions, they would have 15 minutes to respond to our entry into their air space. For an air force fighter pilot 15 minutes is like eternity. Even if they didn't spot us right away and even if their air space systems took time, their planes could reach us easily and they wouldn't even have to down us - all they would have to do was circle overhead and force us to engage them, which would destroy our plans.

This is why we set out with eight pilots, which was more than we needed, plus an escort of two F-15's to engage the Iraqis if necessary - we wanted to make sure that at least some of us would get through and bomb the reactor.

 

Raz recalls his argument with officers in air force planning, who insisted that the attack be launched after sunset, in order to give the IAF a full night to conduct search-and-rescue missions if a pilot was downed.

"I argued that we needed to carry out the attack before sunset. Maybe there'd be poor visibility or enemy planes, and we would need light. It was a unique situation, one that is usually reversed. The planners in Tel Aviv, who themselves were in no danger, had uppermost in their minds the safety of the crew, whereas the ones actually carrying out the mission were most concerned about the mission's success."

Raz reminisced about the scene on the tarmac before takeoff. "Raful flew in to be with us. He was sitting shivah for his son, but he flew in and spoke to us like a father. He said 'If you get caught, tell them everything you know, don't worry about any secrets! Rather just come back alive.' Then he gave each of us some home-grown dates and joked with us, 'Here. . . enjoy these in the Iraqi jails.' Psychologically, this sort of approach works. It gives the soldiers the sense that they're already dead, so they might as well give it their all in the mission."

While on the tarmac, the pilots received Iraqi currency, in case they had to bail out over enemy territory. "I told Raful that this was crazy. If I land in the desert, what I need is water, and if I'm in Baghdad, I don't speak a word of Arabic, so how are these dinarim going to help keep me alive? Still, he said that it would give the pilots some extra confidence.

"So we set out from the Etzion Airbase in Eastern Sinai, and then turned and flew across the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia. We flew at an altitude of 30 meters, so that we wouldn't be detected by any radar systems. Sometimes we had to go up a bit to avoid electric power lines. We could see the people, maybe not their faces, but we saw them."

 

What no one had taken into account, however, was that a most highly placed source had spotted them, and was  making an urgent effort to alert Saddam Hussein.

King Hussein of Jordan had been vacationing in Aqaba and had actually seen our planes heading eastwards. Hussein was a fighter pilot himself, and he immediately understood that out target was Osiraq. He summoned his headquarters in Amman and ordered that the Iraqis be informed that an attack was imminent. Some soldiers there apparently never managed to relay the information.

 

"We successfully jettisoned the empty fuel tanks over Saudi Arabia and continued on until we finally began approaching Baghdad. When we reached the area there was no response from the Iraqi Air Force- to this day I don't understand it. Where were the Iraqi defense systems? No MiGs, no mirage jets... I mean, this was Baghdad, not some far-flung location, and there was a war going on then between Iran and Iraq, and less than a year earlier the Iranians themselves had tried to bomb the reactor and were unsuccessful. In military terms Baghdad is relatively easy to defend, as is it surrounded by flat lands, not like Israel's reactor in Dimona, which is surrounded by hilly terrain. In training, we knew there was a lake with an island. That was our sign of approach at which point we had to approach the reactor within seconds. There had been heavy rains which had flooded the islands, which was now under water. With out the sign we had to guess, and radio contact was forbidden. Therefore, we were flying at a critical moment, not knowing how far away the reactor was exactly. Suddenly, we saw the reactor ahead in my bombsights.. We immediately dived down, dropped the bombs and then soared up to an altitude of 12.000 meters, and headed back. We braced ourselves as we were sure that there were more surprises ahead of us on our 45 minute journey home.

"On our way back no attempts were made to intercept us, no missiles, no radars and no planes, but we saw something that Israeli air force pilots are not accustomed to. I had never seen such a thing - we flew into the sunset, and at our speed, we saw the sun as if it didn't move for the whole 45 minute journey. Maybe an airline pilot is used to this, but in Israel, an air force pilot can't fly east to west for more than a few minutes, so we were faced with something we had never seen before: a vision of the sun suspended at sunset. It didn't create any difficulties, but it did have us all thinking about what Yehoshua bin Nun experienced thousands of years ago: the passuk 'shemesh beGivon dom' - may the sun stand still in Givon' (Yehoshua 10-12) in his war against the Emori.

"We arrived back at the Etzion airbase just before sunset erev Shavuot and were brought in for debriefing. The officers all wanted to hear our report on the operation, particularly about difficulties that arose so that they could try to make improvements. No one had anything to add, as everything had gone so smoothly. The planes had performed so perfectly, as if they had a neshama, and knew the gravity of the mission: to avert a holocaust.

"Then one of the men put it into words - 'it was the finger of G-d.'"

If any further proof of this was needed, they saw it the following day, as Raz related: "For the mission, all the planes had worked perfectly, the whole way there and back. None of the pilots reported even the most minor, typical malfunction, but the day after these same planes began having all the typical malfunctions.”

The finger of G-d was needed on the diplomatic front as well.

"It was not Jimmy Carter but Ronald Reagan, the hawk of hawks, who was U.S. president at that time. He made a thorough denunciation of the strike, as did the United Nations and the entire world. The Americans made sanctions and delayed shipments of any more planes. We didn't know at the time how long this would be, but in the end the delay was only for a few months," Raz said.

"Any time you make a preemptive strike, you don't know what will happen. As for Iran, why didn't former U.S. President George W. Bush or Olmert do something about it, as Olmert did in Syria sending the Air Force to bomb a reactor? The answer is that maybe they would lose more than they'd gain.

Some of those who objected to the attack on Osiraq claimed that all we would do back then is slow down the process. They argued, if you delay development of nuclear weapons by three years, is it worth it? We argued back then that it wouldn't be three years but seven, and no one imagined back then that Saddam Hussein would attack Kuwait, or the Gulf War that followed. "Also Begin, with his legal background, researched the plan for the attack from a legal perspective. He noted that unlike Israel's immediate neighbors, Iraq had never signed any cease-fire with Israel, and was therefore still legally in a state of war with it." Raz said, noting that this fact had spared him from threats of foreign prosecution as a "war criminal".

 

Today, the challenge is 55 times greater, and with world support it appears possibly 70 times worse. Iran had learned the lesson of Osiraq only too well, and is carrying out its nuclear program at 55 different sites in cities throughout the country, in well fortified locations 20 stories underground, too deep even for a bunker buster to have its affects. Imagine the civilian casualties and the world response. Therefore, "an air strike is unrealistic," explains Raz. "This could only cause damage, not stop the process. Stopping the Iranians could only be done by bringing in ground forces by  a world coalition, as was done in the Gulf War" which seems highly unlikely today. 

 

Author of the book “First Strike,” Shlomo Nakdimon noted, while not minimizing the danger, "there exists today what can be called an unwritten agreement between Israel and the Arab countries, as they are also threatened by Iran, and so unlike the situation with Osiraq, today Israel is not alone in facing this danger."

Raz feels that in the present situation, the Iranians will succeed in developing nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Coupled with their long range missile program., this means that we are in need of Hashem's salvation now, more than any of us can ever imagine.

 

This brought the meeting to a conclusion, and Rav Horowitz offered a mashal for our task in these terribly dangerous times: "This globe is like a spacecraft, and we are the pilots of this spacecraft. To be a pilot means a lot of self-discipline. You can dabble in aeronautics, but one's concentration must be given fully to the rules and how to put them into practice, fulfilling all of the instructions worked out by engineering teams of the highest caliber, and one must put all his confidence into what they said.

"...We have been given the task of saving mankind. We are the pilots and must look out for all the passengers on this spacecraft, and the way we do it is to keep our faith alive, and share it with those not yet educated in faith. This faith is critical for the survival of the nation, not just spiritually but also physically, and not just for our nation but the whole of mankind. And if from this evening we can get a bit of courage to spread the word, that whatever these maniacs say or do, the power of our G-d is greater than any of them!

"This is the deep significance of the fact that this event, the strike against Osiraq coincides with the greatest event of Jewish History - Matan Torah and Shavuot - which brought the People of Israel in direct contact with the Creator to bring about salvation to the world."

 

In conclusion, at the debriefing, one pilot felt it was the finger of Ha-shem. Lt. Col. Zev Raz, the commander of the mission, claimed it was the hand of Ha-shem. As we recall each year in the hagaddah, “Rabbi Yosie, Haglili, said: “How can you infer that the Egyptians were afflicted with ten plagues in Egypt, and at the red sea with fifty plagues? Concerning the ten plagues in Egypt, it is said: “And the magicians said to Pharaoh ‘This is the finger of God’ but concerning the Red Sea, it is said: ‘And Israel saw the Mighty Hand with which Ha-shem smote the Egyptians, and the people feared Ha-shem, and believed in Ha-shem and in His servant Moses.” Now, if by the finger they were afflicted with ten plagues, you can infer from this that in Egypt (where the word finger is used) they were smitten with ten plagues, and at the Red Sea (where the word Hand is used) they were struck with fifty plagues.” Rabbi Eliezer said . . . Each plague had four different plagues: as it is said, “wrath, indignation, trouble, and messengers of evil.” Therefore, in Egypt forty and the sea with 200. Rabbi Akiva said, each plague contained 5 plagues, therefore in Egypt, 50 plagues, and at krias Yam Suf 250 plagues. How would we ever be able to measure the magnitude of the miracles that Ha-shem did for his nation that Shavuot when Am Yisroel were once again rescued from a holocaust?

Was it the Finger or was it the Hand? The clue may exist in Devarim 32:11. Metaphorically, Ha-shem is like an eagle hovering over its young, carrying Am Yisroel on His wings.

 ATOM

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