For the first time, Israel acknowledged that it was behind the killing of Abu Jihad, the PLO’s number two and cofounder, at his home in Tunis in April 1988.
Yedioth Ahronoth investigative reporter Ronen Bergman’s interview with Nahum Lev, the commander of the operation and the officer who killed Abu Jihad, was cleared for publication Thursday after being blocked by the military censor for more than a decade. The interview was conducted prior to Lev’s death from a car accident in August 2000. In allowing its publication, Israel essentially confirmed the open secret that it carried out the operation.
Abu Jihad (“father of the struggle”), whose real name was Khalil al-Wazir, was deemed a potent security threat. He was the mastermind of the infamous Coastal Road massacre, a 1978 attack on an Israeli bus near Tel Aviv that killed 38 Israelis and wounded another 70, and numerous other terror attacks on Israeli targets in the 1970s and 1980s. As military commander of Fatah, he unified fragmented factions of the PLO from his base in Tunis, and was accused by Israel of directing an escalation of violence against Israel in the territories after the first intifada uprising erupted in the territories 1987.
Lev, the son of renowned physics professor Ze’ev Lev, was the first religious officer in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. He was an outstanding soldier, hungry for action, who “possessed rare navigation skills and was in exceptional shape,” according to one of his friends. He was a “daredevil fighter,” Bergman wrote.
After finishing his officer’s course, Lev earned a reputation as a tough and demanding commander. He was appointed deputy of the elite unit under Moshe Ya’alon (later the IDF’s chief of General Staff ,and today Israel’s deputy prime minister) and tasked with leading the top-secret Abu Jihad operation, code named “Show of Force,” which combined Mossad and special forces units.
Lev, who described the operation in detail to Bergman, said he carried out his mission with conviction. “I read every single page in the intelligence folder we had on [Abu Jihad]. He was involved in a lot of horrible things against the citizens,” explained Lev. “He was a dead man walking. I shot him without hesitation.”
“I felt very connected to the mission. I didn’t flinch. I just wanted the operation to be a success,” he added.
On April 15, 1988, a day prior to the operation, commando units and Shayetet forces (elite Navy units) were ferried to the Tunisian shore. Twenty-six members of the force were divided into groups. Lev was in the first group of eight, which was meant to break into Abu Jihad’s house. The rest were to serve as reinforcements.
They stopped half a kilometer (0.3 miles) from his home.
Lev and another soldier who dressed up as a woman pretended they were a vacationing couple. Lev carried what appeared to be a large box of chocolates in one hand, in which he concealed a gun with a silencer that he was holding in his other hand.
They approached the house, where Lev shot and killed Abu Jihad’s bodyguard, who had fallen asleep in his car.
After the unit got word that the bodyguard was neutralized, the remaining officers secured the doorway of the house. Part of the unit headed toward the basement precisely at the moment a second bodyguard woke up. He refused to let go of his firearm, and was killed.
The gardener, Lev recounted, had decided to sleep in the basement that night, and he too was killed. “I felt sorry for the gardener,” Lev said. “But in that type of operation we have to make sure that any possible interference is neutralized.”
Another officer started firing toward the staircase of the house, near where Abu Jihad was located, and Lev followed him.
“He shot at Abu Jihad first. It seemed like Abu Jihad was holding a pistol in his hand,” Lev said. “After that, I shot him with a long burst of fire. I was careful not to hurt his wife, who had showed up there. He died. The extra forces came and verified his death.”