Marcelle Ninio, Israeli spy jailed by Egypt in infamous Lavon Affair, dies at 90

Agent spent 14 years in an Egyptian prison for her role in the failed false flag operation that came to be known in Israel as ‘The Bad Business’

Marcelle Ninio (YouTube screenshot)
Marcelle Ninio (YouTube screenshot)

Marcelle Ninio, one of six Israeli spies formerly jailed in Egypt in the infamous Lavon Affair of the 1950s, died Wednesday at the age of 90.

Ninio will be laid to rest at 11 a.m. Friday in Kibbutz Einat.

In the Lavon Affair, known commonly in Israel as “The Bad Business” (“Esek Habish”) and officially named Operation Susannah, Israeli spymasters, acting without the knowledge of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, recruited Egyptian Jews to carry out false flag terror attacks against civilian targets in the country in order to destabilize the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, the operation failed, eight cell members were imprisoned and two others were executed.

Ninio, who served as a liaison between cell members and was the only woman in the squad, spent 14 years in an Egyptian prison for her actions.

Operation Susannah was launched due to Israel’s concerns over Washington and London’s good relations with Nasser, and particularly British authorities’ plans to evacuate their forces from the Suez Canal. Israeli officials feared that Nasser would move to nationalize the canal and block Israel from the waterway. They hoped to sabotage relations between Egypt and Western nations to keep Nasser from gaining more power.

Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon, left, and IDF Chief of the General Staff Moshe Dayan, with Shimon Peres in the background, on February 8, 1953 (GPO/ courtesy of IDF Archive in the Defense Ministry)

In 1954 the Egyptian Jewish spy cell, of which there were 13 members, firebombed American-linked sites — libraries, post offices, cinemas — in Cairo and Alexandria, causing some consternation but no casualties. They were caught after one of the operatives was captured and interrogated.

It is also believed, but has never been officially confirmed, that they were betrayed by Avri Elad, a military intelligence agent who recruited the spies and directed their bombing campaign. Elad, it later emerged, had been in regular contact with a former Egyptian intelligence chief. He spent 10 years in Israeli prison for those contacts.

The affair scandalized Israel, and ultimate responsibility for it was never definitively proven, with Col. Binyamin Jibli, the commander of military intelligence, and Pinchas Lavon, the defense minister, each accusing the other of lying about their culpability for years. Both ultimately lost their positions over the affair.

Ninio, born in Cairo in 1929, was 24 at the time of her arrest. She tried to commit suicide several times after being arrested but failed.

Marcelle Ninio, the only woman in the undercover unit in Egypt, on January 20, 1985, some 18 years after her release from prison (photo credit: Noam Armon/ IDF Archive)

She was released in 1968 and arrived in Israel, where she married three years later and had children. In recent years she had lived in the central city of Hod Hasharon. In 1988 she was honored with a torch-lighting during the state’s 40th Independence Day celebrations.

Many details of the affair and those involved were kept under military censorship for decades.

In a 1986 interview with Maariv, Ninio said she was not bitter, though the long years in prison were often tortuous. “Life is short and beautiful and should not be wasted on bitterness… Look at the beautiful country we have… [I have] a husband, children, beautiful grandchildren. I’m not missing a thing.

“I’m only sorry for those lost years in which I might have had children and experienced Israel. But why dwell on the past?”

JTA contributed to this report.

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