Rafi Eitan, a former Israeli minister, Shin Bet and Mossad officer, and the legendary spy who led the famed capture of Adolf Eichmann, died on Saturday at the age of 92.
The Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv, where Eitan was hospitalized, issued the announcement of his death to the media.
As head of the Mossad, Eitan commanded the 1960 intelligence operation that captured Nazi war criminal and Holocaust organizer Eichmann in Argentina and took him back to Israel for prosecution.
After a career that also saw him brought into the spotlight for handling American spy Jonathan Pollard, Eitan was elected to the Knesset in 2006 as head of the Gil Pensioners party, serving as pensioner affairs minister until 2009.
“I had a heart operation a year ago, I can’t see anything and I can’t hear anything, but I run every morning, I sculpt and my wife says I’m doing well,” Eitan said on becoming a lawmaker at age 79.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement on his passing calling him a “beloved person” and “hero of the Israeli intelligence community.”
“My wife Sara and I mourn alongside the people of Israel the passing of Rafi Eitan,” Netanyahu said. “Rafi was among the heroes of the intelligence services of the State of Israel on countless missions on behalf of the security of Israel.”
“He was a personal and close family friend. His wisdom, wit and commitment to the people of Israel and our state were without peer. We mourn his passing,” Netanyahu said.
President Reuven Rivlin too issued a statement, calling Eitan “a brave fighter, whose contributions to the security of the State of Israel will be taught for generations to come.”
“Rafi was a born fighter who stuck to his mission and to what he knew to be right. Our heads are bowed today in his memory, and we part from him in sorrow and thanks, and with deep appreciation for his contribution to the people and the country,” Rivlin said.
Eitan was also famous for being the handler of American-Israeli spy Pollard, who as a civilian intelligence analyst for the US Navy, passed reams of classified material to Israel from the summer of 1984 until November 1985. Eitan was head of the Bureau of Scientific Relations at the time.
Pollard was recruited by an up-and-coming Israel Air Force officer, Col. Aviem Sella, and run by Eitan. Pollard served a life sentence in US federal prison beginning in 1987 and was released in November 2015.
In a 2014 episode of the Israeli investigative TV show “Uvda,” Eitan admitted for the first time that Israel’s leadership at the time, then-prime minister Shimon Peres and defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, knew full well that Israel had a spy within the US armed forces. In the episode, Eitan also revealed that he turned his back on Pollard, giving the order to bar him from the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC in 1985 as Pollard attempted to enter and gain asylum.
Last year, Eitan made headlines when he publicly endorsed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, in a move that shocked the Israeli diplomatic corps. The AfD, derided by critics as anti-Semitic and racist, was the first openly anti-immigrant, far-right party to enter the Bundestag since World War II.
Eitan was born on Kibbutz Ein Harod in British-ruled Palestine in November 1926 to a family of immigrants from Russia.
He was nicknamed “Rafi the Stinker” after he fell into a sewer during a military operation prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948.
After his service in the elite Palmach arm of the paramilitary Haganah organization, the forerunner of the Israeli army, he joined Mossad in the 1950s.
AFP contributed to this report.