The unflappable commander: Amnon Lipkin-Shahak’s battle in Beirut

Under fire in the Lebanese capital in 1973, with one man dead and another dying, the IDF chief who passed away on Wednesday nonetheless completed his mission — and won the second of ‘the medals they give you when something’s gone wrong’

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, died on Wednesday at age 68 (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, died on Wednesday at age 68 (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Operation Spring of Youth, a bold anti-terror raid, conjures up the image of Ehud Barak and Amiram Levine in drag. The brunette and blonde, a future prime minister and deputy head of the Mossad respectively, were led by taller soldiers to the door of PLO headquarters in Beirut, where the force eventually killed the Fatah second-in-command Muhammad Yussef Najar and others.

But the mission that proved more difficult that night in April 1973, in another part of Lebanon’s capital, was given to Lt. Col. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who died of cancer on Wednesday after many years of battling the illness.

The mission planning began in the winter of 1972-73, some five months after the attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Games. At first the goal was limited: one squad comprising four bands of four warriors each, including Barak and the current prime minister’s late older brother Yoni Netanyahu, were to kill three men: Najar, known as Abu-Yussef, and Kamal Adwan, the commander of Fatah’s Western Wing, who were charged with executing attacks in Israel, and Kamal Nasser, the Christian spokesman of the PLO – a more questionable target.

The Mossad collected intelligence, and the chief of the General Staff, David Elazar, oversaw the training. While watching a dry run of the mission in north Tel Aviv, Elazar suggested that the warriors walk in pairs, the men in suits and the “women” in dresses. They’d carry their weapons under their blazers and in their purses.

Eventually, though, the brass realized that there would not be another opportunity to strike in the heart of the Lebanese capital and they added more targets and additional troops — in three additional squads.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak as chief of the General Staff in May 1995 (Photo credit: wikicommons)
Amnon Lipkin-Shahak as chief of the General Staff in May 1995 (Photo credit: wikicommons)

Lipkin-Shahak, the commander of the 50th airborne battalion of the Paratroops, was tasked with raiding and destroying a seven-story building in west Beirut, which was home to dozens of terrorists from Naif Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The other two squads were an additional Paratroop team and a team of Naval Commandos, both tasked with targeting weapons factories.

The commandos set out on the afternoon of April 9, 1973, motoring across a Mediterranean as “smooth as pool water,” according to Aaron J. Klein’s account in the book “Striking Back.”

The missile boats carrying the troops moved west, toward Cyprus, and then “casually slipped” into the shipping lane between Cyprus and Beirut.

Several hundred yards from shore the teams disembarked and boarded rubber rafts that took them to the shore of a private hotel beach, where Mossad agents waited in civilian cars.

Lipkin-Shahak, then known only as Amnon Lipkin, recalled in a 2007 Bamahane magazine article that he could see people milling about inside the lit hotel as they boarded the cars and loaded the 250 kg. of explosives into the trunk.

Lipkin’s team, including the Mossad officers, the demolition officer, the Naval Commando and the doctor, were 19 warriors total and, as they entered the melee of Beirut traffic in three cars, they were likely still aware of Elazar’s parting words. “You believe in God?” the chief of staff had asked the mission commander Emmanuel Shaked earlier in the day. “That question pisses me off,” Klein reported Shaked as responding. “Start praying anyway,” Elazar said, “because he’ll be the only one who can help you.”

The Mossad drivers parked the three cars at the bottom of a gentle slope. Two of Shahak’s men, Avida Schorr and Haggai Maayan, both from the Paratroop recon unit and the only ones who had real anti-terror training, walked ahead, each carrying a pistol with a silencer.

“There were seven or eight of us that approached the building,” Shahak recalled. “We were supposed to cleanse the building, call for the car with the explosives, lay it out, blow it up and retreat with the cars to the beach.”

As he approached the building, however, Shahak heard the soft pop of the silenced weapons followed by the rattle of machinegun fire. “It was clear that something was not going exactly according to the plan,” he told Bamahane.

In fact, Schorr and Maayan had been discovered and had drawn fire from a guard vehicle that the troops had not been alerted to. Civilians and terrorists awoke, raining grenades out of the building and cramming the street with civilian traffic.

Rather than retreat, Shahak led the men into the building or, as he put it, in his usual laconic style, “We returned fire, took over the bottom of the building and the shooting from there stopped.”

At this point he learned that Schorr was dead, and Maayan and another soldier were badly wounded. With extraordinary presence of mind, while conducting a firefight inside the building, Shahak called for the car with the explosives. Once the material had been taken out of the trunk, he ordered that Schorr be put inside and for Maayan to be laid across the back seat. He then told the Mossad operative to drive the short distance toward the doctor, who was waiting with the Mossad officers a little farther down the hill.

“The car went down the hill, we spread out the explosives. We activated the delay mechanism and headed back toward the cars,” Shahak recalled.

When they arrived, they realized that the car with Maayan and with Schorr’s body wasn’t there. Shahak called the missing vehicle over the radio and received no response. The Mossad officers had seen it drive past, and on into the Lebanese night. “The matter was very troubling,” Shahak said.

Back at the waterfront, having heard the explosion detonate in the building as planned, Shahak finally saw the missing car and immediately called over the doctor to begin treating Maayan, who nonetheless died of his wounds on the way back to Israel.

Later, Shahak asked the Mossad man why he had driven past the  nearby position and all the way to the shore. “He was older than us, a guy who’d fought as a lad in the War of Independence,” Shahak recalled. “He said he figured that if no one else got out of the [operation alive], he would take [his vehicle with Maayan and Schorr] to the shore and when someone came to evacuate them he’d at least be able to tell what had happened.”

What the Mossad man didn’t know was that Shahak was the only one with the radio connection to the Naval Commandos. Had Shahak not made it, or decided to change the pick-up point on the fly, then the Mossad man, with a dead soldier in the trunk and a wounded one in the back, “probably wouldn’t have been able to get them out of there,” he said.

Lipkin-Shahak was decorated for his role in Operation Spring of Youth, earning a Medal of Courage — his second such medal, the first being for his role in a 1968 raid on the PLO stronghold of Karameh in Jordan, which also involved a withdrawal under fire.

It was a citation, Lipkin-Shahak said with his characteristic dry humor, that is “usually given in places where things did not go according to plan.”

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