Avraham Dar, One of the Founders of Israel's Intelligence Community, Dies at 94

Dar planned and participated in numerous espionage missions and founded Israel's espionage unit in Egypt during the 1950s

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Avraham Dar.
Avraham Dar.Credit: Danielle Rosenblum

Avraham Dar, one of the founders of Israel's intelligence community, who planned and participated in numerous espionage missions and founded Israel's espionage unit in Egypt during the 1950s, died Monday at the age of 94.

Dar was born in Jerusalem to a long-time Jerusalemite family. His father served in Trumpeldore's Donkey Brigade during World War I. Schooled in Haifa, Dar joined the Palmach in 1942 and undertook the first marine course, in Caesarea, that would later birth the Palmach's maritime arm.

Towards the end of the British mandate period, in the midst of WWII, he was positioned with the Fourth Palmach brigade in Haifa Port. Among his responsibilities were procurement, special operations – including assassinations – and intelligence. In one of his missions during that time, he was involved in planting a car bomb in a garage in Haifa to foil a booby-trapped ambulance prepared by Arabs to use against Jews.

In 1949, he was sent to Iran and Iraq to help smuggle Jews to Israel under the command of Shlomo Hillel.

After returning to Israel, he helped found the Israeli army's "Modiin 13", designed to promote subversion in the enemy's home front. His top mission was to create espionage infrastructure in Egypt. Disguised as a British businessman, Dar recruited two networks of Jewish spies in Egypt, using Marcelle Ninio who died last month as liaison. He declined to take on Eli Cohen – "he was socially prominent, charismatic, amusing, witty, a guy you'd remember meeting. Exactly the opposite of what I was looking for," Dar explained to Yedioth Ahronoth. Cohen would subsequently be sent to Damascus where he spied for Israel, was caught and executed.

In 1954, the network Dar set up was operated by others without his involvement. Agents he had recruited were told to plan terror attacks against Western targets in Egypt, to sabotage Cairo's relations with the West, especially the U.S. and Britain, so as to foil the plan to remove British forces from Egypt. A makeshift bomb in a cell member's pocket ignited at a cinema in Alexandria, exposing the agent. Absence of "insulation" led to the arrest of 11 members of the unit on charges of planning to blow up cinemas, the post office and U.S. intelligence centers in Cairo and Alexandria on behalf of Israel.

The unit leaders, Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Ezer, were executed. Max Binet, another Israeli intelligence officer operating in Egypt with some connection to this network, was trapped, tortured and killed himself without revealing military secrets. The network's commander, Avri Elad who had been recruited to the sensitive post despite some criminal past, managed to escape Egypt unharmed, and went to Europe. Dar was sentenced to life in prison in his absence.

After meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, Dar felt that Lavon was trying to blur the truth about the spy network and cast the blame on others. "Throughout the conversation, which lasted about an hour and a half, I couldn't shake off the uncomfortable feeling that the defense minister didn't mean to accept my information as was," Dar wrote in his memoir. Israeli military censorship cast shadows on the affair, later dubbed the "Lavon affair," which had triggered a political storm in Israel over who gave the order to run the operation.

In 1956, during the Kadish campaign, Dar initiated the Tushia Campaign, smuggling several dozen Jews from Egypt to Israel. That mission began as an initiative to free Jewish spies imprisoned in Egypt. Dar allied with a French commando battalion that slipped fighters from the Israeli naval commando into Cairo. In the end, the prisoner release mission was never completed, but Jewish civilians were rescued through Port Said.

Parallel to the Lavon affair, Dar continued his intelligence activities. In 1956 he initiated a successful intelligence campaign, sending a bomb to the commander of Egyptian intelligence in Gaza, Mustafa Hafez, who was also engaged in terrorism against Israeli citizens. The IDF unit 504 recruited Hafez's Bedouin aide, turning him into a double agent. He gave Hafez a booby-trapped book, which did blow up. Hafez was badly injured and later died.

Dar also founded the unit that would give rise to the Sayeret Matkal elite special-operations force. In a 1955 letter to the head of intelligence, he wrote that he "proposes to establish a unit of military infiltrators". Getting the green light, he recruited Israeli soldiers of Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi origin and trained them to operate behind enemy lines. One of these was Avraham Arnan, the founder of Sayeret Matkal.

Dar had been furious with the government's helplessness to obtain the freedom of Israelis still in Egyptian jail, and pressed for their inclusion in a prisoner swap.

In 1968, after the Six-Day War, he told Ronen Bregman, "I was so happy. I have waited for this moment. The children I recruited finally came home."

Many of Dar's missions have remained secret. "Let's just say that I was sentenced to death in more than a few Arab countries," he once told Israel Hayom in an interview.

Following his military career, Dar became a farmer and later, engaged in industry, development and exports. He moved to Atlit. He leaves behind his wife Tzofia, five children, and grandchildren.