The Mossad Operative Who Formed the Jewish Underground in North Africa

Selected for a secret mission in 1954, Havilio helped smuggle tens of thousands of Jews to Israel

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Shlomo Havilio.
Shlomo Havilio.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In 1954, Mossad chief Isser Harel asked the late Shlomo Havilio to embark on a secret mission to North Africa. Israel was worried that when Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria gained their independence, the Arab governments there would be hostile to the countries' Jewish citizens. To provide a response to every possible scenario, the Mossad wanted to establish an underground network that would protect the Jewish communities.

Havilio, who died in May at the age of 96, had an extensive military background. He answered Harel's call, visiting Jewish communities from the Rif Mountains in Spanish Morocco to the Atlas Mountains in the Sahara. He even reached the ancient Jewish community on the island of Djerba, in French Tunisia.

When he returned to Israel, he brought together the commanders of the future underground: young people with ample combat background and French and Arabic speakers. In the course he headed to train them, they studied more French and learned about North Africa and how to work undercover. They were then sent to their destination countries, where they established headquarters and brought in operatives from the local communities.

Shlomo Havilio and his wife Haya in Cairo, 1946.Credit: Courtesy of the family

Thus, “the framework” – the code word for the Mossad-operated Jewish underground in North Africa – was born. Its two main goals were to defend the local Jewish community and to bring Jews to Israel.

“Under your guidance, we established frameworks of wonderful Jewish youth in those communities, who, when ordered, did what they were trained to do: They protected their communities wherever they were attacked by the terror forces of the Muslim majority and they acted with extraordinary success where they had to break through borders to bring people secretly to Israel,” one of Havilio’s emissaries said recently, recalling his mentor. “When we were there, lonely, beyond the mountains of darkness and working under harsh underground conditions and in terror-stricken public places, we felt you, as if you were alongside us,” the man added.

In May 1956, Havilio’s operatives were called to respond to a strike against the Jewish community in Constantine, Algeria. After Muslims threw grenades into the Jewish Quarter, they pursued and killed the perpetrators. In another operation, they established an underground mail service that allowed Jews in Morocco to maintain contact with their relatives in Israel after mail service between the two countries was discontinued.

Shlomo Havilio (Second from right) in Young Maccabi, 1940'.Credit: Courtesy of the family

Havilio’s operatives reached every part of Morocco to assemble those who wanted to go to Israel. They furnished them with false papers that had been prepared in a Mossad lab and put them on ships bound for Israel. Others were smuggled through Spanish enclaves in Tangier, Ceuta and Melilla, with the cooperation of the Spanish authorities. “The immigrants showed supreme courage under poor conditions, no possibility of selling their possessions and no reasonable warning,” Havilio once said.

Members of “the framework” numbered in the hundreds. Some were arrested frequently, but their work persisted over the years. By 1961, tens of thousands of Moroccan Jews were secretly brought to Israel. Following the sinking of the ship Egoz, which claimed the lives of 44 immigrants, Morocco allowed its Jewish citizens to legally immigrate to Israel.

Havilio was born in 1921 in Jerusalem’s Old City to an old established Sephardic family. His father, Nissim Havilio, was a confectioner. His mother, Sarah (Sarina) came to Jerusalem from Macedonia. Havilio studied at Jerusalem’s Alliance School, joined the Haganah at age 14 and served in the Jewish police force in Palestine during the Arab revolt. During World War II he was a senior commander in the Haganah in Jerusalem. In 1945, he was sent to establish a Jewish underground network in Egypt to protect the Jews of Cairo and Alexandria. “They used to do their training 25 kilometers away from the pyramids, in a place I had chosen beforehand, and I made sure we could shoot there safely,” he recounted at one time.

Shlomo Havilio in 1935.Credit: Courtesy of the family

While living in Egypt under a false identity as an Armenian merchant, he met his future wife, Haya Rosenthal, a member of the underground. On November 30, 1947, when Haaretz's front page story read, “The Establishment of the Jewish State Has Been Decided,” a small ad in that day’s edition was an invitation to Shlomo and Sarah’s wedding. Havilio was almost late for the ceremony because of an Arab attack on the Mamilla commercial center.

During the War of Independence, Havilio was made commander of the south Jerusalem sector, and commanded the southern part of Operation Pitchfork with the mission to occupy areas the British had evacuated. Under his command, the neighborhoods of Talbiye and Baka was taken, along with the Allenby camp. Havilio was wounded during the final days of the war.

He eventually joined the Foreign Ministry and served as consul general in Istanbul, Israeli ambassador to Cameroon and head of Mashav, a Foreign Ministry agency for aid to developing countries.

Haya, Havilio’s wife, died in 2010. Havilio is survived by three children (another son, Eitan, died in 2016), five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

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