The Incredible, Secret Life of Elisha Roei, the Israeli Hero You Probably Never Heard Of

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Elisha Roei
Elisha RoeiCredit: Courtesy
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

He smuggled cash and weapons under the noses of armed soldiers; he travelled on secret and dangerous missions in distant lands using forged documents and false identities; he ran foreign agents and interrogated top prisoners. The life of Elisha Roei — who died last month in Tel Aviv at age 90 — was anything but “ordinary.”

“There’s a motto that has accompanied me all my life: What I planned, I didn’t do — and everything I did do, I didn’t plan,” Roei wrote in his memoir, which he never published but left with his family to view following his death.

A look at the documents, photographs, certificates and many citations of merit he kept at his home in Tel Aviv, along with an examination of his memoirs, which were documented on video in the Toldot Israel project, make it possible to sketch the trajectory of his long and colorful life. It was a life that gravitated between the ranks of the Jewish Brigade, the Haganah, the Israel Defense Forces; and security missions in Europe, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kurdistan that included classified intelligence work, the full details of which he never revealed.

Elisha Roei in the Jewish Brigade in 1945.Credit: Courtesy of the family

Roei was born in 1926 in Migdal Zedek, a village established near Rosh Ha’ayin, consisting of “a few huts, tents and five children,” in his words. His parents, Eliezer and Rachel Reich, who had immigrated to Palestine from Eastern Europe, came there as Third Aliyah pioneers, “without knowing where they were going,” as he put it, and discovered “swamps, fields, sands and a lot of gnats. We lived in a hut, we slept in washbasins. We rode on donkeys to Petah Tikva,” he related.

After a few years the group of pioneers dispersed in all directions and his family moved to Tel Aviv. There he attended kindergarten with Major General Yitzhak (Haka) Hofi, who would go on to head the Mossad.

Studied with Rabin

Elisha Roei.Credit: Courtesy of the family

In 1940 Roei began attending the boarding school at Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, where his fellow students included Yitzhak Rabin, Rafael Eitan and Rehavam Zeevi (Gandhi). At that time he was sworn into the pre-state Jewish underground, the Haganah, and learned to fire light arms. He completed high school at the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school in Tel Aviv.

Around that time he decided to change his surname, out of fear that the British — who oversaw Palestine — would arrest him because of his father’s secret activity in the Haganah. In his memoir, Roei recalls how he and his father came up with a new name for him. “We stayed together in the hiding place with a Bible and he looked for a verse from which he could get inspiration. The name that was chosen came from the Book of Genesis, 16:4 in a verse about the well of water in the Negev: “Wherefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roei.”

Elisha Roei in Kurdistan, 1966.Credit: Courtesy of the family

In 1944 he enlisted in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army and was sent to Europe, where he made the rounds of the liberated camps and met Holocaust survivors face to face. “I was in shock,” he recalled. “I felt as though someone had stabbed me.”

From that moment on he saw himself not just as sabra from the land of Israel but also as “part of the Jewish collective. Had my parents not immigrated to the land, we ourselves would also have been here now, starving, dying, beyond the cursed barbed wire fence.”

For the next several years he remained in Europe to devote himself to the movement for illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine during the British Mandate, and to the purchase and smuggling of arms in advance of the War of Independence. He did this in the framework of the Haganah, which spearheaded the clandestine immigration of Jews.

The real heroes

“In the whole story of the illegal immigration, it wasn’t we who were the heroes. What we did — we did, but we weren’t heroes,” he wrote later in life. “The real heroes were the Holocaust survivors, who after they were expelled from their homes, put into camps, left without family, friends or acquaintances and were assailed and tortured — and after all that, they found the psychological strength to recover, to go from the concentration camps and the death camps to yet more camps for displaced persons, to board rickety ships, to spend weeks at sea, to get to the land and on top of that to suffer deportation to Cyprus.”

Elisha Roei at the oil fields in the Gulf of Suez.Credit: Courtesy of the family

He roamed Europe searching for abandoned arms caches from World War II, in order to smuggle ammunition and material to the land of Israel. To that end he stopped at nothing. Sometimes he pretended to be a member of the Spanish underground who needed weapons. Other times, upon encountering villagers who were known to keep weapons on their property he would sing the Internationale to appeal to their hearts. Some of his stories from this period are hair-raising; others, hilarious.

Elisha Roei in the Gulf of Suez.Credit: Courtesy of the family

One story he recounted is about “a gorgeous prostitute” who knocked on the door of the hotel room in Marseille where he was staying under an assumed identity. “I tried to close the door on her from the inside but she stuck her foot in the door and blocked me,” he described. “‘I know that you are a Jew,’ she said. “I am a Jew too and I want to help you.’” And she did, ultimately providing valuable aid to the Haganah intelligence organization, he recalled.

“We were insolent, daring and above all stupid and irresponsible — otherwise, there is no way to explain why we did the things we did,” he said in summing up that period. In May of 1948 after the declaration of Israel’s independence, he boarded a ship and left Europe to return to the fledgling state. “Like a new immigrant, I’m walking along the streets of Haifa with a shabby little suitcase, looking to the left, looking to the right and not believing that there is a state,” he wrote.“For me this was a real shock. I left one country and came back to a state!”

In Israel he was sent for training in the newly established naval commando unit, where he served as an intelligence officer.

The dead camel caper

He recounts one action during this period in which he and his buddies in the unit attached a dead camel to a boat in the Gulf of Eilat and began dragging it through the water in order to check if there were sharks. This information was vital for their operational activity. Later he participated in the establishment of a unit for special operations in enemy countries -- Intelligence 13. Out of this grew the Military Intelligence Unit, whose people became embroiled in the 1954 Lavon Affair, a covert operation in Egypt that failed embarrassingly.

Elisha Roei and his wife.Credit: Courtesy of the family

Later on, Roei was the person in charge of running agents. In 1956, in the Sinai Campaign, he was put in charge of security cooperation between the IDF and the French, which also included the operation to rescue Jews from Port Said and bring them to Israel in fishing boats. During the Six Day-War, he interrogated prisoners, among them a captured Egyptian general. As a reservist, he engaged in giving intelligence training to officers in Ethiopia and helping the Kurds during their war in Iraq, on behalf of the Mossad.

Elisha Roei.Credit: Courtesy of the family

After his retirement from the IDF in 1960, he began working in the oil industry. “This oil industry reminds me of intelligence,” he once remarked.“In intelligence, if we have 70 percent information indicative of something we celebrate and go for it. In oil, if we have 50 percent information we also go with it.”

Between 1961 and 1967 Roei held a management position in the government oil company Nafta, which did exploratory drilling near Arad. After the Six-Day-War he managed the oil fields in the Gulf of Suez, which were under Israeli control. Later, he directed the drilling for oil at Alma in southern Sinai, until the area was returned to Egypt in the wake of the peace agreement. During the Camp David negotiations that led to the treaty, he participated as an expert on the issue of oil on behalf of the Energy Ministry. In the 1980s he was appointed CEO of the Lapidoth oil company.

“I sought work that would be different from an ordinary job. That was my problem — I was always attracted to and loved extraordinary things,” he wrote and, in his later years, said: “Life took me to all kinds of places I’d never dreamt of in my wildest dreams.”

Roei is survived by his wife, Rina, their daughters, Ruth and Tal, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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