Israeli Warrior Died of Cancer After a Secret Mission. Then the War on His Memory Began

The Defense Ministry's treatment of the family of a commando who died in 2001 is similar to how it handled naval commandos made to dive in polluted waters, and reveals details about secret operations in Egypt in the 1970s

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Zvika Livne. He enlisted in August, 1970, right as the cease-fire ending the War of Attrition was signed.
Zvika Livne. He enlisted in August, 1970, right as the cease-fire ending the War of Attrition was signed.
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

A bit over a year ago, the name of Zvi Livne suddenly appeared on the Israel Defense Forces’ “Yizkor” site, and the succinct entry on the memorial site for Israel’s fallen reads as follows: “Passed following his service, 25 Heshvan 5762 (11/11/2001). Was 51 at his passing. Laid to rest at the civilian cemetery of Ramat Hasharon-Morasha.” Contrary to regulations, there is no mention of Livne’s rank, life story, or corps affiliation.

Major Zvi Livne was a bold fighter in Sayeret Matkal, the general staff’s elite special-operations force. Since his death from cancer, and for nearly 20 years, the Defense Ministry refused the requests of Livne’s family and friends to recognize their loved one as a fallen IDF soldier, and did so only in 2020 after being forced to do so by the court.

Hanan Livne, Zvika’s younger brother, conducted research concluding that other veterans of the unit, who died of cancer or other diseases in a sudden and unexplained manner, were also exposed to hazardous materials

This is a story with parallels to that of the fighters of the naval commando unit, Shayetet 13, who used to dive into the contaminated waters of the Kishon River, and then had to fight the system’s obtusity and its refusal for decades to acknowledge a connection between the dives and cancer.

A bridge on the Kishon River, 2007.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Zvi Aviad Livne – Zvika, as everyone called him – was born in 1950, went to Ohel Shem high school in Ramat Gan, and was a troop leader at the boy scouts in his youth. He did well in school, made the Academic Reserve program and studied math and physics at the Hebrew University.

The War of Attrition was ongoing at the time and Livne, as related in the memorial book his family published, “felt frustration at not being in the army, halted his studies after two years and volunteered for Sayeret Matkal. He was recommended by Danny Yatom, who was then on a study furlough from the IDF and was his classmate at the university (and subsequently went on to hold a variety of high-ranking positions in the political and military echelons, including head of the Mossad).

In the jeeps were 'devices' – listening devices with powerful, long-lasting batteries. For safety purposes, each jeep only had two fighters. They sat in the front, with boards between them and the batteries loaded in the back

Livne enlisted in August, 1970, right as the cease-fire ending the War of Attrition was signed. His commander was Cookie Can’ani from Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. He underwent the unit’s usual grueling training regimen and did well in operational duties. He went on to the officers’ training course, finished it with distinction and came back as a squad leader. Under the commands of Dovik Tamari, Uzi Yairi and Menachem Digly, the Sayeret expanded its operations behind enemy lines – in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

From its inception in 1957, as a unit serving the IDF intelligence department and the joint chiefs of staff – hence its name – the unit focused and specialized in intelligence gathering operations, including the hiding of listening devices, which came to be known as the “special measures.” These were meant to give Israeli intelligence an early warning before war.

In the February 1973 operation, Zvika Livne was in one of the jeeps where the batteries, for lack of room, were loaded without the barrier

In time it was learned that the head of military intelligence, Eli Zeira, did not deploy them as required on the Egyptian front two days before the Yom Kippur War broke out, but only tested their functioning. Later on the Egyptians revealed that the means and attendant equipment were discovered, and they are on display at Cairo’s War Museum.

In 2016, Jewish-American scientist Zalman Shapiro, an owner of a nuclear factory storing radioactive materials, revealed in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune that before the 1967 war between Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan he had supplied nuclear batteries for Sayeret Matkal's missions to plant bugging devices behind enemy lines. Shapiro, an ardent Zionist, was suspected by the FBI of smuggling enriched uranium for Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona.

After the war, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper published a secret document by the Egyptian military’s Headquarters of the Aerial Defense Forces – Division 8, Reconnaissance and Observation Branch, that read: “At 18:22 hours on February 16th, 1973, the enemy made an incursion with seven helicopters into our airspace north of Za’afrana.

A soldier looks across the Suez Canal in Kantara, 1970.Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO

Around 20:00 hours a jeep opened fire on two of our Border Police troops, near the 88th km marker on the Suez-Cairo road. One was wounded and the other fled. Chopper traces were found, as were traces of two jeeps landed by chopper… The operation was made on one of the moonless nights on which the enemy usually carries out its special operations… It is to be assumed that the enemy will attach receptor devices to the phone wires, as has happened in the southern arena of the Syrian front.”

When Yoni Netanyahu was killed in 1976 in Entebbe, Livne accompanied Benjamin Netanyahu on the drive to Cornell to break the bitter news to the father

The Egyptian document corroborates the events of that night, as related by one of the participants of that operation, code-named “consulate.” “The commander of the op was Ehud Barak, and he trained us in two parallel forces, practicing on a model in Sinai. In training we simulated a run-in with the enemy, so that each force could aid the other one, and that’s precisely what happened. We ran into the enemy. Due to that we had to change location and the drive grew longer, but we stuck to the mission.”

The mission was one in a series of operations in which Sayeret Matkal teams were loaded on choppers with their jeeps and flown beyond the Suez Canal and Suez Bay. In the jeeps were “devices” – listening devices with powerful, long-lasting batteries. For safety purposes, each jeep only had two fighters. They sat in the front, with boards between them and the batteries loaded in the back. Such operations were undertaken in coordination with the intelligence corps’ collection department and technological unit #81, and with the special ops branch, founded by Yossi Langotsky at the request of Sayeret founder Avraham Arnan.

'We weren’t aware of the dangers then. We regarded the missions for the state with reverence, but the state gave the troops who risked their lives hell'

Israeli soldiers fire with mortar on Egyptian military positions on the Suez fron in 1970 during the so-called War of Attrition.Credit: FILES-IPPA / AFP

“I remember that from time to time these experts would come to 81, to special ops and to Sayeret Matkal and test us and the jeeps with special equipment,” one of the participants in those operations, who prefers to remain anonymous, told Haaretz. In the February 1973 operation, Zvika Livne was in one of the jeeps where the batteries, for lack of room, were loaded without the barrier. Despite the engagement with the enemy and operation running longer than planned, it ended successfully with all personnel returning safely. For their quick thinking, courage, and successful operation, the participants were awarded the Israel Security Prize.

In 1972, while still a soldier, Livne married Ruthi, and in time they had a son and a daughter. In 1975 he hung up his uniform and began studying at the Sloan School of Management in a direct doctoral track at MIT. There he met another officer from his unit, Lieutenant Benjamin Netanyahu, and the two became friends. When Yoni Netanyahu was killed in 1976 in Entebbe, Livne accompanied Netanyahu on the drive to Cornell to break the bitter news to the father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu. In 1981 Livne joined the faculty of the Tel Aviv University’ school of business administration, where he taught and conducted research. In 1987 he retired from academia in favor of private business, starting infrastructure firm Linom Engineering, among other endeavors.

Request rejected

Livne got cancer in August of 1999. A year later, he filed a request with the benefits officer at the Defense Ministry for recognition as an IDF disabled person. He died in November, 2001. Two years later the Defense Ministry rejected his request and launched efforts to wear down his widow Ruthi with demands to produce documents and red tape, a process that is familiar to thousands of disabled and shell-shocked veterans and their families.

Ruthi Livne was represented by attorneys Eli and Itay Zohar. At some point Zvika’s friends appealed to then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attended Livne’s daughter’s wedding, asking for their help. The impression they got was that the two were not making much of an effort.

Among other documents submitted by Ruthi Livne was an opinion by Dr. Yitzhak Oron of the engineering department at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, in which he confirms that due to the operation extending to seven hours, the troops were exposed to hazardous materials. Another expert, Dr. Ariel Halperin, also wrote an opinion stating that “Zvika Livne’s presence in the back of the jeep was the result of operational constraints which led to a severe violation of the safety instruction.”

Furthermore, Nimrod Hefetz, Livne’s comrade from the unit, gave an affidavit stating that during the operation he served as commander of the jeep, sitting next to driver Uri Raz. “Zvika Livne and another soldier sat in the back seat and leaned on and next to the aforementioned devices, with no protective barrier between themselves and the barriers.”

Hanan Livne, Zvika’s younger brother, who also served in Sayeret Matkal, died of cancer in 2005. In the last years of his life, he conducted research concluding that other veterans of the unit, who died of cancer or other diseases in a sudden and unexplained manner, were also exposed to hazardous materials. “We weren’t aware of the dangers then,” a Matkal officer, who in time became a senior security system figure, told Haaretz. “We regarded the missions for the state with reverence, but like with the Shayetet, the state gave the troops who risked their lives hell.”

Hanan and Zvika Livne.

The Defense Ministry has repeatedly rejected the request to recognize Ruthi Livne as an IDF widow. Only a strident verdict, accompanied by harsh and searing condemnation by the court, forced it to do so in 2020.

The Defense Ministry says: “The Department of Families, Commemoration, and Heritage shares in the family’s sorrow. The widow of fallen Major Zvi Livne appealed in 2002 to recognize her under the Families of Soldiers Fallen in Action Law. Following this, a medical and legal consultation was held, and in 2003 a decision was made to reject the request, as no connection was found between the circumstances of his service and those of his passing. This decision was appealed by Mrs. Livne in court. The appeal was heard in 2019, the court ruled and decided to recognize the widow. The Defense Ministry respects the court’s decision.”

Ehud Barak’s office replied: “Barak was commander of the unit during the operation in question, knew Zvika Livne personally and honored his operational contribution to [Israel’s] security. As defense minister, Barak did all he could to have his rights recognized. Barak extends his congratulations that his [Livne’s] contributions on the one hand, and the circumstances that led to his illness on the other, were indeed recognized eventually.”

Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.

Ruthi Livne declined to be interviewed for this article.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments

SUBSCRIBERS JOIN THE CONVERSATION FASTER

Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

SUBSCRIBE
Already signed up? LOG IN

ICYMI

Election ad featuring Yair Lapid in Rahat, the largest Arab city in Israel's Negev region.

This Bedouin City Could Decide Who Is Israel's Next Prime Minister

Dr. Claris Harbon in the neighborhood where she grew up in Ashdod.

A Women's Rights Lawyer Felt She Didn't Belong in Israel. So She Moved to Morocco

Mohammed 'Moha' Alshawamreh.

'It Was Real Shock to Move From a Little Muslim Village, to a Big Open World'

From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid's Journey: From Late-night Host to Israel's Prime Minister