On January 31, 1955, Moshe Marzouk and Samuel Azar, two Egyptian Jews who had been convicted of espionage and acts of sabotage on behalf of Israel, were executed in Cairo.
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Marzouk and Azar were among 13 defendants rounded up by the Nasser regime in the wake of Operation Susannah, a series of bombings of foreign-owned properties in Cairo and Alexandria in July 1954, executed by agents working for Israel. Coverage of the events was heavily censored in Israel at the time, but even so, they led to a major political scandal, known generally as the Lavon Affair, that to this day has not been completely unraveled.
Defending the Jews
Operation Susannah was planned by Unit 131 of Israeli Military Intelligence, which in the early 1950s recruited and trained Egyptian Jews to develop defensive capabilities, as anti-Semitic activities became more common, and to encourage them to prepare for immigration to Israel.
The unit stepped up its activity in the summer of 1954, when the Egyptian and British governments began negotiating the U.K’s withdrawal from the Suez Canal Zone. This and other signs of lessening tensions between Israel's Western allies and Egypt, even as Israeli-Egyptian cross-border confrontations were escalating, caused anxiety in Jerusalem.
That summer, Avri Elad, an Israeli of Viennese origin, arrived in Egypt to activate the two cells of Jewish agents that had been organized several years earlier.
Their assignment was to carry out attacks against British and American institutions in Egypt, making it appear as if the perpetrators were Egyptian – in order to set back any improvement in relations between Egypt and the target countries.
Moshe Marzouk, who headed the Cairo cell, was born on December 20, 1926. He was the son of Lito Ibrahim Marzouk and the former Rachel Menashe, both members of the Karaite Jewish sect. (Karaite Judaism is an offshoot of pre-rabbinic Judaism that recognizes the authority of only the Hebrew Bible, and not the Oral Law, or Talmud.) He had belonged to the Maccabi-Hehalutz Zionist youth group growing up in Cairo, and had studied medicine at King Fuad I University there. He was employed as a surgeon and anesthesiologist at the city’s Jewish Hospital.
The leader of the Alexandria cell, Shmuel Azar, was the son of David Azar and the former Adela Kadan, and was born in that city on November 22, 1929. He was unusually gifted, both in academic subjects and as an artist, and had undergone agricultural training on a kibbutz in Israel before studying electrical engineering at the University of Alexandria.
The first bomb was detonated at an Alexandria post office on July 2, 1954. Two weeks later, on July 14, bombs were set off at the offices of the U.S. Information Agency in that city and in Cairo. An additional bomb, intended for the Rio Cinema, a British-owned theater in Alexandria, went off prematurely. Finally, on July 23, fires were set at several public buildings in Cairo.
The bombs were as primitive as could be, and all were timed to go off when the targets were empty of people. And in fact, the only injury caused by the operation was to Philip Nathanson, an Israeli agent, when the phosphorus bomb in his pocket detonated before he could plant it at the Rio Theater.
The fact that Egyptian police were present to arrest Nathanson when he had his mishap led to the conclusion that someone had tipped them off. In time, it became evident that the double agent was Avri Elad, who was arrested after being caught trying to sell information to the Egyptians. He was tried and convicted for illegal contacts with an enemy.
The Egyptians arrested another 11 suspects, two of whom died in custody, with the remainder going on trial in December 1954.
Six were sentenced to prison sentences of various lengths, two acquitted, and Marzouk and Azar were condemned to death.
Though Nasser received many appeals, both formal and unofficial, to show mercy for Marzouk and Azar, he was unmoved, and the hanging went ahead on this day. In April 1977, the remains of both men were transferred to Israel, and were reinterred on Mt. Herzl, in Jerusalem.