'My Brother Died in Others' Wars’: Collateral Damage of Israel-Iran Shadow War

Victims' families hang in the balance, without answers or compensation, after the deaths of their loved ones in Iran's alleged strike of an Israeli-owned merchant tanker

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Adrian Underwood and his son.
Adrian Underwood and his son.Credit: Underwood family
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Beyond the official wars Israel has been fighting with Iran over the years, another one has been waged largely in secret – and its victims also remain in the shadows.

A number of attacks on Iran have been attributed to Israel in recent years, including against Iranian facilities throughout the Middle East and, in particular, a March attack on a site where hundreds of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were being stored.

Tehran has also carried out what it saw as a successful attack on an Israel target. On July 30 of last year, two UAVs filled with explosives crashed into the pilot house of the freighter Mercer Street while it was sailing without cargo from Tanzania to the United Arab Emirates, about 200 kilometers off the coast of Oman. The vessel was flying a Liberian flag, but it was owned by the British company Zodiac Maritime, which is controlled by the Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

FILE: The Mercer Street heads for port in the United Arab Emirates.Credit: Karim Sahib/AFP

This wasn’t the first time an attack on a ship in the Gulf was attributed to Iran, but it was the first that was fatal: one Briton and one Romanian national were killed, according to media reports.

The attack elicited a response from Israeli officials. “The world has been given another reminder of Iranian aggression, this time at sea,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at a cabinet meeting three days after the incident.

“The Iranians used UAVs to attack the ship with the intention of hitting an Israeli target," Bennett added. "They are trying, in cowardly fashion, to distance themselves from the incident. I state without hesitation: Iran is the one that did it.”

Results of an investigation by the U.S. Central Command, released about a week later, concluded that the UAV used in the attack "was produced in Iran.” It also found that the day before the attack, a similar one was attempted with two UAVs that landed in the open sea.

Tehran has denied any involvement in the attack.

Abandoned, without answers

The British citizen killed in the attack – Adrian Underwood, 45 – left behind a wife and a seven-year-old son. He had lived in the U.K. in recent years, but was originally a resident of Suva in the remote and peaceful Fiji Islands.

His older sister Christine – who described Underwood as a quiet, humble, family-oriented man who video-chatted with her almost daily – said in an interview that no one reported the death to Adrian's mother. The family remains in the dark regarding what precisely happened, she said.

"In the end, my brother died in others' wars that he had no connection to in any way," she said.

Adrian Underwood.Credit: Underwood family

Underwood, nicknamed "Cassie" in the family, grew up in Suva, loved to sing, and was an athlete. At age 23, like many Fiji residents, he enlisted in the British Army, fulfilling a lifelong dream that also enabled him to financially support his family. He served in Iraq in 2002, his sister says, during which time his family prayed for his safety on a daily basis.

After completing his military service, during which he met his wife, Underwood began working as a communications technician and joined a security company employed to guard the ship that would ultimately be attacked.

His sister says he loved the job, which entailed protecting the ship from pirate attacks, as it gave him the opportunity to travel widely. In their last conversation, three days before the attack, he talked about coming to the U.K. in October to celebrate Christmas with the family.

The family heard about the attack on the news, and his wife then informed them that Adrian had died in it. No one – neither witnesses, nor Israeli officials, nor anyone else – officially informed them of his death or of what exactly transpired. Their only contact with Maritime Zodiac came when a representative was sent over while the family was in mourning. No one has discussed compensation with them, either.

More than anything the family simply wants to know what happened to Adrian.

The Romanian citizen killed in the attack was the captain of the ship, Marius Tonca, 55. Unlike Underwood, Tonca was an employee of the British shipping company owned by Ofer. He was from the Romanian port city of Constana on the Black Sea coast and was a highly regarded veteran sailor, with 32 years of experience on ships. Tonca, who left behind a wife and two children, loved his work and the sea.

According to Romanian reports, the Romanian Foreign Ministry summoned the Iranian Ambassador in Bucharest for an inquiry regarding the incident.

FILE: Eyal Ofer, Israeli businessman who controls the Britain-based Zodiac Maritime that owns the Mercer Street freighter allegedly attacked by Iran.Credit: Anne-Sophie Heist

The standing of the victims' families is unclear. Zodiac Maritime declined to answer a series of questions regarding the incident, including whether it had compensated the families of the victims, one of whom had worked directly for the company.

While foreign nationals killed on Israeli soil are recognized by the state, thus far the two sailors have not been recognized as victims of any hostilities or act of war. The Defense Ministry stated that no request has been made on behalf of the families for such recognition, and that it will examine any such claims filed.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued no statements on the matter.

Underwood's sister, Christine, said Haaretz was the first Israeli contact that had reached out to the family – and says the family deserves answers.

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