(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)
Announcement about 2007’s ‘Operation Orchard’ sure to remind Iran what happened to the last country with atomic ambitions, though the real reason to divulge now may be more humdrum
The State of Israel on Wednesday formally acknowledged that its air force blew up a Syrian nuclear reactor in the area of Deir Ezzor in the pre-dawn hours between September 5 and 6, 2007, in a mission known to much of the world as Operation Orchard.
The official confirmation ends a 10-and-a-half year policy of referring to the event with a smirk and a wry “according to foreign reports.”
The strike constituted Israel’s second application of the Begin Doctrine, which calls on the Jewish state to destroy any enemy country’s nuclear capabilities. The doctrine was named for prime minister Menachem Begin, who set its precedent by ordering the bombing of Iraq’s nascent nuclear reactor in 1981. (In that instance, Israel took responsibility for the attack almost immediately, to much international reprobation.)
“The message of the attack on the reactor in 2007 is that Israel will not accept the construction of a capability that threatens the existence of the State of Israel. That was the message in ’81. That was the message in 2007. And that is the message to our enemies for the future,” IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said in a statement regarding the 2007 bombing.
According to Israeli and American intelligence, the Deir Ezzor site, known in Syria as al-Kibar, contained a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor that was capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. It was close to being up and running when Israel destroyed it in Operation Orchard (which the army also refers to as Nigun Shaket, or Silent Melody, and Mihutz L’Kufsa, or Outside the Box).
While this is the first time Israel has taken official responsibility for the attack (the reasons behind this decision are discussed below), the rest of the world has not kept mum about the historic raid.
Reports about the 2007 Syrian reactor mission leaked within days, including specific details like the number of fight jets that took part in it — eight — and that North Korea was believed to have supplied technical know-how and materials to Syria.
The then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu even landed himself in hot water in the weeks following the operation for discussing it too candidly, telling reporters that he’d given his go-ahead to then prime minister Ehud Olmert for the attack.
The view that prevailed in Israel at the time was that keeping news of the strike as quiet as possible would help Syrian dictator Bashar Assad save face in the world and prevent him from feeling he had to retaliate, which could have potentially led to all-out war, something an Israel still reeling from the painful 2006 Second Lebanon War desperately wanted to avoid. Israeli officials refer to this policy as giving Assad a “zone of denial.”
In 2012, a comprehensive article by David Makovsky was published in the New Yorker. In it, the magazine claimed, was almost every detail about the operation, including the tonnage of the bombs — 17 — and the fact that Amir Peretz, the defense minister when Israel began planning the attack, had to use a prepared notecard in his conversation with his American counterpart because of his limited English.
Former US president George W. Bush even referred to the attack explicitly in his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, saying the success of the Israeli strike “made up for the confidence I had lost in the Israelis during the  Lebanon war.”
And yet, for over a decade, one of the most daring missions in the history of the Jewish state could only be referred to by the Israeli press with a healthy dose of allegedlys, purportedlys, and reportedlys — something that irked journalists to no end.
Not even when Deir Ezzor was captured by the Islamic State terror group in 2014 did Israel reveal that it had destroyed a nuclear reactor in the region. This, despite the fact that Israel would have been able to proudly tell the world that, had it not hit the reactor, we might all have been forced to deal with the chilling notion of that death cult getting its hands on atomic weapons. (It is possible that the Syrian army might have fought harder to hold the region, which it ultimately recaptured, if nuclear bombs had been at risk.)
Finally, on Wednesday — rather fittingly, in the pre-dawn hours — after 10 years, six months, and 15 days, Israel ended its silence.
Here is what happened:
Starting in late 2004, Military Intelligence and the Mossad espionage service began receiving unverified information about foreign experts helping Syria develop a military nuclear program.
The scanned cover sheet of a top-secret IDF document from the time shows that Israeli intelligence apparently suspected the experts were coming from North Korea, Pakistan, or a third, unknown country.
Though the mission was ultimately successful, this would later turn out to have been something of an intelligence failure, as North Korea had been working with Syria since at least 2001 or 2002; accounts differ on the exact start time.
Over the next year and a half, the army and Mossad collected information concerning a Syrian nuclear program, getting their first break in January 2006, when they found the first piece of “substantial evidence” that Syrian President Bashar Assad was building a reactor.
In April of that year, Military Intelligence’s Unit 9900, which specializes in analyzing satellite imagery, spotted a number of suspicious buildings on a site in the northern Deir Ezzor region that it designated “Rubik’s Cube,” according to a scan of an IDF document from the time.
Over the course of the next months, the army and Mossad gathered more intelligence on the suspected nuclear reactor.
“The assumption that there is indeed a Syrian nuclear project is being strengthened,” the Military Intelligence’s powerful Research Division wrote in a memo in November 2006.
In early March 2007, the investigation got a big break. Mossad agents obtained pictures that were shot inside the “Rubik’s Cube,” including ones showing North Korean officials at the site. The photographs confirmed Israel’s suspicions that it was indeed a plutonium reactor.
“Syria is building in its territory a nuclear reactor for the production of plutonium, with North Korea, which according to [initial] rigorous assessment is liable to be operational in about a year. To our assessment [redacted] it is clandestine and meant to achieve a nuclear weapon,” the Research Division wrote in an intelligence brief a few weeks later, according to a scan of the document released by the army.
At this point, Israel decided to bring the United States into the loop.
In April, Olmert dispatched then defense minister Peretz to Washington — with his aforementioned notecard — to meet with then US secretary of defense Robert Gates and apprise him of the situation.
Bush instructed the CIA to verify Israel’s claims, which the security service largely succeeded in doing.
“If it’s not a nuclear reactor, then it’s a fake nuclear reactor,” a former senior US official told Makovsky in 2012.
Yet the United States was not entirely convinced that the reactor was actually capable of producing nuclear weapons and therefore wanted to address the issue diplomatically, according to Bush’s memoirs.
Olmert was concerned that Assad would stall the negotiations for long enough for the Syrians to bring the reactor online, and told Bush his “strategy is very disturbing to me.”
With the US unwilling to conduct a strike against the Syrian reactor, Olmert and Israel’s top defense officials set to work preparing to carry out the raid themselves.
By this point, Peretz had been replaced by Ehud Barak as head of the Labor party and also as defense minister.
There was some disagreement in the security cabinet over the timing of the preemptive strike on the nuclear reactor, with Barak pushing for it to be later and Olmert calling for it to happen as soon as possible. It remains a contested issue whether these differences of opinion stemmed from purely military concerns or from more political considerations. In the aftermath of the failure-plagued Second Lebanon War, Barak might have thought he could win the next election and gain a feather in his cap by having the strike carried out under his premiership. Olmert may have been looking to regain some of the respect he lost for his management of the 2006 war.
Ultimately, however, on September 5, the security cabinet approved Olmert’s plan for an immediate attack, giving him, Barak, and then foreign minister Tzipi Livni the authority to decide when exactly to conduct the strike.
Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF chief of staff at the time, called for the attack to happen that night.
Up until that point, the number of people informed of the operation had been kept to an absolute bare minimum in order to ensure secrecy, with anyone informed of it being forced to sign a strict non-disclosure agreement.
Not even all of the pilots who conducted the raid knew about it until just before they took off. In the months preceding the attack, the teams had unknowingly been training for it, practicing the kind of dive-bombing that they would later perform for real in Deir Ezzor.
“They didn’t know the target; they didn’t understand why. In every squadron there was only one pilot who was the contact person. The other teams were only informed of the target just a few hours before the operation,” said Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, who was head of air force operations at the time, in a statement released this week.
As the strike on Assad’s nuclear facility had the potential to spark an all-out war, a handful of senior army officers were informed of it in the hours before the operation began, in order to put their troops on high alert.
“The day before, I brought in all the heads of the divisions. I presented them with the intelligence assessment — generally, I mean, I didn’t give them the details on the target and its nature. But I told them that there would be a very serious attack in the coming 24 to 48 hours, which had a relatively low possibility of leading to war,” said current IDF chief Eisenkot, who was at the time head of the army’s Northern Command, in a video statement released this week.
Eisenkot noted that since the army was trying to keep the attack a secret, it made no visible preparations ahead of it, in effect “sacrificing readiness for surprise.”
The airmen taking part in the operation came from three squadrons, Squadrons 119 and 253, which both fly the F-16I, and Squadron 69, which flies the F-15I.
During a briefing before the mission, the commander of Squadron 119 wrote in his notes that the operation “will change the face of the Middle East.”
On September 5, the head of the air force at the time, Eliezer Shkedi, gave the pilots and navigators their official orders, telling them the operation was “of the utmost importance to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
The document told them that their mission was to “destroy the target, break contact without losing a plane, and fly with a ‘low signature’ as much as possible.”
“The goal is that the operation will not be connected, at least not at first, to the State of Israel, and thus limit the potential for widespread war,” Shkedi’s orders stated.
At 10:30 p.m. on September 5, the fighter jets began take-off procedures.
They were reportedly joined by an electronic warfare aircraft that would jam the Syrian air defenses, feeding them a false picture of empty skies. The army will still not officially comment on this aspect of the mission.
The Israeli planes flew north and then through Turkey to Syria, without permission, in order to conduct the surprise strike, for which Olmert later apologized to then-Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after the empty fuel tanks of some of the planes, which were dropped for weight reasons, were found in the Turkish countryside, near the Syrian border.
The night of the attack, Olmert, Barak, Livni, then IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Shkedi, and other senior officials gathered in “the pit” — Habor, in Hebrew — a special command center deep underground in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters, in order to monitor the operation.
At approximately midnight, the fighter jets reached their target and dropped — according to Makovsky — 17 tons of explosives on the site, which the air force had taken to calling Ein Habasor, or Habasor Spring, a reference to a location in southern Israel where, in the Bible, King David is said to have fought and killed the evil Amalekites.
Video footage from the strike, which was released by the army this week, shows multiple bombs hitting the main square building that is believed to have housed the nuclear reactor, reducing it to a fireball and then rubble. The planes can then be seen making a second pass and bombing the rubble, completely and utterly destroying the site and killing all those inside.
Shortly before 1:00 a.m., the pilots sent back the codeword indicating the operation was a success: “Arizona.”
Footage from air force control center in “the pit” shows the moment the bombs strike their target. Brig. Gen. Yohanan Locker, then head of the air force’s training and aerial activities, can be seen raising his hands in triumph, as Shkedi nods in satisfaction.
Images from the moments following the attack show the destruction of the al-Kibar site. Later, satellite pictures would show the results of the strike in far greater detail.
Shortly afterward, Ashkenazi praised the heads of the air force squadrons that took part in the operation.
“The aims of the strike were the destruction of the reactor, the prevention of escalations to war, and the strengthening of deterrence in the region. I think we have stood by these targets, at least for now, with great success,” he said.
Barak joined him in lauding the air force pilots, saying that not only was the mission an immediate success, but that it will also have an impact on the future.
“The operation removed an actual existential threat to Israel. The operation strengthened Israel’s ability to deter hostile countries and organizations, and our operational capabilities have been greatly empowered — from planning, to intelligence identifying capabilities, to carrying out missions,” Barak told the squadron commanders.
Immediately following the attack, Syria did not know how to react. Its official SANA news outlet initially reported that “air-defense units confronted [Israeli fighter jets] and forced them to leave after they dropped some ammunition in deserted areas without causing any human or material damage.”
Later, Assad acknowledged that a military facility had been hit, but denied that it was a nuclear reactor.
Olmert sent a message to Syria through Erdogan, telling Assad that Israel would not tolerate another Syrian attempt to build a reactor, and that Jerusalem was prepared to keep quiet about the strike as long as Damascus did the same, according to the 2009 Der Spiegel report.
The Israeli prime minister also had Erdogan relay an invitation to Assad for indirect peace talks. (Assad accepted, but these later fell apart and amounted to nothing.)
In 2008, Israel was largely vindicated, as the International Atomic Energy Agency tested the area around al-Kibar and found high levels of uranium. Later, graphite and barium sulfate, used in the reactor’s concrete, were also discovered in the immediate vicinity of the destroyed site, according to reports by the agency.
Syria officially denied the site was a nuclear reactor, telling IAEA the uranium came from the bombs used by Israel in the strike, something Israel categorically denied. The IAEA was also unconvinced of Syria’s claim. Later, the organization reported that the site was “very likely” an undocumented nuclear reactor.
Time passed. Netanyahu replaced Olmert as prime minister in 2009. Israel’s immediate concerns turned from Syria’s nuclear program to Iran’s, not that Tehran was ever out of Jerusalem’s sight. The Syrian civil war broke out. Deir Ezzor, specifically the area around al-Kibar, was conquered by the Islamic State group in 2014. People shuddered — what if?
And now, some 3,849 days since the IAF destroyed Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor — give or take a few hours — Israeli news outlets can say as much, freely.
So why now?
There was no one reason given for the decision to remove the censorship on the al-Kibar strike, but it most likely came from a variety of considerations, among them repeated legal appeals by media outlets to get rid of the ban.
It is easiest to see this announcement as a not-so-subtle threat to atomically ambitious Iran, especially given the fact that in the coming months US President Donald Trump may abandon the 2015 nuclear deal, unless significant alterations are made to it.
This can be seen most clearly in Eisenkot’s comment that the attack serves as a “message to our enemies for the future.”
The message of the attack on the reactor in 2007 is that Israel will not accept the construction of a capability that threatens the existence of the State of Israel
But former deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich told The Times of Israel he’s not convinced that’s the full story.
“This may be part of a signal to the other side, but I think that’s reading a bit too much into it,” he said.
While Freilich acknowledged that Israel might be taking advantage of the announcement in order to send such a message to Iran, he also offered a somewhat less geopolitical and more patriotic reason for the decision to reveal the existence of the operation: next month marks Israel’s 70th anniversary of existence. The story of Israel’s bold and successful operation can serve as yet another feature in the showcase of the tiny Jewish state’s outsized achievements.
Indeed, Norkin credits the mission as being “one of the most important decisions that was made in the past 70 years.”
More domestically, Frelich added, “Netanyahu will be able to make use of this for his purposes as well.”
The current backdrop that is the devastating reality of war-torn Syria, where there have been numerous chemical weapons attacks over the past eight years, also helps justify Israel’s actions in 2007.
“Imagine that today there was a nuclear reactor in Syria. You can think to yourself what kind of situation we’d be in,” IAF chief Norkin said in a video statement released this week.
Over 10 years later, Syria is also far, far less likely to feel it has to respond, making it a bit safer for Israel’s to remove the “zone of denial.”
The air force chief noted that the pilots and teams that took part in the 2007 raid received no official accolades for their actions, due to the secrecy surrounding the operation. Perhaps it was also time for them to get what was due.
In November 2017, Eisenkot and Norkin held a ceremony and handed out official letters of appreciation to the soldiers who took part in the operation, though their identities remain a secret.
“Some of the fighters who led the operation are now at the highest ranks of the air force and IDF,” Norkin says.
Ultimately, though, the immediate cause for the timing of the revelation might be a bit more banal: Ehud Olmert wrote a memoir, which is due to be distributed shortly.
While this reporter has yet to read the book, “In First Person,” it’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t feature prominently.
How could Olmert, who left office under police investigation and was later sent to prison for corruption, and who sustained bitter criticism over his mishandling of the 2006 Lebanon war, leave out one of his crowning, lasting achievements?
But whatever the reason, Israeli journalists and officials can now drop the at-times farcical “according to foreign reports” from their coverage of this dramatic operation.