This day in history: Israel takes out key PLO leaders in Beirut

51 years ago, an elite unit of the Israeli army assassinated Muhammad Youssef al-Najjar, Kamal Adwan and Kamal Nasser in a dramatic operation in the upscale Beirut neighbourhood of Verdun

Flag draped coffins of slain Palestinians killed in Israeli raid are taken through the streets of Beirut, Lebanon on April 12, 1973, during the funeral procession.
Flag draped coffins of slain Palestinians killed in Israeli raid are taken through the streets of Beirut, Lebanon on April 12, 1973, during the funeral procession.

This day in history: Israel takes out key PLO leaders in Beirut

In his 2005 book One Day in September, British author Simon Reeve describes the scene in Tel Aviv before launching Operation of Spring of Youth in 1973.

“Ehud Barak assembled Sayeret Matkal’s senior officers around the brown Formica-topped table in his office. As the hardened soldiers gathered around expectantly, Barak removed the grainy photographs from a folder lying on his desk."

“Abu Yusuf, Kamal Adwan, and Kamal Nasser,” he said, slapping each of the photographs on the desk.

"The soldiers recognised the names and faces. Sayeret Matkal had been tasked with assassinating them, he said. A murmur ran through the men.”

Barak was then the 31-year-old commander of Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli elite unit equivalent to the US Delta Force, long before becoming prime minister of Israel. He was seeking revenge for the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, an operation sanctioned by then-prime minister Golda Meir.

Muhammad Youssef al-Najjar (aka Abu Yusuf) was part of the Black September Organisation that carried out the Munich attacks, and he headed Fatah intelligence. Kamal Adwan was chief of operations in Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), while Kamal Nasser was a member of the PLO Executive Committee.

They all lived in the upscale Verdun neighbourhood of pre-civil war Lebanon, not far from Hamra, the city’s main shopping district, and the American University of Beirut.

Had it not been for the Gaza war, the daily cross-fire on the Lebanese-Israeli border, and the most recent on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, then the anniversary of the infamous Lebanon raid would have passed by largely unnoticed.

It comes as a reminder today, however, of how far Israel is willing to go to strike back at its enemies—taking them down, one by one, in the most gruesome of ways.

Israel has not changed; it never forgets nor does it forgive its enemies, and striking at the heart of a residential district in Beirut is not any different from taking down a building in central Damascus on 1 April 2024.

Lebanese writer Ziad Kaj points to one of the buildings in Verdun where three top officials with the Palestine Liberation Organisation were killed.

Pre-operation planning

For almost a year, Israel had been gathering intelligence on its three targets. A Mossad agent codenamed Nielsen had been sent to Beirut undercover, disguised as a researcher working on a television script about a 19th-century British aristocrat traveller who had visited the Middle East.

She rented an apartment in Verdun and monitored the three Palestinians, photographing the buildings from a distance while keeping detailed records of their surroundings and inhabitants.

When her files were complete, Mossad suggested that the Israeli army carry out the operation, sending troops to overrun the buildings, identify the Palestinians and shoot them. Barak ruled out helicopters, claiming they would destroy the element of surprise and possibly arouse suspicion of Lebanese authorities.

Instead, he suggested an elite force for the operation under his command. Meticulous training was carried out in northern Tel Aviv on empty buildings with similar specks to those in Verdun. The commandos planned to enter Beirut, disguised as tourists, with Barak himself dressed as a voluptuous brunette.

Just five days before Operation Spring of Youth was launched, Israeli Mossad had tracked down and assassinated Basel Qubaysi in Paris, a ranking member of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

The Palestinians ought to have been on high alert, but security was seemingly lax in Beirut, and the three Palestinians were embedded in a residential neighbourhood that they mistakenly thought would be off-limits to Israelis.

On 9 April, Barak’s team set out from Haifa on eight missile boats carrying 75 soldiers, 21 special commandos, 13 naval commandos, and 19 speedboats.

Two of the commanders were Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who would be killed in an operation in Uganda in 1976) and Ammon Shahak, Israel’s future army chief-of-staff.

They anchored 12 miles off the Lebanese coast, used the speedboats to reach close to the beach, turned off their motors, and rowed towards their destination.

Looking back, it seems remarkable that they were not spotted by the Lebanese Coast Guard or by anybody else in the Lebanese city who never slept, neither during nor after its civil war.

In its stated goal to eradicate Hamas, Israel has vowed to hunt down its leaders across the world. Al Majalla profiles the long list of Palestinian figures killed by Israel.

Read more: Top Palestinian figures killed by Israel over the years

Operation Verdun

Thirteen of the commandos showed up dressed as women, with wigs and heavy makeup. Mossad agents were waiting for them, having reached Beirut three days earlier on fake British, German and Belgian passports, checking into the Sands Hotel.

They were driven into Beirut and walked towards the building, dubbing as lovers, without raising anybody's suspicion. When the assassins reached the door of the apartment, they placed explosives that were denotated by Barak from a distance, who was keeping guard downstairs.

After receiving the radio signal, he replied with five clicks, blowing the open apartment doors. Abu Yusuf and his wife tried to hide in a room but were gunned down by the Israelis.

Kamal Nasser was found seated behind his desk, grabbing his pistol to defend himself. He was shot in the leg before being killed, while Kamal Adwan also tried defending himself before he, too, was shot dead.

The commandos confiscated as many documents as they could and fled the scene. An Italian neighbour tried sounding the alarm. She, too, was killed.

The attack in Verdun 51 years ago serves as a reminder of how far Israel is willing to go to take out its enemies.

One of the operatives described the scene: "The explosion blew open the door in a blast of smoke. I burst in, instinctively taking the left-hand turn into the main corridor of the apartment, running down the hall I knew so well from my drills."

"Four strides, and I reached my target's office. Half a dozen empty chairs faced the desk. Behind it, filing cabinets reminded me that military intelligence wanted any piece of paper we found. To my right, said the architectural plans I memorised, was the master bedroom."

"I swung in that direction just as the door flew open. The face I knew from three weeks of carrying his picture in my shirt pocket looked at me as I raised my gun. He slammed the door. Bursts from my weapon stitched the bedroom door. I rushed forward and kicked through the remains of the door."

Outside, Ehud Barak had shot a Palestinian guard who came close to the scene. The commotion aroused suspicion of a nearby police station, whose troops headed to the scene.

They were engaged in a gunfight with the Israeli commandos, who tossed a hand grenade into a jeep carrying Lebanese reinforcements, killing three Lebanese.

As the assassinations were being carried out, Shahak was attacking a six-floor building housing member of PFLP, while another hit-squad was striking at a Fatah workshop.

They all then returned to the beach, boarded their speedboats, and returned to Israel unharmed. Golda Meir had given them 20 minutes to carry out the operation. They did it in 2.5 hours.

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