Unit 131 is an Israeli Intelligence Corps unit of the IDF. It was established after the Israeli War of Independence, when Israeli Defense Forces were expecting and preparing for another warfare round.
Unit 131 was specifically made to be responsible for running intelligence missions during wartime. To this aim it recruited and trained young Jewish activists and trained them in information gathering and psychological warfare.
In 1951, Unit 131’s Captain Avraham Dar, arrived in Egypt and set-up a two-cell espionage ring, which were based in Cairo and in Alexandria. Young, gifted physician, Dr. Moshe Marzouk, was appointed as commander of the Cairo cell. Exceptionally brilliant, outstanding electric engineering student, Samuel (Sami) Azar, was appointed as commander of the Alexandria cell.
Mayer Zafran and Eli Naim were recruited for the Cairo squad. Activists of Zionist youth movements, which ran underground activities, Robert Dassa, Victor Levy, Meir Meyohas and Philippe Nathanson comprised the Alexandria cell. Cairo native, Marcelle Ninio, the only woman of the operatives, was appointed as liaison officer between the squads.
During 1952-1953, several of the Jewish Egyptian squad members arrived in Israel clandestinely, in order to undergo military training programs. The training programs were considered outdated already in real time.
The British government’s decision in 1954, to pull its army out of Egypt raised grave concerns in Israel. Someone at the IDF’s military intelligence corps suggested to secretly sabotage British and American facilities in Egypt and to thus make the British reconsider their decision.
During summer 1954, the Anglo-Egyptian negotiations about the British to pulling its’ army out of Egypt, was progressing and about to be concluded. This development raised grave concerns in Israel. Israeli defense and political leadership were seeking a way to interfere with the British withdrawal, or at least delay it.
In June 1954, Unit 131’s officer, Avri Elad, was sent to Egypt in order to activate the sleeper cells. He ordered the members to carry out minor attacks, which were to sabotage or set fire on British and American facilities, with the goal of stirring up unrest and thus make the British reconsider their decision.
This assignment did not agree with the ring’s original mission, for which the squads were formed. Avri Elad himself had a shady past and dubious reputation. Several years earlier, he was released from the IDF for stealing military equipment.
The Egyptian caught all operatives of the Alexandria and the Cairo cells, (the latter already was inactive in months) as well as the liaison, Marcelle. In addition, Egypt arrested Israeli intelligence shadow-fighter, Meir Max Bineth, who was assigned another task in Egypt. Bineth stayed in Egypt during that same time and was required to communicate with the ring as well. Avri Elad, who was in charge of the operation, left Egypt unharmed, two weeks later.
The young operatives were driven by a sense of devotion to Israel and a calling. Alas, they were operated in a poor, reckless manner. No information security compartmentalization nor escape plan were available to them. Eventually, it was found out, their own commander betrayed them and surrendered them to the Egyptians.
They all went under torture, were brutally interrogated and stood showcase trial. During their arrest and investigations, Marcelle Ninio tried to commit suicide. Meir Bineth did commit suicide and took his own life during the trial. The commanders of the two cells, Dr. Moshe Marzouk of the Cairo’s squad, and Samuel Azar of Alexandria’s, were sentenced to death by hanging. They were hanged in Cairo, on January 31, 1955. Victor Levy and Philippe Nathanson were sentenced to life of hard penal labor. Marcelle Ninio and Robert Dassa were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment terms each. Mayer Meyohas and Mayer Zafran, were sentenced to seven years in prison of hard penal labor.
After the 1956 Suez Crisis and Operation Sinai war , Israel held some 5,000 Egyptian prisoners of war, who were taken captive during the operation. However, Israeli government and IDF did not take any action in order to promote any exchange for the Jewish Cairo prisoners. Subsequently, the imprisoned heroes of “The Affair”, remained in Egyptian prison during many more, long years.
More than a decade later, during the 1967, Six-day War, Israel took some 6,000 Egyptian prisoners of war. Israeli Minister of Defence, Moshe Dayan, who was the IDF Chief of Staff at the time the Affair took place, did not act in order to exchange them for release the members of Jewish-Egyptian prisoners.
Mossad Chief, Meir Amit, then demanded the Israeli government would negotiate the release of the four prisoners who remained in Egypt. Otherwise, Amit said, he would resign. In response to Amit’s ultimatum, Israeli government did act, and subsequently the four remaining prisoners – Marcelle Ninio, Robert Dassa, Victor Levi and Philippe Nathanson – were released and arrived in Israel in February 1968.
The coffins of Lt. Samuel Azar and Lt. Dr. Moshe Marzouk arrived in Israel only in spring 1977, following a personal appeal, made by Dr. Yousef Marzouk, Moshe’s brother, to President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat.
In handling the scandalous affair, senior IDF officers failed to assume any personal responsibility for their own decisions and actions. They lied systematically to the investigation committee, forged documents, and abandoned the young Jewish idealists, who were willing to risk their lives in Egypt for the state of Israel.
Later, the senior officers did not act within their authority, in order to bring the remains of Samuel Azar and Moshe Marzouk to burial in Israel.
The reckless operation of the Alexandria cell (as mentioned, the Cairo cell was inactive since December 1953) and its’ far reaching, grave, military and political consequences, shook Israel up. It became the most shaking single event, during Israel’s first twenty-five years. It dominated Israeli politics for over a decade until 1973, when Yom Kippur War broke.
The question which overshadowed the whole scandal was “Who authorized this operation?” – “Who gave the order”? and referred to the poor judgment in activating and handling the network cells in Egypt.
The scandalous affair triggered the fall of Israeli governments and eventually lead to the resignation of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in 1963, which marked his final retirement from Prime-Ministry.
During the political and public turmoil which followed the scandal, the heroes of ‘The Affair’ were forgotten: the martyrs who were executed, the prisoners, the young Jewish idealists of the Egyptian diaspora, members and activists of Zionist youth movements, who were acting in good faith, driven only by devotion and loyalty.
They made sacrifices and a should be cherished and remembered as the role models and heroes they were indeed. They should become icons before the eyes of future generations.