The renegade Mossad agent who drove Israel and Syria to the brink of war

Yehuda Gil in the early 1960s

By Gideon

Early on the morning of September 1, 1996, the Israeli military began preparing for a war with Syria they were convinced was imminent. The Israelis had received top-secret intelligence from a Syrian general and informant code-named Red Falcon, recruited 23 years earlier by Mossad spy Yehuda Gil—himself known as “the man of a thousand faces.” Gil had been the general’s sole handler, the conduit of decades of critical intelligence.

Yehuda Gil, had been widely celebrated within the Israeli intelligence community for years. In the aftermath of the massacre at the Munich Olympics, in 1972, Gil had been among the operatives who’d hunted down and executed members of the terrorist group Black September. He had collected operational intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear facility, which was later destroyed by Israel’s Air Force. He had laid the foundation for intelligence networks in Sudan and had played a key role in a covert operation, known publicly as Operation Moses and within the Mossad by the code name Brothers, that brought 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

“Red Falcon’s information had caused panic at the highest reaches of the Israeli Defense Forces, and senior military officials and Mossad officers were urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue an order to the IDF to launch its own offensive before the Syrians could launch theirs…

…Upon reading this message, Netanyahu summoned Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak and ordered him to prepare for war. Shahak, who agreed with Gilad that Syria was not on the verge of attacking, tried but failed to persuade Netanyahu to reconsider. Acting on firm orders from the prime minister, he began preparing the army for combat.

At an urgent cabinet meeting on the morning of September 1, many of the ministers demanded that elite army forces be deployed in the north, that a division of reserves be mobilized, and that the IDF prepare for a preemptive strike against Syria.

Yitzhak Mordechai, then the newly appointed Israeli defense minister, found himself in a predicament: “’When I was head of Northern Command,’ Mordechai told me recently, ‘the whole limited-warfare theory that came from Red Falcon seemed strange to me, because I didn’t see any actual preparations on the ground. And now he was reporting on an imminent war, and the head of AMAN takes his information as the living word of God. I said in the cabinet that, in my opinion, the information is groundless. The Syrians are far from being ready to open fire. Moreover, I have studied President Assad well. He is not an adventurer. A move like this is simply not his style. True, he did it in the Yom Kippur War, but then the situation was completely different. Then they were ready to go to war.’

Mordechai met with stiff opposition in the cabinet, especially from his former army colleagues Ariel Sharon and Raful Eitan. ‘They had been my superior officers,’ Mordechai said. ‘They were saying that I don’t get it. Sharon was saying, ‘War will break out soon and we have to get ready.’ Raful, who saw with his own eyes how Mount Hermon fell in the Yom Kippur War, thundered at me that I didn’t realize the price we would pay in blood to drive the Syrians out if we allowed them to invade now. The two of them pointed their fingers at me and said, ‘Know that you’re responsible! The blame will all be yours!'” (Excerpt from the book Operation Red Falcon)

The attack never materialized, and the people of Syria and Israel never knew how close their countries had come to a devastating war. Mossad chief, Danny Yatom, thought something didn’t smell right. Brigadier General Amos Gilad, director of military intelligence, also shared Yatom’s reservations about the likelihood of a Syrian attack. It was decided that it was necessary to ask permission from the Israeli attorney general to take a closer look at the comings and goings of agent Gil. With discretion and careful planning, Mossad found evidence that Gil had fabricated a meeting with his source and lied about its contents. It became clear that the Syrian general, code-named Red Falcon, was not a spy. When confronted with the evidence, Gil denied any wrong doing. The investigators found in his house in Gadera an envelope containing tens of thousands of U.S. dollars that he had neglected to pass on to his source, reportedly the relative of a Syrian general.  

The news of the Gil’s affair stunned the agency. Gil was arrested, and on March 24, 1999, Yehuda Gil was found guilty of espionage and theft in a secret trial. He was given a five-year sentence on charges which included relaying information with the intention to “harm state security, theft and fraud”. He was released in December 2000, when his term was reduced for good behavior. For the next ten years, Gil refused to tell his story.

There is no clear answer of why Gil did what he did. Gil maintains that he is innocent of any wrong doing and it was in fact Yatom who tried to frame him. Some believe he was motivated as a result of his affiliations with the right-wing Moledet party, which was notorious at the time for advocating land transfers. Some believe that he was driven by his ego. Others speculate that Gil may have suffered from a personality disorder. Spies lie all the time – they have to. And when you lie all the time you sometimes do not know when to stop.

This article is based on the book “Operation Red Falcon”, a true story by Ronen Bergman a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest-circulation daily newspaper who had exclusive access to Gil and other key figures in one of the greatest intelligence intrigues in modern history.