Half a century ago, a MiG-21 fighter jet was brought to Israel in a covert operation codenamed Operation Yahalom (Hebrew for diamond). In the operation, an Iraqi pilot recruited by the Mossad defected to Israel with the aircraft. He also provided instruction and maintenance material, which proved very valuable for the security and reputation of Israel.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yesha'ayahu (Shayke) Barkat, a fighter pilot who had served as a Squadron Commander and Flight Instructor and who was the Head of the IAF's Intelligence Directorate at the time of the operation, goes back to the days of the intelligence-based operation. He recalls how Israel was the only country to succeed where many other countries had failed, and get a hold of the aircraft that intrigued and threatened the west.
"The MiG-21 was the pride and joy of the USSR and after bringing it to Israel, we flew it and fought against our fighter jets with it. We had a quiet and comfortable environment to train for 'dog-fights' with it and test its strengths and weaknesses. We learned its speeds, maneuvers, reactions and the field of vision from its cockpit – all of these helped us understand how to shoot it down", he shared. "These were the lessons that decided the Six-Day War. Moreover, acquiring the jet granted us an international status as an intelligence system and ushered us into the ‘International Intelligence Market' and to trading intelligence."
The Mossad and its international branches were responsible for recruiting the pilot. They activated their personnel around the world in an attempt to find the man that would bring them closer to the long-awaited aircraft. "Among the candidates, there was one outstanding option – Munir Radfa. One of my men joined the meeting between the Mossad and Radfa in Athens. They became friends and planned the flight together, based on technical details about the MiG-21 that we learned from Munir."
Captain Munir Radfa was an Iraqi MiG-21 pilot and served as the Deputy Commander of a Fighter Squadron in the Iraqi Air Force. Being a Christian singled him out in a Majority-Muslim ruled Iraq and as a result, despite his professional achievements, his promotion was halted. In addition, Munir was riddled with feelings of guilt and revulsion from the cruel missions assigned to him, which required the bombing of Curd civilians in Northern Iraq. Radfa wanted to leave Iraq and flee to a Western country with his family. The circumstances of his life became the reasons he was chosen by the Mossad.
"When everything was already set, I still wasn't sure that Munir would be able to pilot the jet and arrive here. I knew that all of the efforts would have been for nothing if I wouldn't make sure. I asked the then IAF Commander to fly with him. He thought that I was crazy, but we took a ‘Meteor,' a dual-engine two-seater jet, from Ramat-David AFB and Munir came to Israel. The Mossad arranged a dinner for us, we spoke about our families and personal lives and the next day I tested his flight skills."
Didn't you suspect that Radfa was, in fact, operating on behalf of Iraq and that it was all a plot of theirs to penetrate Israeli airspace?
"That's why I wanted to fly with him. We met at Ben-Gurion Airport in the morning; IAF commander was worried about me, so he put the whole force on ready alert. I was very young and had no fear of flying behind an Iraqi pilot who I barely knew; I wasn't worried at all. Back then, the stick was manual and not electronic, so it operated on the force of your hand."
In August 1966, the last and most important leg of the operation began. The Mossad had a novel way of signaling Radfa, who had returned to Iraq, that they were ready for his arrival. Every day, a song in Arabic was broadcasted on The Voice of Israel Radio Station. The song's lyrics were "Marhabten, Marhabten, Marhabten" ("Welcome"). "I hid in the bathroom in the hour on which the song was to be broadcasted, so my wife wouldn't ask me why I was listening to that station. For three days straight, the song was broadcasted at a predetermined hour. On the first day, the IAF's Senior Command congregated in Operational HQ, but Radfa did not make contact and slowly, the room emptied. On the third day he arrived, we were sitting together and saw the MiG-21 on the screens."
Radfa had indeed made it to Israel and was followed by his family, but he had a hard time acclimating himself to Israel and later moved to the United States, where he lived until his death from cardiac arrest in 1998.
The Article was originally published on the IAF website