Killing the Killers

By Bergman, Ronen | Newsweek, December 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

Killing the Killers


Bergman, Ronen, Newsweek


Byline: Ronen Bergman

Israeli hit teams have a history of eliminating weapons scientists.

During his years as Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion was haunted by a recurring nightmare. In it, the Holocaust's survivors had taken refuge in Israel only to become the targets of another Holocaust. The nightmare seemed to be coming true in July 1962, when Egypt's then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser announced four successful tests of missiles capable of striking anywhere "south of Beirut"--that is, anywhere in Israel.

Israeli officials panicked. The Mossad had never guessed that Nasser was developing the means to destroy "the Zionist entity," as he had repeatedly promised. Israel's military intelligence quickly learned that Egypt had built a secret facility in the desert, known as Factory 333 and staffed by German scientists, builders of the V1 and V2 rockets that had devastated London. Even the project's security chief was a veteran of Hitler's SS. The Egyptians' plan was to build some 900 missiles, all of them presumably to be aimed at Israel.

But the program had a weakness, and the Mossad found it: the Egyptians still needed the German scientists' help to start mass production of the missiles. At that moment Israel began a decades-long campaign to eliminate scientists working for its enemies on missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The Mossad called that first operation Damocles, invoking an image of impending doom from Greek myth.

The aim was to scare off the Germans at least as much as to kill them, so efforts to cover the assassins' tracks were often minimal, only enough to protect the killers. In September 1962 Heinz Krug, head of a Factory 333 shell company called Intra, vanished in Munich. In November two parcel bombs arrived at the office of the missile project's director, Wolfgang Pilz, maiming his secretary and killing five Egyptian workers. In February 1963 another Factory 333 scientist, Hans Kleinwachter, narrowly escaped an ambush in Switzerland. In April of that year, two Mossad agents in Basel accosted Heidi Goerke, the daughter of project manager Paul Goerke, and threatened to kill both him and her. …

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