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Operation Orchard: how Israeli jets flew at low altitude to avoid detection in Syria

Israel had never admitted to the 2007 air strike deep inside Syria - until now

    Israeli F-15Is and F-16Is were used in the strike
    Israeli F-15Is and F-16Is were used in the strike (Photo: Getty Images)

    Israel’s strike on the North Korean-built reactor, half an hour after midnight on September 6, 2007, came after a lengthy intelligence-collecting operation — but it began on a hunch.

    After it had failed to detect the Libyan nuclear programme, which was declared and dismantled in 2003, Israeli authorities began questioning their previous assumptions about which of its Arab enemies may be developing nuclear capabilities as well. 

    Some Israeli intelligence officials suspected Syria was trying acquire nuclear weapons as early as 2004, but it was only two years later that a square-shaped building in northeast Syria, near the Euphrates river, caught their attention.

    The shape of what became known as “the cube” indicated it may be a North Korean designed plutonium reactor.

    On March 8, 2007, Mossad chief Meir Dagan informed then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the Israeli intelligence community was convinced Syria was months away from completing a nuclear reactor and that they had not noticed its construction for years. 

    Israel operates under the “Begin Doctrine” (so-named after prime minister Menachem Begin, who sent the Israeli air-force in 1981 to destroy Iraq’s reactor near Baghdad) and has vowed never to allow one of its enemies to acquire nuclear weapons. 

    However, although the air force was confident that it could destroy this reactor from the air, there were concerns that such an attack may lead to a Syrian retaliation and all-out conflict, so soon after the dismal end to the Second Lebanon War. The challenge was to find a way to remove the reactor without provoking a war. 

     One option was to ask the US to attack it. But the George W Bush administration was split over the best course of action: some favoured attacking the reactor, while others preferred either Israel do it or use diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime instead. 

    In Jerusalem, it was felt that diplomatic pressure ran the risk of pushing the Syrians to complete construction faster and add anti-aircraft batteries around the reactor.

    But there was disagreement within the Israeli leadership as well. While Prime Minister Olmert and most of the security chiefs favoured of a speedy attack, Defence Minister Ehud Barak counselled that they wait. 

    In a memoir he is scheduled to publish in May, Mr Barak claims that the prime minister was too hasty in approving an incomplete operational plan and that Israel had to make sure first it was prepared for an all-out war, if it broke out. 

    Before and after: Israeli military images of the 'bomb factory' in Syria
    Before and after: Israeli military images of the 'bomb factory' in Syria

    The go-ahead was finally given in early September, partly out of the fear that the news of Syria’s nuclear reactor had leaked to the US media. At 10.30pm on September 5, four F-15Is took off from Hatzerim airbase in the Negev desert  and four F-16Is from Ramon base, near Beersheba.

    The eight aircraft flew for nearly two hours, most of the way at extremely low-altitude to evade radar detection. As they approached the reactor, gained height, each plane launched two bombs. 

    When the last F-16 recorded a direct strike, the codeword “Arizona” was relayed to the command post in Tel Aviv, where Mr Olmert and Mr Barak were gathered with their generals.

    Beyond the successful military operation, the strategy of opaqueness —  Israel’s refusal to acknowledge whether its aircraft had bombed Syria — worked well also. 

    In an attempt to save face, Bashar Assad’s government admitted that Israeli aircraft had entered their airspace but denied ever having built a nuclear reactor.

    They refrained from retaliating and inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors visiting the bomb-site, which had since been levelled over, found radioactive traces in 2008.  

    Both Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak are now out of politics: the former was forced out of office by the latter over corruption allegations against him a year later, and Mr Olmert subsequently went to prison for accepting bribes and fraud. 

    Both also have memoirs due to be published in the coming weeks in which they each blame each other for their conduct leading up to what became known as Operation Orchard. 

    Mr Barak accuses Mr Olmert of being gung-ho and acting out of inexperience. By return Mr Olmert said Mr Barak refused to take responsibility for the fateful decision. 

    While the argument between them will continue to interest historians for years to come, it has little political significance as neither is likely to return to office. 

    But one outcome of their dispute was that Israel’s military censor reconsidered its strategy of opaqueness and authorised the publication of information and imagery on Wednesday morning.

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