In 1967, the Israelis Eavesdropped on Arab Armies’ Phone Calls
Wiretaps were a vital source of wartime intel
On June 5, 1967 during the war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Egyptian air force bomber pilot Hosni Mubarak — the future president of Egypt — called Cairo to report that his formation of Tu-16 bombers had landed at Aswan airfield. Forty-five minutes later, an Israeli air strike caught all six bombers on the ground.
It’s apparent that, in the build-up to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Israeli Defense Force’s commanders had greater insight into the deployments of Arab units than top Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian commanders did into Israeli deployments.
The question is — how? There’s evidence the Israelis, among other intel efforts, tapped Arab forces’ telephone lines.
Israeli intel-gathering is legendary. But in the mid-1960s Israel lost some of its top spies to Arab counterespionage efforts.
Wolfgang Lotz, a German-born Jew, managed to penetrate some of the highest Egyptian defense circles. Presenting himself as a businessman and ex-Wehrmacht officer who had served in North Africa during World War II, Lotz put together a list of German scientists working on Egyptian rocket projects and sent letter bombs to some of them, forcing them to cease their work.
Lotz was arrested in 1965 and imprisoned for life.
Alexandria-born Jew Eli Cohen, who had entered Syria in 1961, presented himself as the son of a rich Damascene family under the fake name Kamal Amil Ta’abs. He gained the confidence of many top Syrian military and civilian officials and even toured the Syrian fortifications on the Golan Heights before he, too, was arrested in 1965 and later hanged.
At top — the IDF used S-58 helicopters for clandestine insertion of Sayeret Matkal commandos for tapping operations in Sinai. Above — the SA.321K helicopter is known to have been involved in inserting Sayeret Matkal commandos in Sinai during Operation Yergezi in 1967. IDF photos
The Israeli air force flew dozens of reconnaissance sorties over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the 1960s, but even these flights failed to provide the detailed intelligence that clearly underpinned Israel’s operations in 1967. For that, the Jewish state evidently tapped telephone and telegraph cables connecting major Arab air bases and high commands.
As early as 1964, the Syrian military caught a team of five soldiers from the IDF’s 1st Golani Infantry Brigade near a Syrian outpost on the Golan Heights. Official Israeli military reports released to the public decades later confirm that the team’s mission was to “replace the batteries that powered a tap on a telephone cable used by the Syrian army.” It’s obvious that the tap in question had been in service for some time.
It is rather unlikely that this was the only such tap, and it’s therefore not surprising that by the start of the Suez War in 1956 the Israelis were perfectly aware of the importance of telephone cables for Arab military communications. Correspondingly, the IDF opened that conflict by sending P-51 Mustang fighters to sweep low over Sinai and cut telephone cables connecting various Egyptian military bases.
During the 1960s, the Israeli air force undertook a number of operations that entailed the nocturnal insertion and recovery of small groups of special forces in Sinai, such as Operations Pioneer in August 1963 and Bee-eater in March 1964.
One of the largest enterprises of this kind was Operation Kachal, launched on the night of Dec. 1, 1965. Three IDF S-58 helicopters led by Maj. Eliezer Cohen flew squads from the Sayeret Matkal special forces group deep into Sinai. The last known operation of this kind launched before June 1967 was probably Operation Yergezi, undertaken on the night of Feb. 20, 1967, when SA.321 helicopters inserted another party of Sayeret Matkal commandos into Sinai.
Although none of the related reports specifically mention tapping Egyptian telephone cables, they do state that all of the involved helicopters carried “special equipment,” possibly including tapping devices, recording and transmitting equipment and power supplies.
Considering that during the June 1967 war, the IDF proved capable of reacting to redeployments of Arab forces within 30 minutes, it’s almost certain that Israeli operations were based on intelligence collected through listening devices on various Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian and Syrian communication cables.