Published On: Sun, Jun 20th, 2021

Oded Lieberman Talks About Israel Bombing of Iraqi Osriak Nuclear Plant

The bombing took place forty years ago.

IAF Pilots Operation Opera Photo: IDF Archives and the defense establishment

Forty years ago the Israeli Air Force conducted its second most important and second most successful operation in Israel’s short history. The most important and most successful Israeli Air Force assault was, of course, the attack on Egyptian air fields that opened the Six Day War in 1967. That attack took out the entire Egyptian Air Force at the start of the war. The second most important, however, was the bombing and destruction of the Iraqi nuclear power plant in Osirak in 1981.

Now Israel’s N12 news service is telling the story of how the country’s vaunted IDF intelligence unit 8200 played a crucial role in the mission’s success. This is the unit from which so many founders of successful Israeli high tech firms came.

It was called Operation Opera. One of the pilots was a young Ilan Ramon. Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut, but was tragically killed when the space shuttle Columbia exploded on reentry in 2003.

The bombing was of such importance that at the time it was said to have put Menachem Begin’s Likud Party over the top in the very close parliamentary elections which were held just a few weeks later. The Likud won a second term.

N12 interviewed one of the members of Unit 8200 at the time. Oded Lieberman was a sergeant who recalled, “In those days a new and unique system for listening to the media began to operate. It did not exist before. We got over all the communication of the French scientists and technicians who worked for Iraq in the construction of the Osirak nuclear reactor. Israel had quality, exclusive and highly sensitive information about what is happening there at any given moment. We knew everything they did.”

Lieberman explained how they garnered information by listening in on Iraqi soldiers’ telephone calls. And this was long before mobile phones. “One of the soldiers was a French-speaking Moroccan.” He recalled. “Suddenly he started receiving calls in French from Iraq with a variety of concepts he did not understand. It was foreign to us but the code names implied that these were basic concepts from the world of nuclear reactors. We were used to Arabic. We realized that there was something suspicious here – Iraq and French. They are building a reactor.”

IAF Jets Operation Opera Photo : IDF Archives and the defense establishment

Lieberman explained that he had to undergo a crash course on nuclear power so that he could better understand what was being said. It was the work conducted by people like him which let Israeli authorities confirm that the Iraqis were indeed building a nuclear reactor. They also gathered all of the pertinent information about the location of the reactor under construction and the local aerial defenses which needed to be overcome by the Israeli pilots.

These are the stories one expects to read in the spy novels of Fredrick Forsythe or John Le Carre. But writers like them base their stories on reality. It is the slow hard work conducted by the tech people sitting in small offices all day long, hunched over computer screens, which make these types of operations possible.

Such people helped enable the raid on Uganda’s Entebbe airport in 1976, stop innumerable terrorist attacks ahead of time over the years and are even the ones who found Osama Bin Laden’s hiding place and confirmed for Seal Team Six when he would be there and who would be with him when they carried out their operation in 2011.

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