RAFFI Berg can still vividly recall being asked by one of Mossad’s legendary figures to meet him at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Their encounter, facilitated by a contact’s of Berg’s, was successful.
And it led to the telling of one of Israel’s most astounding operations, which saw more than 7,000 Ethiopian Jews smuggled from refugee camps in Muslim-majority Sudan to begin a new life in the Jewish state.
Soon, however, it shifted focus to a diving resort on the Red Sea coast and large-scale evacuations by sea under the cover of darkness.
But the diving resort was a front, although the tourists were real.
Running the operation was the Mossad, led on the ground by ‘Dani’, the man Raffi met in France.
Southport-born Raffi, BBC News website’s Middle East editor, initially wrote a feature on the operation in April, 2018, called The Holiday Village Run by Spies.
“It absolutely caught people’s imagination — it quickly went viral and the number of readers climbed into the millions,” he told me from his London home.
“I had read snippets about the operation, but they were mainly inaccurate.”
What reignited his interest was when it was announced that Israeli Gideon Raff would be writing and directing a Netflix film, The Red Sea Diving Resort.
The movie, though, does not claim to be based on, but rather inspired by, real events and is, according to Raffi, “highly fictionalised”.
Spark reignited, Raffi wrote the piece for the BBC and then decided to turn the whole story into a book, Red Sea Spies (Icon Books), which will be published on February 6.
The 49-year-old said: “I felt there was more to say and what I discovered blew me away. I had never come across a story quite like it.
“The movie and the book are based on the same premise, but not directly linked.
“Dani worked as an adviser on the film, but felt that it did not portray the events authentically, so he was thinking about how to document what actually took place.
“The operation could not have happened without him, and he gave me unique access to people you wouldn’t otherwise know existed.”
The mission, known as Operation Brothers, began with a cryptic letter from a fugitive Ethiopian Jew in Sudan which found its way to the Mossad.
“The secrecy rules around it expired in 1985, 30 years after the operation finished,” Raffi added.
“It did not mean that the Mossad put the information out there, it just meant that it became accessible to researchers.
“It really was an innovative and remarkable operation, and the only time in the history of any foreign intelligence agency in the world that an operation of this kind was conceived and led, A-Z, by a foreign secret service.
“That is what made it unique among any of the Mossad’s operations.
“Its participants, whether they were religious or not, all told me that they felt there was something special, historical and big going on at the time.
“They knew what they were doing was something unique in Jewish history and that there were close parallels with the Jews being led out of Egypt.
“It was akin to a modern biblical exodus.
“These were a biblical tribe of Jews being led from extraordinarily difficult conditions and at risk of extinction, and being brought by clandestine means back to Israel to have their futures secured.”
The Mossad agents Raffi spoke to, his keen to point out, stressed that the success of the operation was not just down to them.
“It was a partnership with the Ethiopian Jews,” he said. “Most people’s understanding is that the Ethiopian Jews were rescued by the Mossad, but they were not rescued — they object to that term, and quite rightly.”
The operation came to an end in 1985, but the Israelis closed the resort in Arous three years earlier, at the start of the war in Lebanon.
Israeli military had to redirect its resources and could not spare Hercules aircrafts, which were used to carry out air lifts.
“Separate to that, when the team in Arous realised Israel was at war, they went back to Israel,” Raffi recalled.
“Dani immediately volunteered for the Israeli paratroopers unit, but he and the others had only found out about the war after watching on television Israeli tanks moving up towards the coast in Lebanon.”
Rafi’s research into the Mossad’s surreptitious activities is a long way from his upbringing in Southport.
The son of Lorna and Alan Berg, who now live in Manchester, he was raised in a traditional Orthodox home and was barmitzvah at Southport Hebrew Congregation, in Arnside Road.
Raffi had not thought about becoming a journalist until it was suggested to him by a friend’s mother.
He went on to read modern and medieval history at the London School of Economics, before taking a post-graduate in journalism at Preston’s University of Central Lancashire.
Raffi, who spent his gap year at the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, began his journalism career at Radio City, Liverpool, where he worked for two years as a reporter and newsreader.
He moved to London in 1995, where he worked for Associated Press, L!VE TV, GMTV, Sky News and AOL Online.
And he received his first taste of covertness when he landed a position as news editor for a section of the American State Department, as it later transpired he was, in fact, working for the CIA.
Raffi laughed: “I am not embellishing this, it is absolutely true.
“I worked for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which is the equivalent of BBC Monitoring.
“One day, I was taken to one side and told, ‘you may or may not know that we are part of CIA, but don’t go telling people’.
“I was absolutely thrilled, and was not too much of a surprise because the application process was enormous — it took 10 months.
“They went through my character and background with a fine tooth comb, asking if I had ever visited communist countries and, if I had, did I form any relationships while I was there.”
Raffi joined the BBC as an online reporter in June, 2001.
And, just three months later, he was the first person at the corporation to break the news of 9/11.
He remembered: “It was a lunchtime on a Tuesday and there was only myself and my editor looking after the news.
“He turned to me and told me to stop what I was doing, turn on CNN and write what I saw.
“I saw some smoke coming out of one of the Twin Towers and my initial thought was that a small tourist plane had crashed into it.
“It quickly became clear it was a catastrophic situation.
“Nobody had experienced anything like it and when the second plane crashed into the building, there was a gasp in unison across the newsroom, a sound I had never heard before.
“These were seasoned journalists, but it was new ground for everybody.”
Raffi, who is married to Suzi, has been in his current post since 2013.
Many in the British Jewish community perceive the BBC to be anti-Israel.
And, while he would not be drawn on the alleged bias, Raffi commented: “Israel is understandably something the Jewish community is very sensitive about, including the way the BBC reports on it”.
He has worked on an eclectic mix of fascinating stories, but his most memorable one happened during the second Lebanon War, in the summer of 2006.
Raffi, who is father to Anya, 14, and 10-year-old Coby, said: “I clearly recall on arrival driving into Haifa in the evening time amid an eerie silence and wondering where the fighting was — the reason was that everyone was in the shelters.
“Suddenly, Hezbollah rockets came slamming into the hillside which, to me, felt like a giant kicking Mount Carmel.”
The BBC’s Middle East bureau was based in Jerusalem, but it is now in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, which Raffi visited a couple of months ago.
And he admits he was a little concerned about his safety, partly down to his name.
He said: “When I was at the airport my passport was thoroughly checked, page by page.
“All the while I was in Beirut, I was thinking what an unusual experience it was.
“I was just vigilant the whole time I was in Lebanon, but I did not have any problems and found everyone to be friendly and helpful.”
The Middle East is, perhaps, one of the most absorbing — and busiest — regions to cover as a journalist.
“It has been relentless already this year,” Raffi explained. “It is a turbulent place, with old conflicts, fresh conflicts and conflicts within conflicts.
“It is a complicated part of the world, but my job is to make it uncomplicated so that casual readers can understand what is going on.”
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