Remembering the Spy Who Caught Eichmann
The Fellowship | March 29, 2019
Life: November 23, 1926 – March 23, 2019
Known for: Leading the 1960 Mossad operation in Argentina to capture the Nazi architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann
About him: Born in British-mandate Palestine to Jewish olim (immigrants) from Russia, Rafi Eitan grew up in a small farming community called Kibbutz Ein Harod. At the age of 12, Rafi joined the Haganah (the precursor to today’s IDF) in order to defend his community from Arab attacks.
After graduating high school, Rafi joined the Haganah’s elite unit, the Palmach, with whom he helped smuggle into Israel Jewish refugees from Europe who had fled the Nazis. While doing this, Rafi befriended Yitzhak Rabin, who later became Prime Minister of Israel. Rafi’s most famous operation during his time in the Palmach was when he blew up the British radar on Mount Carmel, which was used to track ships carrying Holocaust refugees. To do so, Rafi crawled underground through the Haifa sewers, which earned him his lifelong nickname of “Rafi the Stinker.” It was also during his service that Rafi was injured and became nearly deaf, a condition that has forced him to rely on the use of hearing aids ever since.
During Israel’s War of Indepence in 1948, Rafi served in the IDF’s intelligence unit. After the war, he commanded the Shin Bet, and later served as Chief of Coordination between the Shin Bet and Mossad. It was in this role that Rafi would earn his greatest claim to fame in Israel – the capture of Adolf Eichmann.
Israeli intelligence identified Eichmann, alive and well, living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. On May 11, 1960, Rafi led a group of Mossad agents on a daring kidnapping raid. They captured Eichmann and secreted him away on an El Al plane, all of them disguised as El Al employees. Once in Israel, Eichmann was tried for his crimes – which directly led to the deaths of 6 million Jews – and was ultimately executed.
Rafi retired from his intelligence career in 1972, devoting his life to farming and raising tropical fish. But in 1978, he was called back to serve Israel when Prime Minister Menachem Begin asked him to be his advisor on terrorism. It was in this role in 1981 that he helped plan and implement the secret Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.
From 2006 to 2009, he served in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, before retiring to a life of sculpting. In 2010, he said of his career, “In principle, when there is a war on terror you conduct it without principles. You simply fight it.”
Eitan passed away this past weekend in the Holy Land. He was buried in Netanya.