Waves lapped in gentle rolls against the Tunisian shoreline on this night of April 15, 1988. The lookouts on the beaches only heard the engines in the final seconds before they rode the dying breaker to broach the wet sand.
There were three of them, powered rubber dinghies being dragged up to the dunes by twenty dark clad figures slung with silenced automatic weapons. The lookouts joined them in securing their craft and led them to three vehicles ready to drive them to their destination. Once inside, the masked men offered greetings in a language alien and despised by this part of the world… Hebrew. Yet, as they drove into the darkness, the only thought crossing their minds was the tired hours spent rehearsing for the coming moment with the briefings, and mockups, which now placed them on a road heading into the capital of Tunis toward a residential neighborhood.
They belonged to the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s finest Special Forces unit. Their mission tonight involved killing a man who was a founding member of the Palestine Liberation Organization and responsible for the deaths of multitudes of innocent Israeli citizens. His name was Khalil Al Wazir, better known as Abu Jihad (“Father of the Holy War”).
Over the years, Jihad more than proved himself a dangerous thorn in Israel’s side due to his military and diplomatic abilities. Born in 1935, he rose to become a star of the PLO and served as its deputy commander under Yasser Arafat, and likely his successor. As a peace broker, one of his specialties, Abu Jihad played a central role in unifying the different factions of the group after their eviction from Lebanon in 1983. More recent and more public was his organizing of the nationalist and youth movements in Gaza and the West Bank, which resulted in the Intifada, the bloody uprising against Israeli control.
However, it was another specialty, a career as a ruthless terrorist mastermind, which ultimately sealed his fate. Prominent among these was his planning of a 1978 bus attack along a coastal highway in Israel that killed thirty-seven Jews and nine Palestinians. A 1979 attack in Nahariyah in which a terrorist bashed a four-year-old girl to death while her mother hid in a closet only to accidentally suffocate a young baby she was holding. Others included attempting to land terrorists on a beach near Tel Aviv and numerous other strikes in which the victims were most often women and children. It could be said Abu Jihad was responsible for more Israeli deaths than any other terrorist. He was to them what bin Laden became to America. And, just like bin Laden, his death sentence would come in the form of a bullet fired from a silenced weapon.
Jihad’s final act against Israel occurred on March 7, 1988, when three terrorists hijacked a passenger bus transporting employees to what is believed to be the nuclear weapons installation at Dimona in the Negev desert. The bus was later assaulted, and the three hijackers killed, but three Israeli’s also perished. This event caused embarrassment throughout an already demoralized country and resulted in a decision by the Likud Cabinet to recommend his death. They created and sent a document approving of the action to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who agreed and signed it on April 13th, bringing ‘Operation Show Of Force’ to life.
Intelligence already knew he resided in an opulent two-story villa within an upscale residential neighborhood in Tunis, Tunisia. For some time, the capital city had served as the location of PLO headquarters and home of several of its prominent leaders, all of home moved about with little fear of attack. Shamir’s signature set in motion the event to shatter that reality.
‘Show of Force’ started with insertion into Tunis by Arab-speaking Mossad agents to monitor Jihad’s routine. They set up in a villa to record his movements and sent reports back to Tel Aviv. Shortly thereafter, four missile boats departed Haifa, carrying 20 frogmen of the navy’s ‘Fleet 13’ elite force (Yoav Golant, commander), and 20 Sayeret Matkal commandoes (Moshe Yaalon, commander). They made sure to depart at odd intervals so as not to leave an intelligence imprint, and hustled across the Mediterranean to position themselves offshore after nightfall on the 15th. A quick jaunt through the surf and they rendezvoused with the agents who whisked them toward the city.
Tracking the movement of the operation fell upon the shoulders of Army Chief of Staff General Dan Shomron and his deputy, Ehud Barak. These men arrived well off the coast over international waters in a Boeing 707 command plane. They ensured every aspect of the operation could be controlled and shifted as needed, and as the 0200 hours assault time on the 16th closed in, they listened into headsets and pinpointed the vehicles entering the city limits.
The Sayeret made final weapons checks and lowered their night vision devices as turns onto different streets commenced. They slowed when nearing the primary street and waited for a unique aspect of the assault to start.
A few minutes later, standing near the villa, a guard noticed two women walking down his side of the road. They approached him carrying a box of chocolates. As he started to respond, one pulled a silenced pistol and fired it into his head, just inches away. He slumped over and the assailant swiveled about looking for any sign of being heard. Satisfied, off came the wigs and the male commandoes signaled the rest of the team.
The vehicles gathered enough speed before shutting off their engines to coast in silence quite a distance before stopping in the front of the villa. At once, the commandoes leaped out and split into two groups, one to secure the outside and the other to breach and enter.
Abu Jihad noticed unusual sounds coming from downstairs. He had stayed up late watching news of the Intifada like so many nights before, and walked towards the staircase still in darkness to investigate.
The door burst open. Submachine guns rose upon the figure darkening in the green picture of their NVD’s. A sound similar to birds beating their wings filled the area. Arcs of 9mm casings streamed from ejection ports. Jihad’s body convulsed and twitched against the impacts then slammed backward. Men rushed up and fired more long bursts into his torso, some 70 shots in all. A woman, his wife Umm, appeared in a doorway and started to scream before she was grabbed by one of the Sayeret and secured, along with his young son.
Downstairs, other commandoes entered the basement and killed two men sleeping, a guard and strange enough, a gardener. They swept the room for weapons and documents, and then headed back up to help secure the house and search for more.
It was over in a matter of minutes. The men retreated out the breached door with one of them patting Jihad’s crying son and saying, “Look after your mom.”
Outside, the night remained tranquil and sleepy as the vehicles departed. No one had been alerted and it would not have mattered anyway. All communications from the neighborhood had been cut.
In a few hours, the commandoes and agents were safe aboard the missile boats speeding back toward Israel. Yaalon sent the codeword for success using Jihad’s designation, “The Boss.” No casualties, not so much as a scratch had been suffered by the attackers, who sipped on glasses of champagne as sounds of a vacant sea rolled underneath them and the first glimpse of dawn colored the bows.
Years later, Nahem Lav, the commando dressed as a woman who killed the guard and later fired into Jihad, said in what might be a fitting epitaph for the man, “I had read every page of the file on him. Abu Jihad was connected to horrific acts against civilians. He was marked for death. I shot him with no hesitation.”