The legend of intel officer Rafi Eitan and Gideon’s spies

Updated onMay 9, 2023
4 minute read
Rafi Eitan

Minister of Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan attends the first weekly cabinet meeting of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s newly sworn in cabinet on May 7, 2006 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Yoav Lemmer-Pool/Getty Images)


If the history of warfare tells us anything, very few (if any) soldiers look and sound like Clint Eastwood. During World War II, it was said that 95% of the…

If the history of warfare tells us anything, very few (if any) soldiers look and sound like Clint Eastwood. During World War II, it was said that 95% of the enlistees had never seen the ocean or flown in a plane. They were “average Joes” that after the war would go back to being regular fellows. Sometimes these regular-looking guys are involved in operations that are studied by war colleges forever after. Like Rafi Eitan and his pursuit of Adolf Eichmann. 

Eitan, born in Mandatory Palestine in 1926, was a short, squat guy that wouldn’t have caught the eye of any Hollywood producer looking for the next John Garfield. The college-age Eitan was a member of the Yiftach Brigade during Israel’s War of Independence, being wounded the day after David Ben Gurion read Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948. Five Arab nations had promised to invade if the state was established, and attack they did. Eitan, after he recovered from his injuries, also served as an intelligence officer.

That would prove to be his launchpad to legendary status. His audacious, innovative ideas set him apart. In the book, Gideon’s Spies, we can see why Eitan was chosen to lead the operation to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice:

“There had been no one like him for cold-blooded ruthlessness, cunning, an ability to improvise at ferocious speed, an inborn skill at outwitting even the best-laid plan and tirelessly tracking down a quarry. All those qualities had come together in the one operation that had given him lasting fame—the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who epitomized the full horror of Hitler’s Final Solution.”

By the time Eichmann was spotted in Argentina in 1957, Eitan was a rising star within the Mossad. Eichmann of course was one of the principle architects of the Holocaust. Eitan had been involved in tracking down war criminals for some time and to that point, he succeeded in bringing swift (if not exactly legal) justice. He claimed later he’d never killed the wrong person.

The patient Eitan waited two years to launch the operation to capture “Ricardo Klement” now living in a middle-class suburb. Needless to say, the whole thing could have been a disaster if, for example, the local police got involved. Eitan had a contingency plan for that, too:

“I decided I would strangle Eichmann with my own bare hands. If I was caught, I would argue to the court it had been the biblical eye for an eye.”

That would not be necessary.

Israeli President President Reuven Rivlin (L) speaks to former Israeli minister Rafi Eitan during a ceremony marking 55 years since the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann at the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2016 at the presidential compound in Jerusalem. / AFP / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images)

At eight o’clock on the evening of May 11, 1960, a sedan pulled up down the street from “Klement’s” bus stop (during the war, Eichmann had been chauffeured in a limousine. His new mode of travel brought him home each night from the factory where he worked. Quite a come-down!

As if to put a fine point on just how finely tuned such an operation has to be, disaster almost struck. The “snatch man,” the one chosen and trained to actually, physically force Eichmann into the car…nearly stumbled because of a loose shoelace! Eichmann looked puzzled for a moment; Eitan’s whole life flashed in front of his face.

Leaping from his own seat in the car, Rafi Eitan wasted no time: “I grabbed him by the neck with such force I could see his eyes bulge. A little tighter and I would have choked him to death.” The whole thing took only five seconds, shaving seven seconds off the planned timing. 

The rest of the operation, though fraught with danger, was almost academic. This team of Israelis had snatched this latest angel of death and was bringing him to justice. For more than a week they waited to board an Israeli plane and the flight back to Israel.

Arriving at the airport at the appointed time, Eitan and his men donned flight suits, put one on Eichmann, and forced whiskey down him. By the time guards approached the car, it wreaked of whiskey and Eichmann was snoring in the backseat. The smiling guards waved them on and at five past midnight on May 21, 1960, Adolf Eichmann was on his way to justice in the Land of Israel, a supreme irony if there ever was one.

Two years later, after a trial that garnered international attention, the formerly arrogant Nazi swung from gallows specially built for him.

A special oven was built to burn his body to ashes, which were scattered at sea, per the order of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.

That evening, Rafi Eitan stood on the seashore, “feeling totally at peace.”

Just another days’ work for an average soldier.