Top spy Sylvia Raphael honoured with street naming
“One day, when true peace comes, they’ll write books about her, name streets after her, and make movies about her life. If Israelis knew what Sylvia actually did, they would go every week to her grave to lay wreaths that would one day reach heaven,” wrote Eitan Haber, the former chief advisor to Yitzhak Rabin, about the late South African-born Mossad agent Sylvia Raphael in Yedioth Ahronoth on her death in 2005.
On 22 January 2024, nearly 20 years later, those who knew Raphael and a number of South African olim in Israel gathered in the city of Rosh Ha’ayin to honour Raphael by unveiling a lane next to a river donning her name.
Said the mayor of Rosh Ha’ayin, Shalom Ben Moshe, “I was approached as mayor to consider naming 30 streets throughout Rosh Ha’ayin after people who contributed to the security and enrichment of the state of Israel – not familiar personalities or renowned generals or well-known fighters but ordinary people who performed extraordinary feats. Sylvia Raphael from South Africa was just one such person, working in the shadows as a field agent in the 1960s and early 1970s.
“She displayed incredible heroism in providing vital information for Israel in its fight for survival. This is how we value her contribution. People walking along this picturesque riverside lane named after her can know they are doing so in safety because of the service she performed.”
Filmmaker Saxon Logan, who produced Sylvia: Tracing Blood, the documentary of Raphael’s life, told the SA Jewish Report, “She’s always been recognised by the intelligence community as being one of the best – if not the best – operatives that they ever had, but they’ve been secretive and protective of her legacy. It’s now becoming more and more public, and more people are becoming aware of who this extraordinary woman was.”
Sylvia Raphael was born in 1937, and raised in Graaff-Reinet in a Dutch Reformed household. With a Jewish father, Zionism was a mainstay in her belief system.
In adulthood, Raphael went to Israel and spent time working on a kibbutz. While there, she was recruited by Unit 188 of Israeli intelligence – otherwise known as the Mossad – one night in Tel Aviv. Raphael piqued the interest of the Mossad as she wasn’t Jewish, but could speak Hebrew, French, and Arabic, and was forthright about Israel’s right to exist.
She was sent to Vancouver, Canada, where she would train to become photographer Patricia Roxborough, and then on to Paris, where she would keep a close eye on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Raphael was known to have operated in Cairo, Mogadishu (in Somalia), Asmara (in Eritrea), Djibouti, Beirut, Amman, and Damascus. She’s said to have replaced Eli Cohen in Damascus, who pierced the top echelons of the Syrian establishment and was publicly hanged for it in 1965. “Sylvia had to fool the best, and she did,” said Logan.
Raphael babysat the current King of Jordan, King Abdullah II, at the time when the PLO was trying to take over the country. Fifty thousand Palestinians were killed by Jordanian forces in September 1970, and the PLO was forced to flee to Lebanon. Raphael met Arafat, and infiltrated the PLO.
After the Munich Massacre in 1972, where 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered by the Palestinian terror group Black September, Prime Minister Golda Meir approved Operation Wrath of G-d to assassinate the perpetrators.
Raphael is thought to be responsible for the bombing that would kill the head of the PLO in France, Mahmoud Hamshari.
In 1973 in Lillehammer, Norway, Raphael was involved in a plot to assassinate Ali Hassan Salameh, the operations chief of Black September in Europe and considered to be the mastermind of the Munich Massacre. However, in a case of mistaken identity, Raphael and two other operatives fired 14 shots and killed Ahmed Bouchikhi, the brother of Chico Bouchikhi of the Gipsy Kings, next to his pregnant wife.
Raphael and the two other operatives were caught and arrested by Norwegian intelligence. On appeal, Raphael got a light sentence of five and a half years and served only 18 months. She quipped, “I went from 007 to 005 and a half.” She was allowed to go shopping, and spent much time with the female warden in her office. Raphael later survived at least three assassination attempts by the PLO.
Raphael would marry her lawyer, Annæus Schjødt Jr., after her release in 1976, and moved to Pretoria. It was at that time that Raphael would connect with her nephew, the late Derek Watts of Carte Blanche fame, “She was warm and companionable, and had so many stories to tell,” he said.
Raphael passed away from leukaemia in 2005, and was cremated in South Africa. Her ashes were sent to her kibbutz, Ramat Hakovesh, north of Kfar Saba, where she is buried with the inscription, “I am buried in the soil of my soul”.
“She did what she did in reaction to how Jews were treated in the 1930s and 1940s,” said Logan. “She was horrified, and made a private pact to protect the Jewish people and their homeland.”
In addition to the lane honouring Raphael’s legacy, Raphael was the subject of a book, Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy, the internationally-acclaimed documentary described above, and a square honouring her legacy in the town of Migdal on the shores of the Kinneret.
“My film can’t even begin to portray what she did because so much is secret and even today, she’s a secret because other intelligence services could potentially extrapolate from what she did from various operatives working today,” said Logan, “So, they must have much under wraps, but, gradually, the wrapping is coming off. And one day, as is said, more than just a road and a square will be named after Sylvia.”