IDF releases new footage of Ilan Ramon discussing Operation Opera

Written by on June 22, 2021

Forty years after Operation Opera – the Israeli air strike that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak – new footage of the late Ilan Ramon, one of the pilots that took part in the historic strike, has been released.

In the rare video of Ramon that was released by the IDF Archives at the Defense Ministry, the late fighter pilot and astronaut discussed the connection between the strike, his mother who survived the Holocaust and his mission to space.

The footage was filmed when Ramon returned to Israel from the United States where he was training for the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle Flight. Ramon perished along with the entire crew during reentry.

Operational documents from Operation Opera. (Credit: IDF ARCHIVES, DEFENSE MINISTRY)Operational documents from Operation Opera. (Credit: IDF ARCHIVES, DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Ramon was taking part in a meeting of senior Israel Air Force veterans to mark the 20th anniversary of the strike at the home of Yiftach Spector and was also attended by Amos Yadlin, Dobbi Yoffe and families.

In his moving speech, which lasted several minutes, Ramon spoke about the feelings he had before the strike, the fear that he might not return from it and the connection between the operation, his mother who was a survivor of the Holocaust, and his preparations for a space flight for which he trained during this period.

“I want to tie this into what I do today: My mother is an Auschwitz survivor who escaped with her shirt on her back,” he said. “A few days after I left [on the operation], I knew there was a chance that I would not make it back. I was living in Ramat Chen [a neighborhood in Ramat Gan] at the time, and… People were yelling and cursing on the street, and I thought, ‘What am I doing this for? So that people could yell and curse at me? What’d I do to them?’ Then I remembered my origins and history, and of that of the Jewish people’s, and I thought, ‘There’s no way that I’m going to let that happen again, no matter what happens to me.’ That’s what helped me go on that mission.”

Ramon told the crowd that a discussion with a group of Holocaust survivors made him realize that “we are only a part of a bigger story. Even as Israelis, we are only a part of the Jewish people.”

He asked a group of Holocaust survivors what they thought he should take with him into space when he goes. One of them gave him a letter:

“Here is my humble suggestion for you, Ilan, what to take into space: Bring my 7-year-old daughter’s dirty doll that she brought to Auschwitz, which is now sprinkled with her own ashes. Since you will be close to the heavens, open them and let them apologize for not responding to our prayers. I still ask ‘why,” the letter said.

That, Ramon continued is “what prepared me, in a certain sense, for the sacrifice I was willing to make. We are so entrenched in our own bubble here in Israel that we forget all the other stuff. I feel I was privileged to be part of a mission that connected me to the entire Jewish nation.”

Photos of the group during Operation Opera. (Credit: IDF ARCHIVES, DEFENSE MINISTRY)Photos of the group during Operation Opera. (Credit: IDF ARCHIVES, DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Never-before-seen documents and photos from the operation, including written instructions by then-Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan, as well as diagrams of the reactor from the operation’s intelligence file were also released on Tuesday.

The strike at the heart of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program at Osirak outside Baghdad in 1981 was, and remains, one of Israel’s most daring raids. The raid was initially called “Ammunition Hill” but later changed to “Operation Opera” after then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin found out that opposition leader Shimon Peres had heard about it.

Eight IAF pilots were selected for the mission, Ze’ev Raz, Amos Yadlin, Dobbi Yaffe, Hagai Katz, Amir Nachumi, Iftach Spector, Relik Shafir, and Ramon.

It was Ramon’s first operational mission and he had been tasked with preparing the maps and examining if the jets could make the return trip. And, as a young, single navigation officer, his plane was the last.

Operation documents from Operation Opera. (Credit: IDF ARCHIVES, DEFENSE MINISTRY)Operation documents from Operation Opera. (Credit: IDF ARCHIVES, DEFENSE MINISTRY)

The pilots flew F-16s that they had only recently learned to fly and achieved operational capability just months before. The fleet ushered in a whole new era for the Israel Air Force, and one that continues to this day, the ability to carry out preemptive strikes at enemies far from Israel’s borders.

Ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian were reportedly killed in the strike. All Israeli pilots landed safely at their bases.

But as the last plane, Ramon knew that there was a chance he could be shot down, his fellow pilot Brig.-Gen.(ret.) Relik Shafir told The Jerusalem Post.

“The Chief of Staff told us the most important thing would be to return home,” Shafir said in a recent interview. “We thought at least two planes would be shot down and me and Ilan (Ramon) both thought we would be shot down because we were last. It was a tough feeling that we couldn’t get rid of. But we knew it was a historical mission that we knew that even if we died, it was a mission we had to do.”

When they all landed, “it was like I returned to life,” Shafir said. “Ilan and I hugged for a minute, without talking. When our feet touched the tarmac, the pressure we had on our shoulders for half a year had been lifted.”

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