Author: Ivan Kinsman
Subgenre: Historical fiction
Number of words: 97,341
Death in Gaza is based on a true story – the assassination of the Egyptian Lieutenant-Colonel Mustafa Hafez, the head of Egyptian Military Intelligence in Gaza, by the Israeli secret service on the 12 July, 1956. The story traces the career of Hafez as he moves from Egypt to Gaza to form a brigade of fedayeen – freedom fighters recruited from Palestinian refugees – to carry out cross-border commando-style raids into Israel and cause as much destruction and death as possible. At the same time it also follows the career of Ariel ‘Arik’ Sharon, the Israeli general and politician who went on to become the 11th prime minister of Israel (2001 – 2006). It describes his early youth growing up on an agricultural moshav, Kfar Malal, with his immigrant parents Shmuel Scheinerman from Brest-Litovsk and his Belarussian mother, Vera, who both emigrated to Palestine in 1922 following the Russian Communist government’s persecution of Jews in the Tiflis (now Tblisi, Republic of Georgia) region. Arik starts of his military career with the paramilitary youth battalion, the Gadna, protecting Israeli settlers against Palestinian attacks and the fighting for the Haganah, the Jewish underground military force before joining the Israeli Defence Force.
The book focuses on the life of the Palestinians and Israelis prior to the 1947 – 1949 Palestine war, as well as events in Egypt. Mustafa Hafez is a young military officer who is living with his attractive wife, Mona, in Cairo that is a thriving, cosmopolitan city, with the country under the control of the British. It opens with Mustafa, a young Captain and the son of a wealthy Egyptian cotton grower, being summoned to the headquarters of Egypt’s War Ministry to meet with Colonel Riad in military intelligence, who offers him a new position in the Egyptian controlled Gaza that has recently experience a huge influx of Palestinian refugees after the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Hafez seeks the approval of his father-in-law, Lukman Faheem, a pilot working for an Egyptian airline, and decides to accept the position.
Arik and his young wife, Margalit or ‘Gali’ for short, are living in Tel Aviv, serving in the northern sector of the IDF. He meets up with an army friend, Shlomo, who tells him about the incursions into Israel from the Egyptian Gaza Strip and the Jordanian West Bank and thinks Arik might be in for a new position, even though the latter is planning to take up university studies in Jerusalem.
The following chapters describe Mustafa’s life in Gaza and his work in setting up a fedayeen training base, assisted by his Egyptian subordinates. In the meantime, Arik commences his studies in Middle Eastern history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. However, he meets with a Colonel Shacham and is asked to lead a group of ex-military colleagues to kill an Arab terrorist named Samueli, but the mission is a failure and Arik submits his proposal for an elite commando unit. After a personal meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, he is tasked by the Israeli General Staff with setting up Unit 101 for conducting non-standard cross-border missions.
The next few chapters describe the twists and turns as the Palestinian fedayeen and the Israeli paratroopers carry out their incursions into each other’s territory. The conflict between the two sides escalates following the coup of the Free Officers in Cairo, led by two Colonels Gamil Abdul Nasser and Mohammed Neguib. Mustafa Hafez is summoned to the capital by Riad before this takes place to get his support. The lascivious King of Egypt, Farouk, is exiled, and the fedayeen operations are ramped up under Nasser.
At a high level IDF meeting, Hafez’s name is discussed in the light of the fedayeen incursions as well as the increased aggression of the Egyptian army towards the IDF in the Sinai following an Egyptian arms deal with the Russians. Attack follows counter-attack and Arik Sharon, now commander of the 890th Paratroop Battalion, that has combined Unit 101 with the Paratroopers, launches a successful raid named Operation Egged against fedayeen units at Kuntilla, close to the Port of Eilat in the Sinai.
The IDF finally get a break – a young fedayeen Bedouin, Muhammad al-Talalka, is recruited by an Israeli Intelligence officer, Avraham Dar, who learns from another Palestinian agent that he also works for Mustafa Hafez. A complex plot is hatched to assassinate Mustafa Hafez and his subordinate running the fedayeen operations out of Jordan, the Egyptian military attaché in Amman, Salah Mustafa.
Hafez stared out of his office window, looking at the bright blue Mediterranean sea in the distance and the small coastal vessels and fishing boats with their brightly coloured sails bobbing up and down on top of it. Glancing down at the paperwork in front of him, he decided he needed to take a break and get some fresh air. He walked down to the ground floor and, pausing to light a cigarette out of the wind, stepped outside the building from where he could see Sergeant Gamal in the distance drilling the fedayeen. He looked on, puffing on this cigarette as they marched up and down on the sand-swept parade ground, marked off by a flag in each corner. They’ll never be as good as our Egyptian soldiers, he thought to himself, but at least they are beginning to look like soldiers. Grinding his cigarette stub into the dirt, he saw al-Haridi approaching the building and they both saluted before climbing the stairs to his office.
“I wanted to report that we’re pretty much ready now, sir, for the upcoming operation. As you know, at the outset I asked for volunteers and we have mix of Palestinians and Bedouins – the Bedouins are from the ‘Azazme and Tarrabin tribes, the ones if you recall who were expelled by the IDF from the Al-Auja region of the Sinai about a year after the war ended, even though it was in the Demilitarised Zone.”
“Yes,” Hafez nodded, “I do, and I think they’ll be highly motivated by this opportunity to take their revenge. Let’s take a look at that map once again just to be sure we haven’t overlooked something before we brief the men.”
Rolling out the map on a table in the middle of the room, they looked at the Negev desert in detail, with a red line marking the road running from Eilat, a port town on the Dead Sea that lay at the southern end of Israel, northwards towards the town of Beersheba, lying not far from the Gaza border which was why it had been chosen as a target. The town had long been a watering hole for the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Negev, and its capture by the British in 1917 from the Turks had opened up the route for their conquest of Palestine and Syria. During the start of the tensions between the Arabs and the Jews in the late 1920s, 133 Jews had been killed and three times that number wounded and many had abandoned the city. Following the attack on the Jewish bus in 1936, which had escalated into the Arab revolt in Palestine over the following three years, the remaining Jews had left, so that by 1945 the village survey conducted by the Palestinian Mandate government which Mustafa had managed to get hold of, showed 5,360 Muslims, 200 Christians and 10 ‘others’ living there. The desert town was laid with the houses and buildings on either side of straight roads and contained a mosque, a solid looking Ottoman-built police station, onto which an addition had been added during the British Mandate, as well as a Turkish-built railway station.
Under the UN’s Ad Hoc Committee Beersheba had been assigned to the Arab state on account of it being primarily Arab, given that Egyptian forces had been stationed there since May 1948. However, the same forces were blocking Israeli convoys to the Negev so Ben-Gurion had instructed his commander Yigal Allon to conquer the settlement, occupy the outposts around it and demolish most of the town. The Egyptian army had not expected such a surprise offensive and had fled en masse against a vastly superior force, leaving behind 120 of their soldiers as prisoners and placed in a POW camp. All of the Arab inhabitants who had put up a resistance had been expelled and the remaining civilians – 200 men, 150 women and children, along with the disabled and elderly – were first taken to the police fort and then driven by lorries to the Gaza border. After their expulsion, large scale looting had taken place by the Haganah, and a few months afterwards the total number of Arabs driven out of the town and its surrounding areas had reached around 30,000, and it was from these that the fedayeen recruits came. At the same time, the Jews had established a 10-kilometre radius exclusion zone into which no Bedouin were permitted to enter.
Hafez had followed up on his research by asking his Palestinian informers in Israel about what the town was like now. Following the end of the war, it had been transformed into an Israeli city, with only a very small Arab community, and was considered strategically important by the Jews owing to its reliable water supply and location on a major crossroads. They had repaired the wartime damaged houses and the town was expanding rapidly, being resettled with new immigrants, mostly Sephardi Jews and Mizrahi Jews who had immigrated from Arab countries after the end of the war, as well as some Bene Israel and Cochin Jews from India. Many of the immigrant women had worked as seamstresses in their former countries, and the men in the leatherworking, goldsmithing, food preparation and other services, so the government, being keen to utilise their skills, was in the process of establishing new factories producing much-needed chemicals, porcelain and tiles as well as textiles. The old town still existed, but several new housing projects and farms were being established, and his paid informants living there estimated the population to be around 17,000. Having received this information, Hafez knew it was just the target that he needed to hit with his fedayeen, given the town’s history and the fact that the Jews were now embarking on development projects in the Negev. These had become the targets of theft by the local Bedouin, with the Israeli security forces shooting at them and stirring up a lot of anger. Hafez was confident that to make a successful strike here would be a symbolic dagger thrust into the heart of the future plans of his Israeli enemy, and for him personally a chance to seek revenge for the humiliating defeat inflicted on the Egyptian forces during the war.
Rolling up the map, he put on his jacket and accompanied al-Haridi downstairs to where Sergeant Moussa was waiting outside with the Bedouin recruits.
“Alright, Sergeant Moussa, bring the men in please.”
The twelve Bedouin soldiers in their khaki uniforms filed into the large room on the ground floor of the Egyptian Military HQ building used for briefings and sat on the chairs around the wall. Hafez unrolled the map of the Negev desert and pinned it to the wall. Once Moussa had completed the roll call, he asked them to gather in front of it.
“Now I am going to run through the details of the operation so listen carefully please. If you have any questions, leave them to the end. This line here is the Eilat – Beersheba road running north to south, which is the primary route connecting the port city to central Israel. Here, at this section, we have what is called Route 227 – a 21 mile section of the road in the eastern Negev desert. It was originally laid by the British land surveyors in 1927 and its condition is generally good. Now the part we are most interested in,” he used his pointed stick to indicate it on the map “is just to the south of Maktesh Katan, about 60 miles south of Beersheba, called Scorpion Pass – Ma’ale Akrabim. It’s a very steep, twisted section, about 18 miles long, which starts from the Tzafir stone structure, an old archaeological site in the south, which you can see here. This road has existed for centuries – it goes all the way back to when the Romans first built the ascent from the Wadi Zin to the highlands of the northern Negev desert – which used to run along here – and was later used by the caravans bringing incense from Transjordan to the port of Gaza along the Incense Trail. During the British Mandate, however, the administration slightly rebuilt it to the north, and three years ago my informants tell me the Israeli Army Corps of Engineers paved it and it’s maintained by the Public Works Department of the Ministry of Transportation.
We’ve chosen this particular pass because it’s a steep climb for the vehicles travelling from Eilat through the Zin valley, so they will be travelling slowly. Our target will be one of the buses that are known to frequently use this road, and we expect there to be quite a few as the Red Sea resort will be celebrating one of their religious holidays – what they call a Purin carnival.
Now, turning to logistics. Some of you are now familiar with the tommy gun, so we’ll be arming you with 3 of these for close up killing and you’ll all be carrying small arms. You’ll be wearing your customary black robes and head coverings as we want you to blend in as much as possible with the other Bedouins living in the area. The distance from Gaza to the destination point is around 100 miles, so you’ll be leaving tomorrow and we expect you to reach it around the morning of the 17th March. The man leading you will be Badawi.”
Hafez had spoken to the young Bedouin who, like Muhammad al-Talalka, had done well on the training course and was respected by the other men, particularly for his physical prowess. Although somewhat taciturn, looking into his hard brown eyes Hafez sensed there was a cruel side to him, and just the sort of man who was ruthless enough to defeat the Zionist enemy. He was confident that Badawi had the right skills to lead the other men through the harsh desert terrain that would both be physically taxing and a good first test for sounding out his leadership potential.
“Are there any questions?” he asked, scanning the men in the room.
“Will we be travelling by or night, and what about our food provisions?” one of them asked.
“That will be up to Badawi to decide. If he thinks your unlikely to bump into people then you’ll be travelling by day. You’ll have to work around Netivot and Beersheba but, other than that, there is no other sizable settlements in the area. As for food, you’ll be provided with bread, dates and other dried foodstuffs and make sure you have full goatskins for water. If you manage something to eat along the way, then I’m sure your bellies won’t be rumbling so much” which raised a laugh in the room.
“Are we to shoot all the bus passenger? What about if there are kids on the bus?” another asked.
“You’ll make sure you shoot everyone on site,” Hafez replied, staring at the men before him. “It doesn’t matter if they’re old men, women or children. Kill them all, and I will have Badawi report to me if anyone shirks their duty. The Israeli dogs killed our Arab women and children at Kibbya without a conscience, so you’re going to do exactly the same to them.
“Anything else?” No-one spoke up. “Alright, Sergeant Moussa, if that‘s all then take the men to collect their weapons and other kit and then they can have the rest of the afternoon off to get ready. May God protect you! allah yusallmak!”
Praise be to God! al-Hamdu lillah!,” the men shouted back, as they saluted their officer and filed out of the room.
Mustafa felt the briefing had gone down well and he could see that they were keen to get at the enemy, which pleased him as he was under pressure to achieve a successful incursion into Israel to raise his profile with the new administrative regime back in Cairo. A lot had happened in the last eight months since his meeting with Riad at the Officers Club. The rising nationalist anger against the British so-called ‘veiled protectorate’ that had started with the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 had ended in the coup d’état, as predicted by Riad, which had taken place in July, led by the two generals, Mohammed Neguib and Gamel Abdel Nasser. Control of the Suez Canal, that was so vital to Britain’s imperial trade, and the loss of seventy-eight percent of Palestine, combined with the King’s maladministration of the country’s affairs and the rampant corruption that had enabled the continuing British occupation, had all helped to coalesce the widespread nationalist opposition that had eventually toppled the sybaritic King Farouk.
About the Author
Author Name: Ivan Kinsman
I am a British national who currently lives in Poland, and am married with two teenage children. I have a degree in English Language and Literature from St Andrews University in Scotland and I have been working as a freelance translator and proofreader for the last fourteen years.
I wrote Death in Gaza I think there is a dearth of good fiction for the male reader. I first came across this assassination of the head of Egyptian Military Intelligence in the book ‘Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations’ by Ronen Bergman. This prompted me to research it more and I then undertook extensive research of the historical period in question.
The writers I admire most for their literary style include, among others, William Boyd, Jonathan Raban, Robert Harris, George Orwell, Patrick O’Brian, W. Somerset Maugham, Thomas Hardy, Antony Beevor, Patricia Highsmith and Lawrence Osborne.
Should the novel be of interest, I also have a second novel in mind with the plot centred around a highly audacious attack by Israeli army special forces against Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) targets.