Marcelle Ninio obituary: spy for Israel who took part in planting bombs in Egypt

She was released from prison in 1968 when she and other Israeli agents were exchanged for Egyptian prisoners taken in the Six-Day War

Marcelle Ninio: one of her wedding guests was Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. Photograph: New York Times

Marcelle Ninio: one of her wedding guests was Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. Photograph: New York Times


Marcelle Ninio

Born: November 5th, 1929

Died: October 23rd, 2019

Marcelle Ninio, who was imprisoned for her role in an Israeli spy operation in 1954 that planted bombs at British and American civilian sites in Egypt in a bungled attempt to persuade Britain to keep its troops stationed at the Suez Canal, died on October 23rd in Ramat Gan, Israel, near Tel Aviv. She was 89. Her daughter-in-law, Ronit Nevo Boger, confirmed the death.

Ninio, who was born in Egypt, was a devoted Zionist. She was working as a secretary in Cairo, when she was recruited in 1951 by an Israeli intelligence agent to the secret Unit 131. She was the only woman in a group of about a dozen Egyptians.

The outfit was largely dormant until 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser seized authority in Egypt after leading the coup that overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk two years earlier.

Israel was concerned that Nasser would nationalise the Suez Canal, and block access to a critical shipping route. Unit 131’s mission was to detonate bombs in an operation designed to convince British and American leaders that Nasser could not protect their property or their people. But Operation Susannah, as the mission was called, did nothing to disrupt Western policy toward Egypt.

In July 1954, the unit planted incendiary devices in a post office in Alexandria, and in libraries at the US Information Agency in Cairo and Alexandria. A device meant to detonate at a theatre in Alexandria blew up in the pocket of one of the plotters, setting his clothes afire. His arrest and that of the others in the plot worried Ninio.

Ninio (code name Claude), who was a liaison to the other operatives but not a bomber, fled Cairo in early August, travelling by bus to Ras El Bar, a resort city on the Mediterranean. While eating lunch at a hotel she heard a voice on a loudspeaker summoning her to take a telephone call. When she reached the phone, detectives seized her and took her by train to Cairo, where she was interrogated.

She was slapped, her hair yanked and the bottoms of her feet whipped by bamboo canes, a form of torture called falaka.

“I screamed, I wept, I may even have fainted,” she was quoted as saying in Operation Susannah (1978), by Aviezer Golan. “I don’t remember. Every now and then they would stop the falakas and try persuasion. When they failed, they tried threats. Again, they threatened me with rape, with execution. And again the bamboo cane whistled through the …”

A trial began in late 1954 in Cairo. When it ended early the next year the guilty verdicts carried sentences that included death by hanging for two of the spies and 15-year terms for Ninio and a colleague. She was sent to a women’s prison.

Water network

Victorine Marcelle Ninio was born on November 5th, 1929, to a Jewish family in Cairo. Her father, Ya’acov, fled Bulgaria before the first World War, and supervised projects like the installation of the water network at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Her mother, Fanny, was from Turkey.

After her father died when she was about 10, Marcelle attended various schools, including one for Jewish children and one run by Roman Catholic nuns. She became fluent in English and French, played basketball, and joined a Zionist youth movement.

The botched mission would have severe political repercussions in Israel. Moshe Sharett, the prime minister, said he had not been told of the covert operation. Soon after the trial, Pinhas Lavon, the defence minister, resigned. He claimed he had been unaware of the failed mission, but Col Binyamin Gibli, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, insisted that he had received his orders from Lavon.

The Operation Susannah scandal resurfaced in late 1960, and continued into the next year when prime minister David Ben-Gurion briefly resigned from his position after he publicly disagreed with a report by a ministerial committee that exonerated Lavon of accusations that he had ordered the bombings.

In Israel the mission has been called “the Lavon Affair” and “the Nasty Business”.

Sabotage operation

Ninio was released in 1968 when she and a few other Israeli agents were exchanged for many Egyptian prisoners who had been taken during the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt in 1967.

When she married Ely Boger three years later, one of her guests was prime minister Golda Meir. Her public acceptance of the invitation led Israeli military censors to release far more information about the failed sabotage operation than the public had previously known.

In the foreword to Operation Susannah, Meir described talking to Ninio about her prison life, including her experiences behind bars during the Six-Day War.

“She had an illegal transistor radio on which she listened to the news,” Meir wrote. “Before going to sleep she would turn on the last broadcast of the Israeli radio to hear Hatikvah” – the Israeli national anthem.

After her time in prison Ninio learned Hebrew and graduated from Tel Aviv University, where she studied English literature and art.

Information on Ninio’s survivors was not immediately available.