Operation Opera marked a pivotal moment in Middle East history. With this audacious operation, the Israel Air Force countered the burgeoning nuclear threat from Iraq. The operation was not only a remarkable military achievement, but also a critical moment in Israel’s defense strategy.
At 3:50 p.m. on June 7, 1981, eight F-16 fighter-bombers and six F-15s took off from what was then the Israeli base at Etzion in the Sinai Peninsula. They flew a distance of around 1,100 km at an altitude of just 90 to 150 meters (around 100 feet) over the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian border areas. In order to fool Saudi, Jordanian and Iraqi air defenses, the pilots communicated in Arabic.
The first attack on the reactor took place at around 5:31 p.m. The operation was completed within two minutes. Of a total of 16 Mark-84 bombs dropped, 14 hit the reactor building directly. The attack resulted in the destruction of the reactor building, killing 11 people, including a French technician.
Among the pilots who formed the final attack formation was future astronaut Ilan Ramon. He reported intense smoke from inside the reactor and a massive explosion that did not cause the building to collapse.
Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor was seen as a direct threat to Israel. Construction of the nuclear facility began two years before the operation, led by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The plant was built as part of an agreement with France, which promised to build two nuclear plants – Tammuz-1 and -2, for the Iraqis.
Operation Opera was considered a success, with all pilots safely returning to Israel. The Iraqi government had been prevented from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction. The balance of power in the region was preserved and Israel’s security ensured.
Despite the mission’s success, Israel’s actions drew international criticism. The United Nations Security Council, in Resolution 487 (1981), condemned Israel’s attack on the International Atomic Energy Agency-approved nuclear facility in Iraq and called for a halt to hostile activities. Iraq was empowered to seek reparations and Israel was urged to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.
Today, Israel faces another nuclear threat. This time from Iran. Since the Biden administration has been trying to renew the Iran nuclear deal, Israel has been seriously considering attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons and fulfilling its dream of destroying Israel.
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