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Yossi Harel: Commander of the 'Exodus'

Yossi Harel, who as a young intelligence officer in 1947 commanded the illegal immigrant boat Exodus, was one of Israel's more anonymous heroes. Until the 60th anniversary of the epic voyage that bore about 4,500 Holocaust survivors from Europe to Haifa and back, he seldom talked about his role in one of the tipping points of Zionist history.

His daughter Sharon said after his death that she only learned about it in primary school when a teacher asked her to tell the Exodus story to her classmates. Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, eulogised Harel as "a very brave man, but a secret brave man". Yoram Kaniuk, Harel's biographer, said he was the kind of intelligence man who swore an oath of secrecy when they joined and kept it "even when they didn't need to any more".

The Exodus, a converted 200-berth Chesapeake Bay steamer originally called the USS President Warfield, was one of four boats Harel commanded in an attempt to run the British blockade of Palestine, which they ruled under a League of Nations Mandate. Between them, the four ferried nearly 25,000 Jews from the displaced persons' camps towards the Promised Land.

After being commandeered as a troop carrier in the Second World War, the President Warfield was sent home to be sold for scrap. American Jews bought it for $40,000. One of them, who saw it in Baltimore harbour, scorned it as a hulk. "It was," Avi Livney recalled, "an embarrassment, not a ship." As the Exodus, it owed its fame to an extraordinary act of British insensitivity.

It sailed from the port of Sête, near Marseilles, on 11 July 1947, with 4,515 immigrants, including 655 children, and a mixed crew of American volunteers and Palestinian Jews. Yossi Harel was in overall command with Ike Aronowitz, a Polish-born veteran of the British merchant marine, as the captain. British destroyers shadowed it across the Mediterranean as soon as it left French waters. Harel had an elaborate plan to shake them off during the night, but the navy struck first.

On 18 July, some 22 miles off the coast of Palestine, the British ordered him to surrender. Instead, he ordered Aronowitz to sail for Haifa. One of the destroyers rammed the bow. A boarding party, wielding rifle butts and hose pipes, was met with a barrage of tinned foods. But when commandos seized the wheel Harel pulled rank on Aronowitz, who wanted to go on resisting, and surrendered. He didn't want the Holocaust survivors, poor people just out of the camps, to die fighting the Zionists' war. Two immigrants and a member of the crew were killed in the encounter and 30 wounded.

The Exodus was towed to Haifa, where the immigrants were forced into three prison ships that took them back to France. When they refused to disembark at Port-de-Bouc, near Marseilles, for 24 days, despite rapidly deteriorating conditions, the French government declined to take them off by force. The British then ferried them to Germany, where they were detained in two former Nazi camps. The Zionist propaganda machine had a field day. The story inspired a (notoriously inaccurate) Leon Uris novel and a Hollywood blockbuster starring Paul Newman as the Yossi Harel figure.

Abba Eban, a young Zionist official and future foreign minister, had invited members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, which was trying to find a solution for the mandated territory, to observe the struggle in Haifa port. "When they came back," he wrote in his memoirs, "they were pale with shock. I could see that they were preoccupied with one point alone: if this was the only way that the British Mandate would continue, it would be better not to continue it at all."

Yosef Harel (originally Hamburger) was born in 1918 in Jerusalem, where his family had lived for six generations. He joined Haganah, the clandestine Jewish defence force, at 15 and was recruited by the maverick British colonel Orde Wingate five years later for his Special Night Squads to counter an Arab revolt. In 1941, Harel joined the Palmach, Haganah's strike force, soon transferring to the Palyam, its naval unit.

In the 1950s he went to the United States to study naval architecture. Moshe Dayan, the Chief of Staff, summoned him home to investigate the "Lavon affair", in which an Israeli spy and sabotage ring was uncovered in Egypt. He recommended the Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, to dismiss the people responsible for the fiasco. Ben-Gurion assigned him to rebuild military intelligence from the ground up.

From there, he went into private business, at one point importing tinned meat from Ethiopia. Despite his penchant for secrecy, contemporaries found him handsome, charming and gregarious. From time to time he lent his services to the Mossad spy agency. In later years, he collected and dealt in avant-garde art.

Eric Silver

Yosef Hamburger (Yossi Harel), intelligence officer: born Jerusalem 14 January 1918; married 1950 Julie Berez (one son, two daughters); died Tel Aviv 26 April 2008.