JERUSALEM — Israel’s state archives has published a 50-year-old letter from the Mossad spy agency claiming it unknowingly offered paramilitary training to a young Nelson Mandela, along with documents illustrating the Jewish state’s sympathy for the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1960s.
The newly published Israeli documents, released weeks after Mandela’s death on Dec. 5, highlight Israeli officials’ voices against apartheid and their attempts to rally international pressure on the South African government to stop the 1964 Rivonia Trial, in which Mandela would be sentenced to life in prison. But perhaps most startling is that the memo, first reported by the Haaretz daily newspaper over the weekend, claims Mandela received paramilitary training from Israeli handlers in Ethiopia in mid-1962 — without them realizing who he was.
The release of the documents on the archives’ Web site appears to be aimed at blunting criticism of the close alliance Israel later developed with South Africa’s apartheid rulers. After the 1973 Mideast war, when dozens of African countries broke diplomatic ties with Israel, the Jewish state formed close military ties with South Africa’s apartheid government.
Israeli relations with post-apartheid South Africa remain cool. The South African government is a fervent supporter of the Palestinian cause. Early this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was conspicuously absent from Mandela’s funeral.
The Oct. 11, 1962 memo, labeled “Top Secret,” suggests the Israeli trainers thought the man they later discovered was Mandela was from Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — where African nationalists at the time were struggling against colonial rule. According to the memo, a man named “David Mobsari who came from Rhodesia” met with officials several months earlier at the Israeli Embassy in Ethiopia, expressing interest in the tactics of the Hagana, the pre-Israel Jewish resistance movement against British rulers.
Only after Mandela was arrested and his picture was published did the Israelis determine his true identity, the letter says, referring to him as the “Black Pimpernel,” a widely used moniker at the time.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, an official organization dedicated to promoting his legacy, has questioned the account. While confirming that Mandela toured African countries that year, and even received military training in Ethiopia, it said there was no evidence that he had any contact with Israelis.
“In 2009, the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s senior researcher traveled to Ethiopia and interviewed the surviving men who assisted in Mandela’s training — no evidence emerged of an Israeli connection,” it said.