- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (UPI) — Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia shuttle disaster Saturday, was something of an exception in the Israeli air force.

The military in Israel, especially its air force, traditionally tends to keep information concerning its pilots a closely guarded secret. Even their names are not revealed and rarely, if ever, are photographs of them published. However, the life and accomplishments of Col. Ilan Ramon was practically an open book — a book of heroic exploits in Israel.

Ramon, the Jewish state's first venturer into space, had become somewhat of an icon. He was seen as a national hero at a time of great uncertainty in the country.

As Israel tried to come to grips with the harsh realities of continued terrorist attacks by Palestinian extremists, an uncertain and faltering economy, and the specter of a war in Iraq — a war in which Israel feared Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could unleash weapons of mass destruction on it, Ramon was the one bright spot on the otherwise dark horizon.

On Saturday morning, the Sabbath in Israel, that hope was suddenly extinguished.

Ramon, one of the seven ill-fated astronauts on board the space shuttle Columbia, met with a tragic fate when the shuttle broke apart over eastern Texas, barely 15 minutes before it was due to land in Florida after a 16-day mission.

Ramon's popularity during last month's elections surpassed that of political candidates vying for the post of prime minister. Had he run for office, he would have most certainly been in a position to out-perform the Likud candidate, Ariel Sharon, the clear winner of the January elections.

Ironically, as preparations for war against Iraq are under way to prevent what the Bush administration believes is Saddam Hussein's refusal to disarm his nation of weapons of mass destruction, Ramon was widely believed to have been one of the pilots involved in Israel's daring air raid on Iraq's nuclear facility in Osirak, in 1981.

"It's been reported that Ramon was one of the pilots," admitted Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, speaking to United Press International shortly after the disaster. But in keeping with Israel's tradition of secrecy when relating to its air force, Regev quickly added, "I don't think I can confirm that." (UPI Saturday independently confirmed Ramon's role.)

Osirak was Iraq's first attempt at acquiring nuclear weapons. The reactor near Baghdad had been built with French assistance shortly after Saddam came to power. Intelligence specialists differed over the time Osirak's facility would have been in a position to produce a nuclear weapon. Estimates varied from one to 10 years. Regardless, Israel decided the risk of a nuclear-armed Iraq was not worth waiting for.

Israel's attack on the facility, 680 miles from Israel, was meticulously planned. The Israeli air force selected the attack crew from the elite of the country's flying corps. They practiced on full mockups until there was no room left for error. Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, briefed the pilots personally, telling them, "The alternative is our destruction."

Taking off from Etzion Air Force Base in the south of the country on June 7, F15 and F16 fighter planes flew at low-levels over Jordan and Iraq to avoid detection from Arab radars. They arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad an hour and a half later. The attack took barely one minute and 20 seconds.

Ramon was also a veteran of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, called the October War in the Arab world, and known as the Yom Kippur War in Israel. He also participated in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when Ariel Sharon, then defense minister, launched what he called Operation Peace for Galilee to oust the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon.

Iraqis meanwhile are calling the loss of the shuttle "an act of God." Ironically, some of the debris from the shuttle has landed in a Texan town called Palestine, (but pronounced Palesteen).

The presence of an Israeli aboard the shuttle naturally raised the prospect of terrorism, but a White House official, speaking on background, said there was no reason to believe the shuttle breakup was anything other than an accident. "There is no reason to believe there are any links to terrorism, but we are fully investigating," the official said.

In shock and utter disbelief, people in Israel are calling this disaster a national tragedy. As one CBS correspondent reporting from Israel said, "This is a fairy tale with a bad ending."

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