On a warm summer night nearly four decades ago, Israeli military attache Joseph Alon was shot five times in the driveway of his Chevy Chase, Md., home, one of the bullets piercing his heart.
For his family, the hole remains.
“I remember everything,” said Yael Alon-Rosenchein, Mr. Alon’s daughter, who was 14 years old at the time of the murder. “It was very, very emotional. It still is.”
The ongoing mystery surrounding the death of Alon, the first foreign diplomat ever murdered in the nation’s capital, is explored in the Israeli documentary film “Who Shot My Father? The Story of Joe Alon,” which makes its American debut Tuesday night as part of the 22nd annual Washington Jewish Film Festival.
Directed by Liora Amir Barmatz, the film tells the story of Alon, a charismatic war hero, and the determined efforts of his grief-stricken daughters, Ms. Alon-Rosenschein and Rachel Alon-Margalit, to uncover the truth about his killing.
Also featured in the film is Fred Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism agent who grew up near the Alon family and recently wrote a book about his lifelong effort to crack the unsolved case, a tangled saga of international terrorism and Middle East geopolitics with hints of a Cold War conspiracy.
“It was almost a perfect storm of variables that caused this case to slip through the cracks,” said Mr. Burton, vice president of the Texas-based private intelligence company Stratfor and the author of “Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent’s Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice.” “But cold cases are solvable if you get enough people and attention paid to them.”
In cold blood
Two summers ago, Ms. Alon-Margalit and Ms. Alon-Rosenschein came from Israel to meet Mr. Burton outside their family’s former American home, the first time the sisters had returned to the scene of their father’s death. With them was Kent Holden, one of the paramedics who treated Mr. Alon.
“Why couldn’t you just sew the heart?” Ms. Alon-Rosenchein said. “Take that one [bullet] out and make him come back?”
Early on the morning of July 1, 1973, Mr. Alon and his wife, Devora, returned home from a dinner party for a departing Israeli Embassy staffer. Mrs. Alon exited the couple’s green sedan and headed for their front porch; Mr. Alon was reaching into the back seat to retrieve his jacket when an unknown gunman standing roughly 6 feet away shot him with a foreign-made .38-caliber revolver.
Mrs. Alon saw a white car drive away, then ran inside and called for help. She and her eldest daughter, Dalia, then 18, tried to stanch Mr. Alon’s bleeding with bathroom towels.
The killing was front-page news, shocking Washington. Serving a three-year diplomatic posting, the 43-year-old Alon was a gregarious regular on the military and political cocktail circuits, well liked by his Pentagon counterparts.
Born on a Kibbutz in Palestine in 1929, Alon moved with his parents to Czechoslovakia and survived the Holocaust when his family sent him to England in the early days of World War II. He subsequently became an ace Israeli fighter pilot, commanding the nation’s first squadron of French-built Mirage fighter jets and devising air combat tactics that helped his nation triumph in the Six Day War of 1967.
In Washington, Alon was integral to Israel’s acquisition of U.S.-made F-4 Phantom fighters. He also was a likely source of intelligence on the combat performance of American hardware against the Soviet-supplied militaries of Egypt and Syria.
Within 48 hours of Alon’s murder, his body and family were sent home on Air Force Two, reportedly at the behest of President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
At a memorial service, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan blamed Arab terrorists for Alon’s death. After determining that the killing was neither a botched robbery nor a crime of passion, the Federal Bureau of Investigation focused on Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group responsible for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
In March 1973, Black September attempted to set off three car bombs in New York during a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, part of a clandestine war of targeted killings between the Jewish state and its Arab enemies.
Despite an extensive investigation that reportedly involved running down a 90-person list of people classified as terrorists, checking out leads supplied by Israeli intelligence, and looking into Arab faculty and students at Washington-area universities, the FBI was unable to locate a murder weapon, develop a suspect or make a single arrest.
In 1976, the agency officially closed the case.
“Back then, there was no DNA, no computers, no cellphones,” Mr. Burton said. “The original FBI case agent had never investigated a murder before. The local agents were busy running Watergate leads and leads on ‘Hoover subversives.’ The police and the FBI were not equipped to investigate this kind of attack.”
A mystery deepens
Every night was the same: Mr. Burton would finish his shift as a Montgomery County police detective, then drive past the former Alon residence on his way home, sleepless and troubled.
“I must have drove by the house a hundred times, just thinking about what happened, tracing how I thought the bad guys got away,” he said. “I grew up on those streets. It stuck with me.”
At the time of Alon’s death, Mr. Burton was 16. He didn’t know the Alon family, even though he lived around the corner from their house and went to the same high school as their daughter Dalia.
Still, the killing haunted him. He signed on with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad — the same unit that had transported Alon to nearby Suburban Hospital — and then became a police officer, regularly discussing the case with his colleagues.
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Burton joined the counterterrorism division of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service. Busy investigating embassy bombings and airline hijackings, he nevertheless began looking into Alon’s death — and amid a series of dead ends and deceased possible sources, he was stunned to discover that in 1977 the FBI destroyed all evidence in the case, including the fatal copper-jacketed bullet.
“When I told the original FBI case agent about that, he was shocked,” Mr. Burton said. “To be blunt, I think our government did a very poor job looking at this.”
Like Mr. Burton, Alon’s widow also had been searching for answers. Atop a piano inside her family’s living room in Israel, Mrs. Alon kept a shrine to her departed spouse. Photos. Military medals. A single fresh rose, perpetually replaced and in bloom.
“You felt my father’s presence when you came home,” Ms. Alon-Rosenschein said. “Always. You couldn’t miss it.”
Twice in the 1970s, Mrs. Alon returned to the United States, determined to uncover the truth; twice, her daughters said, she was stonewalled by Israeli officials — many of them family friends, one of them future Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — and returned home brokenhearted.
The message was consistent: Devora, there is nothing we can tell you. Let it go. Move on with your life.
Mrs. Alon died from cancer in 1995. Her daughters refused to move on. In 2003, they met with former Israeli intelligence chief Ephraim Halevy. Nothing. They also made a formal request to Israel’s ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs for documents related to the murder; in response, they received a 1½-page memo that briefly summarized the FBI’s investigation, asserted that the Israeli government had no standing in the matter and advised the Alon daughters to appeal to the American government on their own.
Deeply dissatisfied, Ms. Alon-Margalit and Ms. Alon-Rosenschein petitioned the High Court of Israel, demanding that the state open all of its records regarding the case and also petition the United States on their behalf.
In 2005, the court ruled in their favor. But the resulting document dump — thousands of pages, many of them redacted — left them with no suspects, no motive and more questions than answers.
“We were pretty much where we started,” Ms. Alon-Rosenschein said.
A cold case heats up
In 2006, Mr. Burton received a tip: The Montgomery County detective who had canvassed the crime scene told him that Israeli Gen. Mordechai Gur had come to the Alon home on the night of the murder and claimed that Alon was an intelligence agent.
Meanwhile, a 2007 Associated Press investigation by reporters Adam Goldman and Randy Herschaft revealed that in 1977 the FBI had investigated a Central Intelligence Agency report that Black September had been responsible for the crime, an operation carried out by a two-man hit team that had entered the United States through Canada, travelling as students on either Lebanese or Cypriot passports.
Following the article’s publication, imprisoned terrorist Carlos the Jackal claimed in a letter that he knew the names of the Black September members involved and that the plan was called “Operation Alon.”
Partnering with the original FBI agent and the local cold-case detective who worked Alon’s murder, Mr. Burton resumed digging, reaching out to contacts in American intelligence, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. He also linked up with the Alon daughters, the three of them exchanging information and moral support via phone calls, emails and Skype.
Palestinian sources told Mr. Burton that Alon was a Black September target and that his assassination was ordered by now-deceased terrorist mastermind Abu Iyyad, whom Mr. Burton describes as “the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed” of the group.
Mr. Burton also asserts that Mr. Alon was involved with Israeli intelligence — in part because his daughters remember a mysterious machine in their home that may have been a clandestine communication device, in part because Mr. Burton uncovered information indicating that Alon attempted to cultivate a mole within Black September, meeting at least once with Khalid Al-Jawary, a terrorist who was convicted in the failed 1973 New York bomb plot.
“Before Joe was murdered, we had Israel’s version of FBI agents killed in Europe in a very similar fashion, killed by double agents,” Mr. Burton said. “There appears to have been a very good counterintelligence effort by Black September to identify who was meeting with Palestinian informants. We had Joe meeting with Palestinian subversives in New York. It’s not beyond a reasonable doubt that Joe possibly even knew his killer.”
In his book, Mr. Burton claims that he knows who shot and killed Alon, a man whom, for legal reasons, he identifies by a pseudonym, “Hassan Ali.”
“Ali was a Palestinian foot solider,” Mr. Burton said. “After the murder, he fled the United States and resettled in the Palestinian community in Brazil. Eventually, he made his way back to Lebanon, where he was under the protection of Hezbollah.”
Today, Mr. Burton believes that Ali is dead. The reason?
In December 2009, Mr. Burton passed the suspected killer’s real name to his contacts in Israeli intelligence. Two months later, he received a text message in response.
The matter has been resolved, it read.
While Mr. Burton is confident that the Alon case finally has been put to rest, Ms. Alon-Margalit and Ms. Alon-Rosenschein remain dubious.
Calling Mr. Burton’s conclusion “optimistic,” the Alon daughters cite a lack of concrete evidence. Moreover, they’re not convinced that Black September was responsible for the murder.
Instead, they believe what their mother believed: that their father was killed for knowing too much.
In Israel — and in the documentary film — the conspiracy theory goes like this: Mr. Kissinger and Israeli leaders conspired to allow an alliance of Arab armies to strike first in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, giving the Arabs a face-saving early military victory that set the stage for an American-brokered peace between Israel and Egypt, with the added Cold War bonus of turning the Soviet-backed Egyptian military into a Pentagon client.
According to the theory, Alon was silenced for discovering the truth about the impending Arab attack, which took place just three months after his murder.
“Our gut feeling goes toward the theory that it is an American doing it, with Israelis knowing about it and being silent,” Ms. Alon-Margalit said.
“My mother was quite certain that the Americans did it,” Ms. Alon-Rosenschein said. “I’m not sure it’s connected to the Yom Kippur War, but it has to do with security issues, no doubt.”
Mr. Burton said he found no evidence supporting such claims. But given the intrigue surrounding Alon’s murder and the psychic scars of the Yom Kippur War, he understands the Alon daughters’ frustration and lingering doubts.
“Remember, the Yom Kippur War was basically Israel’s 9-11,” Mr. Burton said. “All kinds of intelligence surfacing about the Arab invasion, and yet Israel was caught blindsided. It’s still controversial to this day.
“[The Alon] case brings all of that up. I think it opens a few wounds that a lot of people there would rather be left alone.”
While participating in the documentary film has brought Ms. Alon-Margalit and Ms. Alon-Rosenschein a measure of peace, the ongoing secrecy surrounding their father’s death has shaken their faith in the United States — and also in Israel, the same nation Alon fought to preserve.
“Israel is my only home, and I don’t want to throw mud in anybody’s face,” Ms. Alon-Margalit said. “I just want things to be better in the next generation. The hiding policy, the covering, it was maybe essential in the early years of establishing the state. But it can’t continue. We are certain that there are people who know what happened.”
“Thirty-eight years have passed,” Ms. Alon-Rosenschein said. “This is the time to bring the truth forward.”
TITLE: “Who Shot My Father? The Story of Joe Alon”
WHERE: Washington Jewish Film Festival, Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW
WHEN: Tuesday at 6 p.m.
WHAT: Lunch and discussion about “Who Shot My Father? The Story of Joe Alon” with film director Liora Amir Barmatz; Rachel Alon-Margalit and Yael Alon-Rosenshain, daughters of Joe Alon; Fred Burton, author of “Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent’s Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice”
WHERE: Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW
WHEN: Wednesday at noon