Israeli Mossad agents operating in Ethiopia in 1962 unwittingly trained Nelson Mandela in hand-to-hand combat, weaponry and sabotage, according to a document released by Israel's state archives.
A letter from a Mossad official to the foreign ministry, dated 11 October 1962 titled “THE BLACK PIMPERNEL” and released to the public on Sunday, recalls a conversation in which “we discussed a trainee in Ethiopia named David Mobasari, from Rhodesia”.
“The aforementioned was trained by the Ethiopians in Judo, sabotage and weapons,” the letter read.
“The Black Pimpernel" was the nickname given at the time to Mandela, the revered anti-apartheid hero and former ANC leader who died this month, while he was on the run from white South Africa during the liberation struggle.
According to Haaretz newspaper, which first reported the story, the term "Ethiopians” was probably a code name for Israeli Mossad agents working in Ethiopia.
“He greeted our men with (Hebrew salutation) ‘Shalom’, was familiar with the problems of (Jewish diaspora) and Israel and created the impression of an educated man,” the letter read.
“The Ethiopians tried to make him a Zionist.”
“It now emerges from photographs in newspapers on the arrest of the Black Pimpernel in South Africa that the trainee from Rhodesia was using a pseudonym, and the two are actually the same person,” the letter read.
According to the letter, Mandela took an interest in the methods of the Hagana and Jewish militias that existed before Israel's creation in 1948.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, however, said in a statement that “it has not located any evidence in Nelson Mandela's private archive (which includes his 1962 diary and notebook) that he interacted with an Israeli operative during his tour of African countries in that year”.
Mandela “received military training from Algerian freedom fighters in Morocco and from the Ethiopian Riot Battalion at Kolfe outside Addis Ababa, before returning to South Africa in July 1962,” the foundation said.
“In 2009 the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s senior researcher travelled to Ethiopia and interviewed the surviving men who assisted in Mandela’s training -– no evidence emerged of an Israeli connection,” it added.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was chastised at home for not going to Mandela's funeral because of “high costs”, with a parliamentary delegation attending instead.
Israel was one of South Africa's closest allies when Pretoria, which had imprisoned Mandela, was facing UN-led sanctions in the late 1970s.