The Red Sea Diving Resort: How Israeli Spies Accidentally Created a Successful Hotel -to rescue Ethiopian Jew refugees


The Red Sea Diving Resort: How Israeli Spies Accidentally Created a Successful Hotel

Netflix’s new film, directed by Gideon Raff and starring Chris Evans, is based on a real-life story you need to read to believe.



By Marcos Cruz/Netflix.

In the 1980s, a waterfront resort called Arous holiday village opened on Sudan’s Red Sea coastline. The property was advertised with colorful pamphlets teasing beautiful, bronze scuba diving tourists; “some of the best, clearest water in the world”; windsurfing; and at night, “breathtaking views of the heavens, aflame with millions of stars.” Billed as the “diving and desert recreation center of Sudan,” the resort was a success during the few years it was open—quite a feat, considering that the hotel was actually an elaborate front for one of the most inventive undercover espionage operations in recent memory.

Israel’s national intelligence agency, Mossad, had purchased the resort as a means to smuggle Ethiopian Jews, who were fleeing a bloody civil war, into Israel. The waterfront location simultaneously gave the agents cover and a Red Sea escape route. At night, while Arous’ unsuspecting guests were sleeping, the Mossad agents who had been manning the front desk during the day would travel inland to rescue Ethiopian Jew refugees—smuggling them back to Arous, and arranging nearby meetups with Israeli naval commandos to transport them to their new home.

Israeli filmmaker Gideon Raff—who created the original Homeland TV series—told Vanity Fair that he was stunned to learn of the operation. “I heard about the bigger aerial lifts,” Raff said—referring to the cargo planes used to fly thousands of Ethiopian Jews to safety in the 1980s. “But I never heard about this hotel.” Raff was so intrigued that he flew to Israel to track down Mossad agents who had actually worked at Arous, as well as some of the Ethiopians who courageously left their homes so they could flee to Jerusalem. Said Raff, “I found the story so appealing, so humbling, that I had to drop everything and tell it.”

The result of that research, The Red Sea Diving Resort, debuted on Netflix Wednesday, with Chris Evans playing a Mossad agent and Michael K. Williams playing a rebel leader who team up to rescue oppressed Ethiopian Jews. Both characters are composites of the real-life figures Raff met with while researching the operation, with Williams’s character inspired by Ferede Aklum, the Mossad agent who led the first group of Ethiopian Jews into Sudan. “He sent letters to every Jewish organization in the world, saying, ‘We’re starting our journey—our exodus,’” explained Raff. “‘And we’re crossing the desert into Sudan. And we’re coming to Israel.’ He partnered with a Mossad agent named Danny Limor, who was the first commander of this operation. Danny, in one of his trips to Ethiopia and to Sudan, stumbled on this hotel and convinced the Mossad that this is the cover that they should have.”

Raff and his production team recreated Arous in Namibia by studying actual pictures taken near the hotel—many of which included drunk tourists.

Raff encountered so many incredible stories about the difficulties of balancing both a functional resort with an undercover intelligence operation that he couldn’t include them all in his film. During one such story, agents were trying to covertly sneak persecuted Ethiopians into trucks while simultaneously dealing with a shampoo- and towel-related issue at the resort. There were also close calls when the Mossad agents, who needed to pass as non-Israeli, nearly blew their covers.

“The Mossad had to recruit people who had international backgrounds” and “spoke fluently in a different language,” explained Raff. During one such incident, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a Canadian guest reportedly “took a diving instructor aside and stated, matter-of-factly and in Hebrew, that he knew the staff couldn’t possibly be European. In fact, he was sure they were Israelis…. He had watched the staffers prepare their breakfast every morning—and ‘only Israelis cut their salad vegetables so thin,’ he said. To the agent’s relief, the guest kept the secret to himself.”