In the morning of the mission on 7 June 1981, before taking off in the American F-16 fighter jet that would bomb Osirak, Iraq's nuclear reactor that reportedly developed weapons of mass destruction, Zeev Raz felt no fear. Rather, he was burdened by the responsibility that lay on his shoulders.
"There was lots of tension. When you are the lead pilot, it is totally different. You don't think about your life or the family you are leaving behind. All you focus on is the logistics and the target."
Located a thousand kilometres away from Israel and 17 kilometres southeast of Baghdad, "the target" was considered a serious threat for Israel, whose leadership suspected that the weapons of mass destruction allegedly developed there would be used against the Jewish state. Iraq denied these allegations, saying the site was intended for peaceful purposes only.
But getting to the location with eight American jets, each carrying two 1,000 kg bombs, was not an easy task, and Raz together with his team of seven pilots had to overcome a number of difficulties before they could reach the destination.
"When I was called into the office of my commander a year before the operation, the first thing I inquired about was whether we had enough fuel to reach the site."
The trouble was that they had barely enough. Back in 1981, when then-prime minister Menachem Begin made the decision to attack, Israel didn't have the option to refuel in midair, a capability that came only a year later. Nor could they stop en route to Baghdad, as their way lay through states that had no diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv and stopping in one of them would be suicidal.
But postponing the operation was not an option. In 1981, Iraq's nuclear reactor was still inactive but was supposed to turn into "a hot" one a year later. The repercussions of bombing such a site would be devastating for the environment and could potentially claim the lives of many, a price that Tel Aviv was not ready to pay.
"That's why we needed to take the opportunity and attack and I was certain that on our way there or the way out I would need to shoot down a lot of Iraqi jets," recalled Raz.
Yet, he didn't. Despite the fact that the attack was carried out in the middle of the raging Iran-Iraq war that would presuppose a high level of alertness among the Iraqis, their defence system left much to be desired.
The fact that their reactor had been attacked a year earlier by the Iranians, who'd failed to cause it any serious damage, didn't make Baghdad boost the security around it either, a mistake exploited by Israelis.
"They were simply not ready, which was astonishing. I was pretty sure that they would intercept us 15 minutes into the operation or certainly on our way out," explained Raz, whose commanders gave the team some dates and Iraqi money so they could survive in the event of their jets being shot down and the crew captured.
But not only didn't that happen, they also made it safely back to Tel Aviv. The reason for this, believes Raz, was good intelligence coupled with months of excellent training and meticulous preparations and calculations.
The only thing they weren't prepared for was the international rebuke their operation would cause once the strike was exposed to the general public.
Was the Attack Worth It?
Apart from being condemned by the US, Israel's staunch ally, and the UN, which passed a resolution against Tel Aviv condemning it for the attack and the killing of ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian, the operation also undermined Israel's relations with France, that has built the Iraqi reactor and drew criticism from the international press, which denounced it as a "sneak attack" and "short-sighted aggression".
For Menachem Begin and his commanders, however, the outcome was worth every penalty thrown their way.
Three days after the bombing, Israel's then-chief of general staff Rafi Eitan sent a letter to the South African minister of defence explaining the stance of the Jewish state.
"We did the deed with iron determination not to allow these crazy Arabs to possess nuclear weapons... we are not perturbed by all 'the righteous souls' that all the crocodiles in South African rivers could not provide with enough tears to wipe out their hypocrisy... there will definitely rise an outcry in the world but the alternative to our existence could have been worse sevenfold," he wrote.
Iraq has never been able to rebuild that reactor and in 2010 the Iraqi government even considered suing Israel over the losses Baghdad had suffered as a result of the strike, plans that haven't materialised.
More important, however, was the fact that it was the first time that the Israeli lawmakers authorised such an operation, setting up a precedent for future governments.
In addition, it was reported that the Jewish state has attempted to sabotage Iran's nuclear programme, claiming Tehran uses the facility to generate a bomb that will be used to eliminate Israel - allegations that the Islamic Republic denies.
For Raz, this policy makes perfect sense.
"Although I believe that the way to survive in the Middle East is not through bombing but rather through making peace, the way we did in 1979 and 1994," he said referring to the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, "I do think the repercussions of not bombing that reactor could have been dire for Israel. Iran is a challenge too and I totally understand why we don't want it to acquire weapons of mass destruction".