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Marcelle Ninio, Spy for Israel Imprisoned in Egypt, Dies at 89

Marcelle Ninio, who was imprisoned for her role in an Israeli spy operation in 1954 that planted bombs at British and American civilian sites in Egypt in a bungled attempt to persuade Britain to keep its troops stationed at the Suez Canal, died on Oct. 23 in Ramat Gan, Israel, near Tel Aviv. She was 89.

Her daughter-in-law Ronit Nevo Boger confirmed the death.

Ms. Ninio, who was born in Egypt, was a devoted Zionist. She was working as a secretary in Cairo when she was recruited in 1951 by an Israeli intelligence agent to the secret Unit 131. She was the only woman in a group of about a dozen Egyptians.

The outfit was largely dormant until 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser seized authority in Egypt after leading the coup that overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk two years earlier. Israel was concerned that Nasser would nationalize the Suez Canal and block access to a critical shipping route.

Unit 131’s mission was to detonate bombs, in an operation designed to convince British and American leaders that Nasser could not protect their property or their people.

But Operation Susannah, as the mission was called, did nothing to disrupt Western policy toward Egypt.

In July 1954, the unit planted incendiary devices in a post office in Alexandria, and in libraries at the United States Information Agency in Cairo and Alexandria. A device meant to detonate at a theater in Alexandria blew up in the pocket of one of the plotters, setting his clothes afire. His arrest and that of the others in the plot worried Ms. Ninio.

Ms. Ninio (code name: Claude), who was a liaison to the other operatives but not a bomber, fled Cairo in early August, traveling by bus to Ras El Bar, a resort city on the Mediterranean. While eating lunch at a hotel, she heard a voice on a loudspeaker summon her to take a telephone call. When she reached the phone, detectives seized her and took her by train to Cairo, where she was interrogated.

She was slapped, her hair yanked and the bottoms of her feet whipped by bamboo canes, a form of torture called falaka.

“I screamed, I wept, I may even have fainted,” she was quoted as saying in “Operation Susannah” (1978), by Aviezer Golan. “I don’t remember. Every now and then, they would stop the falakas and try persuasion. When they failed they tried threats. Again, they threatened me with rape, with execution.”

“And again,” she added, “the bamboo cane whistled through the air …”

A trial began in late 1954 in Cairo. When it ended early the next year, the guilty verdicts carried sentences that included death by hanging for two of the spies and 15-year terms for Ms. Ninio and a colleague. She was sent to a women’s prison.

Victorine Marcelle Ninio was born on Nov. 5, 1929, to a Jewish family in Cairo. Her father, Ya’acov, fled Bulgaria before World War I and supervised projects like the installation of the water network at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Her mother, Fanny, was from Turkey.

After her father died when she was about 10, Marcelle attended various schools, including one for Jewish children and one run by Roman Catholic nuns. She became fluent in English and French, played basketball and joined a Zionist youth movement.

By 1951, an Israeli intelligence agent, Avraham Dar, was in Cairo working with the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, to recruit young men for Unit 131. A friend of Ms. Ninio’s introduced her to a man who brought her to meet Mr. Dar, who used the name John Darling. They came up with the cover story that she had been hired as Mr. Dar’s part-time secretary. But in reality, she would be the contact between the unit’s cells in Cairo and in Alexandria.

“She knew she was engaged in a matter which was illegal and perilous and was surprised to find herself totally unafraid,” Mr. Golan wrote. “To tell the truth, she was not fully aware of the danger.”

The botched mission would have severe political repercussions in Israel.

Moshe Sharett, the prime minister, said he had not been told of the covert operation. Soon after the trial, Pinhas Lavon, the defense minister, resigned. He claimed he had been unaware of the failed mission, but Col. Binyamin Gibli, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, insisted that he had received his orders from Mr. Lavon.

(Nasser did nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956, leading to the Suez crisis, in which Israel invaded Egypt in late October, followed by British and French troops.)

The Operation Susannah scandal resurfaced in late 1960 and continued into the next year when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion briefly resigned from his position after he publicly disagreed with a report by a ministerial committee that exonerated Mr. Lavon of accusations that he had ordered the bombings.

In Israel, the mission has been called “the Lavon Affair” and “the Nasty Business.”

Ms. Ninio was released in 1968 when she and a few other Israeli agents were exchanged for many Egyptian prisoners who had been taken during the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt in 1967.

When she married Ely Boger three years later, one of her guests was Prime Minister Golda Meir. Her public acceptance of the invitation led Israeli military censors to release far more information about the failed sabotage operation than the public had previously known.

In the foreword to “Operation Susannah,” Ms. Meir described talking to Ms. Ninio about her prison life, including her experiences behind bars during the Six-Day War.

“She had an illegal transistor radio on which she listened to the news,” Ms. Meir wrote. “Before going to sleep she would turn on the last broadcast of the Israeli radio to hear ‘Hatikvah’” — the Israeli national anthem.

After her time in prison, Ms. Ninio learned Hebrew and graduated from Tel Aviv University, where she studied English literature and art.

In the years following her release, she expressed different emotions about her incarceration. In 1975, appearing on Israeli television, she voiced frustration that Israeli politicians had not freed her and her companions much sooner than they did.

But when she was interviewed by Maariv, a Hebrew-language newspaper, in 1986, she said: “Life is short and beautiful and should not be wasted on bitterness. Look at the beautiful country we have.”

Information on Ms. Ninio’s survivors was not immediately available.

In 2005 she and the two other surviving members of Operation Susannah, Robert Dassa and Meir Zafran, were given military ranks in the Israel Defense Forces for their service to the country.

“This is historic justice for those who were sent on a mission on behalf of the state,” Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, the I.D.F.’s chief of general staff, said at the ceremony, “and became the victims of a complex political affair.”