License to Kill: The Israeli Special Forces

This is dedicated to the Palestinian soldier from the national security forces who stopped me on October 6 next to the Ramallah governorate and said, This is a strange country. They say there are Jews roaming around in cars with government license plates (Palestinian license plates).


The special forces or mustarivim in Hebrew comprises of four selective units, two belonging to the Israeli army the first, the Duvdevan (Hebrew for cherry) which work in the West Bank and the second Shamshon (Samson) in the Gaza Strip. The third unit belongs to the border police and the last which works strictly in the Jerusalem area belongs to the police.

These units undergo special training and do not follow the same instructions for opening fire as the regular forces. Their members receive military and psychological training so that killing is a routine and easy procedure. Usually, they work under the guise of young men or women dressed in Arab attire although they may also wear official Israeli military attire either in full or partial uniform. At the particular moment when these units strike, specifically in crowded areas, they wear a certain visible mark that allows them to proceed without being shot at by their colleagues, such as donning bright green stripes on their hats or wearing the same color or style hats.

The goals

For certain forces to freely access the heart of Palestinian populated areas that are not accessible to the regular army. Usually, their goals focus on secretly eliminating or capturing wanted persons and gathering information in order to cause suspicions, mutiny, and chaos amongst Palestinians.

Victims of the Special Forces

During the years of the Intifada, and especially from April 1988 to the middle of May 1993 these forces killed around 160 Palestinians, 40 percent of whom were wanted and approximately 18 percent of those who wrote slogans on the walls. The rest were Intifada activists, especially masked persons or those who carried axes or knives. Some who were mere passersby when the special forces were carrying out these operations were also killed.

Training of the Special Forces

In all, members of the special forces receive 12-15 months military training. The first part of their training takes about eight months, which is the period through which every new soldier in the Israeli army must pass. During this period, the soldier learns military regulations, how to shoot, physical training and training on maintenance, dismantling and reassembling of weapons.

During the second part of training, the soldier receives training for four and a half months at the Adam camp, located north of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.  It is training exclusively for ground troops, which is given to every member of the elite units in the Israeli army. The candidates for this course are selected from between the outstanding soldiers that showed specific skills in the first training course. Also, acceptance in these units is only after the soldier volunteers to join and after he passes a psychological examination that proves he is able to work under difficult circumstances and that he is willing to carry out the killing and elimination of hostile components without difficulty (i.e. without hesitation, conscience, etc.). Persons who have learned Arabic in school and who look Arab and who are in good physical condition are also preferred.

In this period, the soldier receives additional training in certain weapons such as silencers paralysis bombs, etc and in special skills such as jumping and climbing fences. They are also trained in combat tactics and in individual combat such as judo, karate etc. and also in how to infiltrate Arab areas and to open fire intentionally and on the spot to target the enemy in the least amount of time possible and without subjecting the attacking force to danger.

During the third phase of training, which is over a period of six weeks, the soldier goes through a course in combating terrorism school, which is in the same previously mentioned camp. The main goal of this course is to build up the attack instinct of the trainee and to learn how to use weapons inside cities, populated areas and demonstrations. Training concentrates on the necessity of the trainee to be sure of his ability to kill through practical and psychological training in shooting at close range or even just centimeters away from the wounded or dead victim to ensure that the task was carried out fully – or at least to make sure that the wounded person cannot impede the work of the attacker or be able to subject it to danger during the operation.

During the Intifada, dozens of these operations were carried out against wanted persons such as leaders in the field. These operations were documented by local human rights organizations (Al Haq, The Arab Studies Center) and Israeli (BTselem) and foreign (Middle East Watch) centers.

This aggressive instinct is nurtured and developed into a natural and mechanic response from the trainee through continuous and repetitive shooting at target models that look like Arabs (wearing kuffiyehs, masked, etc.). The other aspect is represented in ideological endorsement against the enemy to strip him of his humanness and humanity so that the act of killing is more like hunting or is simply a game.

In this regard, one soldier who worked in these forces spoke of the overall atmosphere in these units: I used to see the soldiers fooling around in their room, playing as if they were shooting at a target. They would follow the procedure they were taught in the anti-terror school: run, slam to a halt, open fire, run, halt, open fire, and then run up to the body of the target and fire a bullet at close range to ensure death. This was the procedure they were taught time after time, in training. It is really important, this ingrained training because when you are under pressure, and you are scared, it is the thing that you have practiced until they are part of you, that you do instinctively, without needing to think.

In short, in addition to training in certain skills, this training, which is implemented in special forces in a number of countries and which is based on the harsh training methods of the American special forces, is aimed at making the members of these forces an effective killing machine with no mercy or hesitation. There are many documented cases from Palestinian or Israeli eyewitnesses on the killing of wanted persons after they have been wounded, where the perpetrator neither thinks twice nor hesitates.

This method of mechanical and swift killing resulted in the deaths of innocent people and even members of the Special Forces themselves or sometimes collaborators that accompany them. Three collaborators were killed in three different operations and no less than five members of the special forces were killed by friendly fire (the most recent example being during the attempt to eliminate Abu Hanoud, supposed head of Hamas military wing, in the village of Asseera Al Shamaliya and in which three of their men were killed.) However, the best example of this is the operation which led to the killing of Eli Eisha in the village of Bartaa Al Sharqiyya on 8/7/92 at the hands of his own colleagues. In their explanation of the killing during an investigation by the Israeli army they said:

Because it was dark, we thought he was our wanted person. One of us shot him from behind. Then another one of us shot him in the chest. But he was still alive even after he fell, so he got closer to him and shot him twice in the head.

The fourth stage of training is related to intense training for a period of one month in the art of disguise, acting, and deception. Professional actors from acting institutes and theaters train them in acting and makeup techniques and in the use of certain clothing so they can disguise themselves as Arabs especially since most of them, like we mentioned earlier, already have Arab features. They are trained in disguising themselves as beggars, Arab workers, villagers, Arab women Bedouin or peasants, etc. After they complete their training they are required either individually or in a group, to experiment with what they have learned in the real world. They are sent, unarmed, to different areas in Israel or in Jerusalem to mingle with the Arab or Israeli public to test their disguising skills. For example, they dress up like beggars in the central bus station in Tel Aviv or Haifa or as Bedouin women in the Beer Sheva market or as worshippers in Al Aqsa mosque.

The fifth and last stage of training, which includes improving their Arab language skills is usually over a period of three weeks at the Israeli army intelligence base near the Galiot-Tel Aviv-Haifa junction. They learn the Arabic language and how to speak in colloquial Palestinian Arabic. They learn the terms used by Arab youth, compliments, thanks and prayers, which would make them appear as if they were natives. Part of the training is said to involve awakening trainees in the middle of the night such as to see that they respond in Arabic. They are also introduced to the common and prevalent traditions and aspects of the Arab culture and some religious rituals such as reading the Fatiha, pretending to pray and learning about the major newspapers etc.

This training, however, is superficial and is much different from the type of training received by a different group of Mustarivim, which we do not have the opportunity to discuss here. Their mission is to live in the midst of Arab populations either permanently or temporarily, such as the spy Eli Cohen or the beggar who used to beg for several years on Al Hamra Street before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Usually, these people are older, have more experience and are more fluent in Arabic. So, for this reason, we sometimes find that the Special Forces that enter Palestinian cities are accompanied by Arab collaborators whose job is to talk to the people, to drive the car, etc. Although we do not have adequate information, it is only natural to believe that they also carry ID cards with Arab names. Also, from the reports about members of the Special Forces who were wounded or killed, and according to eyewitnesses, we can say that they are usually in the beginning of their twenties. This was apparent when the head of the Special Forces belonging to the border guards in the Jenin area was killed during an armed confrontation with two wanted Palestinians in the eastern neighborhood of Jenin. He was only 27 years old.

Methods of Work

At the beginning of the first Intifada, when the Israelis realized that the foreign press was starting to take an interest, they begin to work under the guise of international television agencies in rented cars so as to turn the public opinion against foreign journalists, thus depriving the Palestinians of international coverage. These practices did not stop until there was an official protest from the Foreign Journalists Union in Israel. Then the Israeli tactics changed. They began using cars with Arab license plates in order to enter into the heart of Arab communities to carry out their operations. Sometimes they disguised themselves as traveling vegetable vendors in Volkswagen trucks or as workers in Ford transits. When a group of Black Panthers (Fahad Al Aswad, the Fatah paramilitary organization that became preeminent in the first intifada] was eliminated in the Yasmineh quarter of the Old City of Nablus, they were dressed up as peasant women.

Special Forces missions expected in the present situation

The available and leaked information from Israeli newspapers indicates that there has been a major investment in these forces since the tunnel events of 1996. Therefore, we should expect to see a growing activity of these forces in the coming stages. Also, there is no doubt that the work of the special forces is more difficult in comparison with the situation in the previous Intifada in light of the concentrated deployment of Palestinian national security forces in liberated cities and the presence of an unknown amount of weapons in the hands of the Palestinian populace. There have been a few failed and difficult incidents for these forces as in the case of Aseera Shamaliya, as well as in Surda (where the Special Forces killed a 73-year-old mukhtar of the village.) So we believe that their activity in the coming period will focus on villages and roads and on setting ambushes for people who shoot at settlements and military bases.

In the case of cities, the Special Forces will most likely disguise themselves as national security forces and will use cars with PA license plates. Or they will disguise themselves as members of the Fateh tantheem and especially as masked persons. This will change their work methods and will create methods unknown until now. The best two defense mechanisms towards such a phenomenon are of a preventative nature:

First: Denying the enemy any intelligence information. This requires the implementation of the maxim the walls have ears. It also requires that we resist boasting about transferring information about people involved in eliminating collaborators and about certain suspicions.

Second: To always be on high alert and readiness; change places where one sleeps at night and not to get accustomed to any routine behavior.

In addition, the best way to confront this phenomenon in cities is by preventing their entrance into these cities from the start. This would require a radical change in the methods used at the military checkpoints until now, which allows for easy infiltration into Palestinian cities. It is very important that highly aware and alert people are put at the checkpoints and swift, stringent but polite inspection of cars is conducted. We also need to be able to close off cities quickly in order to prevent these elements from carrying out their missions and swiftly leaving. We must also change the way in which the members of our national security forces stand at the checkpoints because the present method is completely inappropriate in dealing with these forces, which are heavily armed and have an acute ability to kill.

There must be two people who are carrying out the inspection and at the same time a hidden force behind a protective cover with their weapons aimed at the car being inspected, in order to deter these elements of even thinking about entering the cities. If they do succeed in entering, this will lead either to them achieving their goals and/or incurring losses in their ranks in the midst of an angry public, thus justifying a military attack on cities, like the incident with the two soldiers lynched in the Ramallah police station. (In this case, it was widely perceived at the time the incident took place, that the soldiers were, in fact, a Special Forces Unit, though it is most likely they were not.)

From another aspect, we believe that in addition to the goals of this latter group, these forces also have new goals. For example, eliminating leaders in the field; hence, Israel achieves a major moral victory and reinforces the concept of the long arm of the Israeli army. Or they may attack political leaders to make it appear like it was the result of internal strife. They may blow up national security headquarters and make it seem as if it resulted from preparing explosives to use inside Israel.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that we are in the phase of encountering a new and unique kind of confrontation. This phase calls for a high level of awareness and alertness and strict regulations, which if implemented, will greatly lessen political and human losses.

The element of awareness and alertness adopted by Hizbullah in Lebanon led to major losses in the ranks of forces very similar to the Special Forces. It led to a halt in their activities despite their massive capabilities.


This article relies upon already published materials, most notably A License to Kill: Israeli Undercover Operations Against Wanted and Masked Palestinians, Middle East Watch, July 1993, Btselem File Biiloy Hayihidot Himyohodot Hamishtikhim (The Activities of Special Forces in the Territories) May 1992, Yehidot Hamustarivim (The Mustarivim Units) Yesh Gvul, Debbi Meda, 1992 (?),  Report on Wanted Persons, (Unpublished), December 1992.

(Dr. Saleh Abdel Jawad is Head of the Department of History and Political Science at Birzeit University. This article was written on October 15th, 2000 and was submitted to a Palestinian newspaper as well as a notable Jerusalem NGO, but was refused publication. It was eventually published by Al Quds newspaper on December 2, 2000, after some of the conclusions it made were confirmed by the events of the Intifada.)