Israelis are fascinated with the revelation that for the past 40 years Israeli Jewish undercover agents have been passing themselves off as Palestinians and have not only lived with and worked with Palestinians, but have even married and had children with Palestinian women living inside Israel.
Published in Ha’aretz, the story revealed the existence of a special branch of the Israeli Shin Bet which sent Arab-born Jews to infiltrate Palestinian towns and families between 1952 and 1959. Some of the agents are still around and remain nameless; some are dead.
However, Iraqi-born Shmuel Moriah, founder and commander of the unit, told what he could of the complex story that has been repressed all these years. “Revealing too much could cause serious damage. Especially revealing the names of the people and their families. It’s a matter of children, women, and the possibility of revenge,” Moriah said.
Moriah explained that he recruited young Jewish immigrants from Arab countries and how, once selected, the agents went through psychological and graphological screening. In addition to basic intelligence work, they were taught extensively about Islam and the Qur’an and other aspects of Palestinian culture and history. The most difficult thing, he said, was giving them the Palestinian accent and idiom.
Once prepared, which was a difficult task given the closeness of Palestinian society, the young men were given a new identity and a cover story. Most were assigned to the Upper Galilee, Nazareth, Haifa, Shraram and Bedouin encampments in the Negev desert, all within the “Green Line” border of Israel.
“The problems started quite quickly,” Moriah told Ha’aretz. “You send a young, vital man and throw him into an Arab environment. The young man gets there. He is unknown and a bachelor. Those around him are suspicious. ‘Who is this bird of passage that landed in our midst?’ the neighbors ask.”
Moriah said the new friends and neighbors wondered why he was not married and began to arrange matches. “The guy is under pressure. It’s true that when you send him on the mission, you do not give him orders to get married. But it’s clear to both sides that there is this expectation, to enable him to do his job better.”
Moriah goes on to recount how the most complicated problems began to occur when the operatives, either on their own or because of a desire to please their superiors in the Shin Bet, took up some of the offers of marriage. Children soon followed.
“It’s a matter of children, women, and the possibility of revenge.”
The dilemma of one woman who discovered her husband’s true identity in the mid-1960s serves as an example of the sinister effect the secret service’s unit had on normal and unsuspecting Palestinians. After divorcing her Israeli Jewish husband, who she had thought was a Palestinian Muslim, the woman, herself a citizen of Israel, moved to Paris with her son. In Paris, she met and married her second husband, who was the PLO representative in France. Her son, a Muslim according to Jewish law and a Jew according to Muslim law, was caught in the middle.
After her second husband died a natural death, her former husband, the Shin Bet operative, asked the service to help persuade her to return to him. She refused.
Moriah admitted his agency faced some painful dilemmas when it decided in 1959 to break up the unit. “What does one do with the family and children? Do we bring them out together? The decision was that each of the operatives should decide about his future and the future of his family.
“Suddenly you have to turn into Yossi from Ahmed,” Moriah recalled, “and you have to tell the truth to your wife. Not only are you not the Arab nationalist you pretended to be and whom she admired, but you are a Jew. It was not simple. And what about a woman who has to decide whether to cut off relations with her Arab and Muslim family and join her Jewish husband? Families were torn asunder. And what about the children? What is their identity? Then, when a boy reaches army age, he has to decide whether to enlist or not. He knows that his mother is Arab and his father is Jewish and asks himself where to point his gun. There were difficult situations of split identities.”
One cannot help but ask why such units were necessary considering that during the early years following the creation of the state of Israel, all Arab areas were under heavy-handed military rule until 1966. The Shin Bet has always claimed that there is no shortage of Palestinian agents among its ranks, or at least on its list of informers and collaborators.
Moriah makes it clear that despite the personal drawbacks of the undercover unit and the alleged availability of Palestinian Arab informers, he and his colleagues thought the unit necessary because ultimately it was “hard to rely on an Arab agentéEven if you supervise him well and know how to operate, he will always tell you what he wants to tell you. That’s why we wanted reliable agents in place.”
Although the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security equivalent of the FBI, desolved its unit, known as mista’aravim, which is a combination of two Hebrew words meaning “disguise” and “Arab,” and which later was regarded as a mistake by its founder, similar units continue to operate today within the Israeli army.
Two such units are known as the Duvdevan and Shimson. They do not attempt to infiltrate deeply into Palestinian circles but rather appear briefly in villages, demonstrations and at roadblocks, or are sent into areas where they act as death squads, such as was the case in 1995 when they opened fire from their car and killed four Palestinian activists near Ramallah.
The case several years ago of the Duvdevan members who assassinated the wrong Palestinian at a checkpoint, and later were released after being fined less than a nickel for their mistake, is still fresh in the minds of people here.
The fear now among Palestinians is that Israeli undercover units such as the Duvdevan and Shimson may grow and, worse, that they may be joined by counterparts from the Palestinian Authority, not to spy upon Israelis but upon their Palestinian compatriots.
Maureen Meehan is a free-lance journalist who covers the West Bank and Jerusalem.