How Israel Goes Undercover in the Palestinian Territories
One of the goals is to convey a message to all Palestinian terrorists: "There is no safe place for anyone."
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You may have heard the news this week that Israeli commandos killed three members of an armed Hamas cell hiding inside a hospital in the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
The cell was allegedly planning imminent terror attacks, inspired by the October 7th Hamas onslaught in Gaza-adjacent Israeli communities.
With dramatic footage circulated on social media, the operation was carried out jointly by the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet security agency, and the Yamam police counter-terrorism unit. This inter-level cooperation is unlike other hierarchical security establishments in the world, and helps Israeli forces deeply understand the enemy, while regularly offering effective results.
On Tuesday, Israeli forces reportedly armed with silencers entered the Palestinian medical center at 5:30 in the morning — dressed as doctors, nurses, and Palestinian women — headed to a room on the third floor, and shot the surprised trio dead in their beds, before escaping the building unscathed 10 minutes later.
With abilities beyond imagination, “Mista’arvim” is the name for certain units among Israeli special forces of the IDF, Israel Border Police, and Israel Police who assimilate into local Arab populations to operate undercover, while gathering intelligence or conducting law enforcement, hostage rescue, black-ops, assassinations, and counter-terrorism missions. You may be familiar with “Mista’arvim” from the acclaimed Israeli TV series “Fauda,” which is loosely based on these special forces.
The name “Mista’arvim” is derived from the Arabic “Musta’arabi” meaning “those who live among the Arabs.” It refers to the Musta’arabi Jews, Arabic-speaking Jewish people who lived in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab rule in the 7th century.
The first Mista’arvim unit was secretly created in the early 1940s, as a cooperation between the Zionist movement and the British mandate authorities in Palestine during World War II. After all, the British needed intelligence agents to infiltrate the local population in the Levant and sabotage German progress.
The unit was then given the code-name ha-Shahar (“The Dawn” in Hebrew) and integrated into the Palmach, an elite division of the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization that operated in British-era Palestine before Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. The unit mainly consisted of native Arabic-speaking Sephardic Jews who were essentially indistinguishable from Arabs.
With the outbreak of the 1948 Israeli-Arab War, members of ha-Shahar were deployed as intelligence agents capable of penetrating Arab neighborhoods and villages and, at times, engaging in sabotage and assassinations.
In 1986, Israel created a more sophisticated and better-organized Mista’arvim force. The recruits, which often include Druze and Bedouins, are comfortable with Arabic culture, language, and customs. “They look, talk, and dress like Arabs, and ride their bikes in the West Bank as casually as they do in Tel Aviv,” said Ehud Barak, a former IDF chief of staff.
Nowadays, training for Mista’arvim units takes about 15 months, including six and a half months of basic and advanced infantry training; two months of advanced urban navigation and counter-terrorism training; and four months of Mista’arvim courses, which cover everything from learning Arabic and Arab traditions and way of thought, to civilian camouflage (e.g. hair dyeing, contact lenses, clothing).
Upon completion of this intensive training program, undercover Israelis are sent to the Palestinian territories. They dress like the locals, know the alleys like the back of their hand, master the local gossip, and familiarize themselves with the local shops and families, as well as the characters who dominate the neighborhoods and the mood on the street (including who got married yesterday) — and then give Israeli special forces the signal to operate.
On the way to an operation, undercover agents pass through the innocent eyes of Palestinian civilians, but mainly through areas under the control of Palestinian observers on roofs, the operatives of terrorist organizations, who secure the hideouts where terrorists are located. Sometimes there will be a local barbershop owner on a central traffic route who will monitor suspicious activity and report it to the terrorists.
After the “green light” is given by undercover agents, Israeli forces will instantly go from covert to overt activity, but undercover agents operate with complete camouflage, their identity never revealed, to allow them to assimilate into countless operational activities without being exposed.
In an operation, the tactical division includes a number of squadrons with special capabilities, such as advanced tactical observations, motorcycles and motorized vehicles, dogs, adaptive combat capabilities, and more.
Every second is critical, since the wanted are able to escape or prepare for an attack. Convoys of Israeli forces will enter in armored vehicles to isolate the area and prevent armed terrorists and rioters from disrupting the operation of arresting or thwarting the terrorists.
Each operation will be accompanied by fighters of the Shin Bet’s operational unit and the IDF, who specialize in “adrenaline combat” and the ability to arrive “disturbed” to a target. They are equipped with technological capabilities, several types of intelligence, and a direct connection to Israel’s security headquarters.
The intelligence information presented by Shin Bet personnel is usually of high quality and accurate. It touches on the behavior of terrorist commanders, their hideouts (oftentimes in mosques) and methods of operation and fraud, and their ability to monitor what is happening in real-time throughout their neighborhoods, and on the main routes to them.
For example, terrorists set up street cameras and have assistants and observers whose job it is to report any suspicious activities in the area — with an emphasis on Israeli movements.
As Palestinian terrorists have improved their techniques, so too have the Israelis. In the last year, for example, Israeli forces have operated under the guise of trucks to distribute food products and vegetables. Palestinian terrorists did investigations after several undercover operations, and decided to place barriers made of traps at the entrance of certain neighborhoods to prohibit trucks from entry.
Thus, it is a game of cat and mouse. The Palestinians have made it more dangerous and complex for undercover agents to operate, but Israeli forces find a solution to every challenge.
Of late, one of the most pressing problems in the Palestinian West Bank is the local economy. Israeli Arabs are increasingly afraid because of the uptick in security incidents and violence there, and thus do not enter the territories, unless they have family in the area or are close to Palestinian security forces. The income of the Palestinians from the West Bank has therefore dropped dramatically, mainly in the sectors of food, tourism, textiles, and furniture.
The consequences of limited cash flow hurt not only Palestinian cities in the West Bank, but especially the refugee camps, where the economic situation makes life more insufferable. The hardships translate, according to security officials, into a deterioration of the security situation because terrorist elements, which boast a ton of money, enter the space to finance terrorism, even without recruiting processes and presenting the need to officially join a terrorist organization.
The operation is carried out using the simple method of “money for an attack” and “financial bonus for a deadly attack.”
Thus, Israel’s goal is always to exact precise damage to terrorists wanted, without dragging the entire area into an escalation, and without humiliating the Palestinian Authority (which governs the Palestinian West Bank). Additionally, one of the goals is to convey a message to all terrorists: “There is no safe place for anyone.” Israeli operations are meant to shock Palestinian terrorists and demonstrate that Israelis possess the courage to act on the ground, not just from the air.
Despite what the news media makes it out to be, the Palestinian public does not go berserk or take to the streets after an Israeli operation takes place. The majority of civilians prefers to work and lead a normal life, while the Palestinian Authority and its security mechanisms are interested in some kind of security coordination with Israel.
Palestinian terrorists know this, which is why the pressure and fear of undercover agents in Palestinian refugee camps is so great. There have already been cases in which Palestinian security forces were identified by locals as undercover agents and opened fire on them.
It is not for nothing that the Palestinian Authority trains Palestinian police officers and features other security mechanisms. The Palestinian Authority sees Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terror groups as clear enemies that destabilize the Palestinian territories, but the Authority is in no hurry to combat local terrorism for many reasons.
The most obvious and prominent is the fear of a direct confrontation with the Palestinian people. The Palestinian Authority has been struggling for legitimacy in the West Bank, and confrontations with Palestinian terrorists hurts the Authority.
Hence why they prefer to leave this dirty work to Israel.