Saturday, October 31, 2020

Profiling Israel‘s undercover Mistaarvim unit

By Jessica Purkiss - February 18, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [undercover units] [hit squads] [Israeli army]

Israeli undercover agents arresting a Palestinian boy suspected of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers during a protest in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo by Lazar Simeonov.

At the beginning of the year 2013, the operation of undercover Israeli agents within the West Bank came to light once again. On January 1, soldiers dressed as vegetable vendors arrested Murad Bani Odeh, a member of the Islamic Jihad political party in the West Bank village of Tamoun, south of Jenin.

Ynet news reported that Muhammad Basharat, the local village council head said that the soldiers entered the village in a van bearing a Palestinian license plate, adding that the men inside it did not arouse anyone's suspicion. Israeli media reported that the soldiers were part of Israel's Mistaarvim, or 'Arabized’ elite undercover unit.

Little is known about the internal operations of the Israeli undercover units.  The group 'Mistaarvim’ in Hebrew or “Musta’rabeen” in Arabic is an undercover unit whose members serve in various sections of the Israeli army. Translated from Hebrew it literally means 'Arab pretenders.’

The Mistaarvim are an elite branch of a supposed 'counter-terrorism’ unit who impersonate Palestinians and infiltrate West Bank communities in an attempt to find information that may be of interest to the Israeli government. Members are indistinguishable amongst Palestinian communities, as they dress the same way Palestinians do, speak Arabic in the local dialect, and drive cars with Palestinian licensed number plates. According to a study by the Palestinian Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC), disguises include stage props such as crutches and fake babies, with members undergoing extensive training on cultural habits to help them blend in successfully.

Information on the Mistaarvim unit is heavily guarded. In 1988 three journalists had their press cards removed from them after writing pieces on the existence of undercover squads operating in the West Bank. The military censor office filed a police complaint against Paul Taylor, chief correspondent for Reuters, Andrew Whitley of the Financial Times. and Steve Weizman, a Reuters reporter.

According to Saleh Abdel Jawad, a professor at the Department of History and Political Science, the Mistaarvim consists of four selective units, two of which belong to the Israeli army; 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 fourth operates strictly in the Jerusalem area belonging to the Israeli police.

During demonstrations supposedly Palestinian protestors have turned out to be part of the undercover unit. In May 2011, on Nakba Day, Palestinians took part in a march to the Qalandiya checkpoint near Ramallah, West Bank. At some point during confrontations with Israeli soldiers, members of the Mistaarvim unit who were disguised as Palestinian protestors produced handguns and made several arrests. During a demonstration in 2010 in the Palestinian town of Umm al-Fahm in the 1948 territories, an officer from the Mistaarvim unit was wounded by a stun grenade fired by an Israeli policeman whilst impersonating a Palestinian demonstrator.

Extra-judicial assassinations

Aside from arresting Palestinians, the undercover units have been known to carry out extra-judicial assassinations. Haaretz noted that undercover units such as Mistaarvim had been dubbed as a "hit unit" by media. This term was rejected by the unit's former soldiers and commanding officers. 

The Mistaarvim are an elite branch of a supposed 'counter-terrorism' unit who impersonate Palestinians and infiltrate West Bank communities in an attempt to find information that may be of interest to the Israeli government

However, Shimon Somech, a commander of the Mistaarvim from 1942-1946 admitted that assassination was part of the unit’s activities. 

“In essence we did not engage in eliminating people. Maybe there were isolated instances where members of the unit were asked to eliminate someone,” he said.

For example in 2008 soldiers disguised as Palestinians executed four Palestinians in Bethlehem, West Bank. 

“These men were fighters, but they were not in a combat situation at the time. They were sitting in a car, waiting for their dinner. The Israeli special forces drove up, disguised as Palestinian civilians, and opened fire without warning,” said Jared Malsin, a journalist from Ma’an news agency who had met with the men hours before their killing. 

“It was the moral equivalent of a team of Palestinians, disguised as Israelis, driving an Israeli car into Tel Aviv and gunning down four off-duty Israeli soldiers,” he said.

The official 'mission’ of the unit to capture wanted Palestinians was altered after the outbreak of the second intifada. The changes gave the army “a broader license to liquidate Palestinian terrorists” and allowed the army “to act against known terrorists even if they are not on the verge of committing a major attack,” a policy reportedly sanctioned by then Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein according to an Haaretz article.  Subsequently this translated to the extra-judicial killing of many Palestinians involved in resistance activities.

The unit has conducted numerous extra-judicial assassinations; among them was the infamous annihilation of the preeminent Black Panthers (Fahad al Aswad) group during the first Intifada. Undercover agents dressed up as peasant women entered the Yasmineh quarter of the Old City in Nablus, where they executed the leaders of the group, a paramilitary wing of Fatah.  

PHRIC first recorded the ambush and killing of targeted Palestinians by undercover units in Gaza in 1986 and 1987, where Islamic Jihad activists were killed. This method was supposedly secretly adopted as a policy in the first months of the first Intifada, under the authority of the then Minister of Defence Yitzhak Rabin.

 During the first four years of the first intifada 75 Palestinians were killed by Israeli undercover agents or civilian disguised soldiers. Of 29 cases in 1991 none of the victims had been engaged in combat, eleven were taking part in non-violent demonstrations at the time of the shooting whilst 14 were carrying out normal daily activities. 

Whilst such methods had been in practice long ago in the West Bank and Gaza, it wasn’t until 2009 that Israel publically admitted the use of 'Mistaarvim’ inside Israel, or the ’48 territories itself. It was the first public admission that the Israeli police were using such units and had been for two years in their own country. It caused outrage demonstrating a dangerous practice of racial profiling where the Arab communities of Israel were targeted because of their ethnicity.  

However Haaretz newspaper revealed in 1998 that the Israeli secret police, the Shin Bet, had operated a number of Mistaarvim inside Israel shortly after the state was created, placing them within Palestinian communities. The unit was disbanded in 1959 after several members of the unit married local Arab women in order to maintain their cover. 

How their existence violates International law and Israeli law

The killing of the four Islamic Jihad members in 2008 is considered to be an act of extrajudicial assassination, illegal under Article Three of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Customary international law prohibits political or extra-judicial killings by governments; no circumstances can be invoked to justify arbitrary restrictions on the right to life. Executing someone without a trial violates the principles of due process. In the 29 cases observed by PHRIC no warning was given nor was any effort to apprehend the victim before shooting.

Referring to Israel’s Law of War Booklet (1986), the Report on the Practice of Israel states: “As a basic policy, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] prohibits the resort to perfidy to kill, injure or capture an adversary.” Israel’s Manual on the Rules of Warfare (2006) states that it is forbidden to “adopt the disguise of a non-combatant civilian. Where no clear picture emerges from the battle front as to who is a civilian and who is a disguised combatant, civilians are liable to get hurt.” The Manual on the Laws of War gave the following example of perfidy: “it is forbidden to single out a specific person on the adversary’s side and request his death (whether by dispatching an assassin or by offering an award for his liquidation.”  Injuring or killing a person while breaching the prohibition on perfidy is also war crime under international criminal law. Clearly as well as violating internationally accepted norms, the use of units such as Mistaarvim violates Israel’s own military rules.

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