- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

Two Israeli undercover agents attempting to fix their battered Subaru sedan outside a cafe in an East Jerusalem neighborhood weren't watching CNN when news of the first hijacked airliner hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center was broadcast, but they knew something big had happened.
They were alerted to a tragedy of some sort by the scene that unfolded in front of them: The suspected terrorists they had watched all afternoon suddenly raced to the nearby mosque and emerged with bags of candies and sweets that were thrown into the air in a joyful expression of victory.
Crowds gathered. Women, wearing black and gray veils, began clapping their hands and dancing with a victor's glee.
The celebration on the streets of Arab East Jerusalem was ominous. The Jewish New Year was one week away, and displays of joy orchestrated by Hamas, or the Islamic Jihad, always followed suicide bombings.
The two undercover Israelis had hoped to snatch one of the men they were watching, suspected of being a lieutenant in a Hamas cell, but the crowds changed everything.
The two carefully reached for their weapons. But before going any further, one whispered into a concealed radio device, "What's going on here?"
"Get back to base immediately," came the order from the team leader watching the events from a van packed with heavily armed commandos parked nearby. "You'll never believe what has just happened."
To many Israelis especially those in the security services, the Israel Defense Forces and the police the events in New York City and later at the Pentagon were highly concentrated portraits of what life and death have been like in Israel for the past 10 years.
Moreover, with the United States now confronting the threat of suicide attacks at home, as well as its own lack of human intelligence "assets," Israel's experience with undercover operations takes on added significance.
In Israel, Palestinian youths and even middle-aged men have, without warning, detonated lethal payloads of explosives, strapped to their bodies or in the bags they carry, inside malls, buses, fast-food restaurants and discos.
The might of the Israeli defense juggernaut, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Shin Bet intelligence service and the National Police have waged an unnerving campaign of street-fighting chess, hoping to always be one step ahead of the bombers.
The effort to crush the Hamas and Islamic Jihad recruiters, who search the refugee camps and towns of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for men willing to martyr themselves, has been a violent and brutal one.
Israel's weapons in this war have ranged from full-scale military strikes to covert assassinations. Israel's tactics have been unconventional and, often, undercover.
Israel's elite commando undercover squads, or "Mista'arvim," have been one of its most effective, albeit controversial, tools. These specialists masquerade as Palestinian men and women, young and old, to infiltrate terrorist strongholds. They gather intelligence, rescue hostages, or strike either pre-emptively or in retaliation against terrorist safehouses and fortified positions.
Undercover squad operators are actors as much as they are commandos. To the Palestinians, the undercover teams are nothing more than cold-blooded death squads.
For the men tasked with leading Israel's war against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and, increasingly, militants within Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority the undercover units keep suicide bombers from striking at will inside Israel's major urban centers.
The existence of undercover units was publicly disclosed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak some 10 years ago during his tenure as the IDF's chief of staff. The undercover units were a staple of special operations since long before the Jewish state came into existence.
A Mista'arev (derived from the Arabic expression of Musta'arvim, meaning "intervening") is someone who isn't an Arab by origin, but who dresses in Arab garb, acts in accordance with Arab manners and customs, speaks Arabic and lives where most of the population is Arab.
The first undercover units date back to 1909 and were part of the "Shomer," an organization designed to provide security to the first Jewish settlements in Palestine.
The Haganah, the military arm of the Jewish settlements in pre-independence Israel, created its own undercover intelligence unit during the bloody Arab revolt of 1936 to 1939, when agents in Arab garb were dispatched to infiltrate local Arab villages.
During World War II, a Haganah undercover platoon, called "the Syrian Company," was set up with British support to carry out sabotage missions deep inside Syria and Lebanon. Moshe Dayan, the most famous veteran of this unit, lost his eye on a behind-enemy-lines operation.
And in 1970 in the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces waged a ruthless counterterrorist campaign that was led by a small force of commandos dressed as Palestinian guerrillas, who waged an intrepid and ruthless campaign.
The undercover operatives became what they hunted. "When you are in Gaza, act like you are from Gaza," was a unit catch phrase. Unit operators not only dressed as local Arabs, but also disguised themselves as terrorists, moving through populated areas clutching Soviet-made assault rifles.
They infiltrated the terrorists' world by eating in their restaurants, shopping in their markets and even staking out their brothels. In one year, the operators killed or captured most of the wanted Palestinians in Gaza.
In November 1987, the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising, erupted inside the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Maj. Gen. Barak, commander of Israel's Central Command, resurrected the notion of a counterterrorist undercover commando squad to operate in the territories.
Two units would eventually be formed "Duvdevan," or "Cherry" to operate in the West Bank. "Shimshon," or "Samson" was formed to function in and around Gaza. Soldiers in these units were all volunteers, subjected to a grueling undercover instruction regimen including a "disguise course," counterterrorist training and intensive instruction in Arabic and Palestinian customs.
In 1990, the Israel National Police Border Guard created a third undercover unit. Known as "Ya'mas," or undercover unit, the force was divided into three separate entities for operations in Gaza, the West Bank, and in and around Jerusalem.
The Ya'mas operators tended to be older than their counterparts in the military, who were teen-age conscripts completing their three years of mandatory military service. Many in the Border Guard came from households where Arabic was a second language and the Oriental traditions were second nature.
The Border Guard, because of the large number of Ethiopian immigrants in its ranks, was also able to recruit people who could openly pose as Sudanese and other North African migrants.
The Ya'mas became the elite of the Israeli undercover units. By 1994, the Ya'mas had already captured 70 of the top Hamas fugitives. They captured hundreds of low-level operatives. They also killed 50 terrorists in some of the bloodiest fights ever seen in the West Bank.
According to Israeli field commanders, the undercover units struck terror into the hearts of the terrorists. But according to most Palestinians and Israeli human rights activists the undercover units were nothing more than masquerading hit teams. Still, they concede, the undercover units were instrumental in breaking the back of the first intifada.
"These men used ruthless and provocative measures to infiltrate our villages and towns," a senior commander of the Palestinian police in Ramallah grudgingly said, "but their methods were ultimately successful."
Former Israeli Education Minister Shulamit Aloni, from the left-of-center Meretz Party, expressed her opinion on the existence of these units by saying, "I oppose in principle that 18- and 19-year-old boys will judge the verdict of the Palestinians, and also will implement their death sentence."
In their 10 years of operation, the Border Guard undercover units have killed 161 Palestinians in ambushes, including 19 younger than age 16, according to statistics compiled by B'Tselem, the highly regarded Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
According to their standard operating procedures, the ideal undercover unit operation is one in which none of the operators has to reach for his weapon.
"We are a life-saving unit," said a team leader of a Border Guard squad training on a live-fire obstacle course in central Israel. "What is costlier in human terms? A missile hitting a building in a counterterrorist strike or a small group of professionals targeting for arrest a man known to have blood on his hands?"
"It angers me that after all we've done, and all we've come up against, that people still think of us as a death squad," a veteran Border Guard operator said. "We end up having to shoot because we operate eye to eye with killers.
"We function in areas where terrorists feel safe and then try to apprehend people who have vowed to martyr themselves in a holy war against us. They don't surrender easily. They fight to the death. I don't think anyone in Israel or the world for that matter has a clue what it's like to fight a suicidal enemy."
The 1993 Oslo peace accord was supposed to end the activities of the undercover squads, but the current bloodshed has made them busier than ever. Following the eruption of the current intifada in September 2000, the undercover squads became the cutting edge of Israeli special operations efforts to battle Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Tanzim, the militant youth-wing of Mr. Arafat's Fatah organization.
Initially, Ya'mas operations in Jerusalem following the Intifada's eruption were routine. When Fatah operatives infiltrated Palestinian East Jerusalem to spark riots and large-scale protests, the undercover squads would send teams of operators to mingle with the demonstrators and arrest the agitators.
When mobs of Palestinian demonstrators took over the Temple Mount and hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at Jewish worshippers at the Wailing Wall, undercover cops passed themselves off as Palestinian worshippers and regained control over the sacred ground.
And, when Tanzim gunmen attempted to send guerrilla squads into Jewish neighborhoods, the undercover squads assaulted the Arab villages east of Jerusalem and arrested the terrorists.
A turning point for the unit came on June 1, when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb inside the entrance of the crowded Dolphi discotheque in Tel Aviv and killed more than 20 teen-agers.
According to one of the unit's intelligence officers, "We knew, from an operational point of view, that once Hamas and the Islamic Jihad committed a large-scale killing, that they would attempt to assume command and control over the intifada, and that we would have to readjust our priorities accordingly. We would have to concentrate all our efforts on hitting the terrorists before they made suicide attacks. We also knew that Jerusalem would be next."
Still, on Aug. 9, a young Hamas suicide bomber walked into the Sbarro restaurant on the corner of King George and Jaffa in Jerusalem and blew himself up, killing 16 persons, including six children.
Even in "better times," life inside an undercover squad, is, according to one former officer, "a pressure cooker combined with a hand grenade with its pin removed."
The unit is a microcosm of competitive souls who know their talents and responsibilities.
"Since this intifada began," claimed B., a section head in one of the unit's operational teams, "we have lived and operated with an enormous weight on our shoulders.
"Go out and grab someone who is a terrorist, and you may have helped stop a terrorist on his way to doing something horrific. If your mission ends without an arrest, then you have that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that you failed and that a bomber that you should have stopped is out there on his way to a shopping mall, a cafe or a school.
"And, after an incident, like the Sbarro restaurant, when you tour the site and step over the bodies and the blood, it haunts you that maybe had you done something differently, maybe had you been someplace else at some other time, those people would still be alive today."
Beyond the pressure of day-to-day operations, the life of a Ya'mas operator consists of endless training, from the time they volunteer for the force to their last day on the job.
Extensive psychological profiles are compiled on all volunteers, and anyone not deemed 100 percent stable is prohibited from even trying out for the units. According to some published reports, the selection process alone weeds out 90 percent of all volunteers.
The qualities sought in an undercover unit candidate are more mental than physical, explains one Israeli special operations officer.
"You can train anyone to fire a weapon, run for [12 miles] at a stretch or march up a mountain with [110 pounds] on his back. But only a small minority of men have the mental stamina to learn how to assume a foreign identity and cultivate it into a believable act."
Training for an undercover soldier is lengthy, and is dedicated to intelligence work, the art of masquerading and the "Arabization" of the fighter (from learning traditional customs and culture to intensive language instruction).
Only once the operator has mastered his new identity can intensive close-quarter combat instruction commence. Soldiers are taught to burst into buildings or vehicles, and to overcome armed individuals with speed rather than firepower, surprise rather than brute force.
All undercover unit operators are expert marksmen, proficient in the martial arts and recipients of advanced medical and communications training; all are equipped with sophisticated communications equipment, which enables them to maintain links among themselves and with backup units.
It is just after 7 a.m. on a recent training day in a top-secret counterterrorist facility in central Israel. The operators from the Jerusalem Ya'mas are enjoying a quick breakfast before spending the hot August day firing their weapons on a live-fire obstacle course designed to look like a Palestinian village.
The breakfast, Arabic coffee laced with cardamom and pita bread with goat cheese, is the kind of fare being eaten in Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and East Jerusalem.
"I have to know how to talk like them, look like them, eat like them, laugh like them and even smell like them. I must know that if an old women passes me in street, I must respectfully move to the left, and if an old man passes me, I should greet him with the words 'Salaam, Aleikum' (Peace be unto you).
"I must think in Arabic, react in Arabic and ensure that the masquerade remains strong until the green light is given, my weapon is produced, and my true identity is finally compromised to the locals."
The ideal undercover unit operation is one in which no shots are fired, but Murphy's Law is as much a part of special operations as is the pumping surges of adrenaline, the kick of fear and the cold metal of a CAR-15 assault rifle.
On the night of Aug. 30, the Jerusalem Ya'mas went into action, apprehending a heavily armed Palestinian en route to the city with explosives and automatic weapons.
The terrorist, found in the village of Beit Hanina, was supported by a cover team that evaded the initial dragnet and sought refuge inside a building in the neighborhood called the "Engineer's Club," a Hamas stronghold.
He was eventually cornered by a special-operations dragnet and killed in a firefight.
One of the pillars of Israeli military doctrine has always been that small, elite commando forces, often asked to achieve the impossible against overwhelming odds, have been one equalizing element in the balance of power between the state of Israel and its Arab adversaries.
It is late at night inside the heavily fortified Border Guard compound in Jerusalem and a team of undercover operatives is preparing for a reconnaissance sortie near the no man's land separating Jerusalem from Palestinian Authority lines near the city's frontier with Ramallah.
Although there has been talk of a cease-fire, the fighting continues and fears escalate that Hamas will attempt a suicide attack.
The operators ready their costumes, their documentation and their weaponry, making sure that their Jericho pistols are clean and that their mini-Uzis and M16s are ready for action.
The operators, though, cannot take their eyes off the TV screen in the ready room and the endless reports from ground zero in Manhattan following terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
A debate soon erupts over what the American response to the events of Sept. 11 should be. Most of the operators preparing for the night's mission cannot believe that terrorists struck the United States in such an audacious and well-executed move, and even fewer can comprehend the enormous loss of life.
"I've seen what these people are capable of firsthand," claims N., a Bedouin Arab and one of the unit's most "natural" undercover operators, as he inserts 30 5.56 mm rounds into one of his plastic M16 magazines.
"I've faced them in firefights where they battle to the death, and I've seen the way they torture and mutilate suspected informers, prostitutes or those who don't toe their line," he adds, "but I never thought I'd live to see a day where 7,000 people would die in a single day at the hands of these bastards."
"If I was President Bush, I'd wipe them all off the face of the earth," offers C., a new immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, "and I'd start right here in our own back yard."
G., the team leader, realizes that this type of talk can be counterproductive before a mission.
"Don't worry about what the Americans should do or what's going to happen in Afghanistan," he tells his men. "Let's go over our little war and what we have to do tonight.

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