- - Monday, September 2, 2019


In mid-November 2018, a car carrying an Israeli army’s undercover unit operating in the Gaza Strip that was disguised as Palestinian humanitarian aid workers (with several of the male soldiers reportedly disguised as women), was stopped at a Hamas checkpoint, close to the Israeli border. 

In the ensuing firefight, an Israeli lieutenant colonel was killed and another officer wounded, with seven Palestinians killed, including a Hamas commander. Escaping in their car toward the border with Israel, the surviving undercover soldiers were extricated by an Israeli helicopter. What was unique about this operation is that the Israeli undercover operatives had reportedly resided in Gaza unnoticed for several weeks prior to the conclusion of their botched operation.

With most of Israel’s Special Forces’ undercover units operating in disguise as “native” Arabs in Palestinian areas, particularly the West Bank, with great success, as glamorized in Netflix’s international hit “Fauda,” Matti Friedman’s “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel” presents a fascinating and dramatic account of an unglamorized and little known — yet highly significant — series of heroic and dangerous exploits of what was a small ragtag unit of some 20 Arabic-speaking Jewish spies that had operated in the 1948-1949 period.

This unit was deployed by the Palmach (the Hebrew acronym for “strike forces”), the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the underground army of the Jewish community during the period of the British Mandate for Palestine, to collect intelligence and conduct sabotage operations in the battle for Israeli statehood against the Palestinians and the Arab states.

The author, a Canadian-born journalist and a longtime resident of Jerusalem, discovered this unit’s exploits when, in 2011, he happened to meet Isaac Shoshan, an Israeli in his late 80s, a retired spy, who recounted how he and several of his friends had engaged in undercover espionage activities against Palestine’s Arabs and their Arab state supporters during the birth of Israel in 1948.

Mr. Shoshan was originally from Aleppo, Syria, and had made his way to the Jewish community in Palestine in 1942, where he was recruited by the Palmach in 1945 because of his native Arabic and ability to pass for an Arab. The unit’s other members were also Jews born in the neighboring Arab countries who had immigrated to the Jewish community in Palestine during that period. 

With Mr. Shoshan and some of the remaining members of this group whom Mr. Friedman interviewed, the author makes extensive use of Israel’s military archives, including many files declassified for the first time.

What made this native Arabic-speaking Jewish unit so significant, the author explains, was that prior to its establishment the Jewish community’s intelligence service had relied on networks of paid Arab collaborators, with some of their information unreliable, and, most importantly, this practice “contradicted the Zionists’ ideal of doing everything themselves.” 

With the unit called the Arab Section, its operatives were known as the mista’arvim (the “ones who become like Arabs”). Much of the account centers on the pivotal period from January 1948 through August 1949, with the author highlighting the activities of Mr. Shoshan and three of his fellow spies in the two port cities of Haifa (the largest Arab city in Palestine at the time) and Beirut, Lebanon, which were some 80 miles apart.

Several successful espionage and sabotage operations are highlighted. These include using a car bomb to blow up a Palestinian Arab truck in a Haifa garage that was intended to detonate and kill Jews, and then escaping without a trace from the scene. In another, operatives set up a kiosk in Beirut to gather “street” intelligence on Arab military threats facing Israel, such as purchases by Syria of armaments to be used as part of the Arab armies’ invasion against Israel.

In a spectacular sabotage operation, after discovering that Hitler’s former private yacht, Aviso Grille, had been purchased by a Lebanese businessman to transport military armaments to Egypt, the Beirut cell worked with a newly-arrived Israeli bomb expert to plant mines below the yacht to explode it while it was anchored in Beirut’s harbor. The operation succeeded, the author writes, as the yacht was “repaired but never refitted as a warship and never taken to Egypt.”

Following the establishment of the State of Israel and the consolidation and institutionalization of the country’s military and intelligence services, the Arab Section was dismantled and subsumed in the Mossad, the external intelligence service, and Shin Bet, the domestic security agency, with several of the former Arab Section’s operatives continuing to conduct their spying operations against Israel’s adversaries, posing as Arabs of various businesses, whether in the Arab world or worldwide.

The author concludes that unlike the earlier meaning of the mista’arvim as “Ones Who Become Like Arabs,” now it has a different meaning, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as it “denotes soldiers or police who carry out brief operations in Arab guise, darting into Palestinian cities to arrest or kill suspects. They don’t live as Arabs, nor could they.”

“Spies of No Country” is a riveting history that highlights the important — and dangerous — role played by Israel’s Arabic-speaking covert units that defended the country against a spectrum of threats. 

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.

• • •


By Matti Friedman

Algonquin Books, $26.95, 272 pages

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