The Mista'arvim: Israel's notorious undercover agents

7 min read
18 April, 2022

In a bid to confront a series of attacks in Israel and counteract rising tensions in Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories, in early April Israeli PM Naftali Bennett granted Israel’s security forces full freedom to operate against Palestinians.

This was preceded by the deployment of twelve additional army battalions to the occupied West Bank and two to the Gaza border.

From an Israeli perspective intensified “security measures,” mainly achieved through excessive military force, aim to suppress Palestinian dissidence.

Rarely have such methods translated to long-term strategic gains, owing partly to the fact that conventional military tools are notably limited when used against popular movements or a civilian population.

To compensate for some of these tactical deficiencies, Israel has also long relied on one of its traditional methods of suppression - undercover units known as mista'arvim.

"The undercover unit predates the Israeli state and was originally part of the Jewish Palmach, an elite division of the Haganah militia and later the core of the Israeli army"

Mista'arvim is a Hebrew word derived from the Arabic musta’ribeen (singular: musta’rib), which means those who “disguise themselves as Arabs”.

They dress, speak, and act like Palestinians, and carry out missions in the heart of towns and cities.

Their scope of operation includes but is not exclusive to gathering intelligence, undercover policing, infiltration and riot control, black-ops, and assassinations.

The unit predates the Israeli state and was originally part of the Jewish Palmach, an elite division of the Haganah militia and later the core of the Israeli army.

The founding of the unit was a result of the cooperation between the Zionist movement and the British mandate authorities in Palestine during World War II. The British needed intelligence agents to infiltrate the local population in the Levant and sabotage German progress.

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It is at this point that a proposal was made to recruit Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Palestine from Arab countries for the task. Several agents were planted in neighbouring Arab countries, particularly Syria and Lebanon, forming what later became the 'Syria Platoon'.

With Germany’s defeat, the British no longer needed the platoon, eventually leading to its disbandment. This coincided with rising tensions between Zionist militias and the British, as well as with the local Palestinians.

The platoon was soon relaunched as an independent unit of the Palmach called Ha-Shahar (dawn) with its main objective to penetrate Palestinian communities for espionage and sabotage purposes.

Former Israeli PM, then an Israeli army general, Ehud Barak has been credited for boosting the unit’s operational capacity in 1986 by establishing a more sophisticated and better organised mista’arvim force called Duvdevan (Hebrew for cherry).

Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
An Israeli undercover officer with a Palestinian flag headband points his gun in the air during a Palestinian demonstration near Ramallah against the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December 2017. [Getty]

Himself a former member of the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal, notorious for assassinating key Palestinian figures, Barak oversaw that the recruits were well versed in Arabic culture, language, and customs so that “they look, talk, and dress like Arabs, and ride their bikes in the West Bank and Gaza as casually as they do in Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv”.

Duvdevan is currently one of the most active undercover units in the occupied territories, working alongside the Israeli army, and is one of several mista’arvim groups across the country, each with a different operational focus.

Of these groups are Samson (Unit 367), which operates in the south near the Gaza border; Yamas, a unit associated with the Israeli border police and mainly operating in occupied Jerusalem; and Gideonim (Unit 33), a force of the Israeli police that works inside Israel.

"The mista'arvim dress, speak, and act like Palestinians, and carry out missions in the heart of towns and cities"

Infiltrating protests

On the ground in the occupied territories, the mista’arvim have become visible mainly due to their role in infiltrating Palestinian protests. They operate in groups of five to ten and use the chaos of the clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army to position themselves among the protesters, and even partake in burning tires and hurling rocks. They usually wear keffiyehs and leave their shirts untucked to conceal their handguns.

The mista’arvim usually target young Palestinians closest to the Israeli army’s front line and jump them as soon as the army starts charging forward toward the protesters. Using stun grenades and handguns, they pin down their victims and violently arrest them. Other operatives, alongside the army, provide cover as the unit hastily retreats.  

Arguably, the arrests carried out by the mista’arvim do not pose a significant blow to the protestors. The Israeli army routinely storms Palestinian towns and cities conducting mass arrests far exceeding in headcount and military value any flash operations by mista’arvim units.

The Israeli army can, and repeatedly has, used footage and photographs of the protestors, as well as facial recognition technology, to track down and arrest Palestinians in their homes or as they pass through Israeli military checkpoints across the occupied territories.

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In fact, the Israeli army has been building a database with thousands of photos of Palestinians since 2019. It even held competitions” rewarding soldiers for taking the most photos of people.

Theoretically, the Israeli army’s tracking technology and mass arrests render the mista’arvim activities irrelevant - at best a marginal support role. But one of the unit’s main goals is to undermine the will of  Palestinians to resist.

Muhammad Nasser (not his real name), a former detainee in Israel and a researcher on the operational tactics of the Israeli army, told The New Arab’s Arabic sister site that unleashing the mista’arvim against protestors is largely a psychological operation, otherwise known as a PSYOP.

The main goal is to create an atmosphere of distrust, paranoia, and fear, thus discouraging protests and, when they do take place, limit the protestors’ scope of manoeuvrability. 

Because you cant really know if this person next to you [at a protest] is another protester like you, or an undercover agent that can abduct you at any moment or pull out a weapon,” Esmat Omar, another Palestinian expert on Israeli affairs and intelligence, explained.

Going as far back as 1948, the mista’arvim relied on PSYOPS to study the intentions of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes in the wake of Israel’s inception. Disguised as refugees themselves, mista’arvim agents also spread rumours to convince the refugees that returning to Palestine was impossible.

Israeli undercover policemen, one holding a gun, arrest a Palestinian (C) during clashes following Friday prayers near the Old City in East Jerusalem on 25 July 2014. [Getty]

Controversial record

There are no specific statistics on how many Palestinians have been killed by mista’arvim, not least due to the clandestine nature of their missions and because Israeli army and undercover operations usually overlap.

However, Israel’s largest human rights organisation, B’Tselem, estimated that between 2000 and 2010 undercover agents killed 161 Palestinians in ambushes, including 19 under the age of 16.

A more recent and well-documented case is that of Ahmad Fahd from al-Amari refugee camp in the West Bank in May 2021. He was shot multiple times by mista’arvim and left to bleed to death. Israeli attempts to frame the young man as a “terror suspect” were refuted.

The following month, two Palestinian policemen were killed by a mista’arvim unit that infiltrated the northern West Bank city of Jenin. 

In March this year, undercover agents from the Israeli Border Police shot dead a Palestinian citizen of Israel from the Negev village of Rahat after he allegedly fired at them. Several local testimonies contested the police account.

"Israel's largest human rights organisation, B'Tselem, estimated that between 2000 and 2010 undercover agents killed 161 Palestinians in ambushes"

In the current wave of escalation since the beginning of Ramadan, forty Palestinians have been killed as the Israeli army has raided towns and villages across the West Bank. Some of the victims in Jenin and Silwad (near Ramallah), according to Palestinian sources, were killed by mista’arvim forces.

Many Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists view these units as little more than a hit squad.

This argument has at least three key merits. Firstly, Israeli operatives are trained to be “killing machines,” as reported by Israeli Channel 10 in 2015. Secondly, undercover units conducting military missions in a territory classified as occupied under international law is highly controversial.

And finally, covert ops have been known to cause significant collateral damage; when Palestinian civilians are beaten and killed it inevitably affects bystanders.

Mista’arvim units have also been deployed against Israeli citizens. In September last year, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority’s Rights in Israel, challenged the legality of the Israeli police setting up an undercover unit to operate in Israel’s Palestinian towns, supposedly to fight against organised crime in these localities.

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“The step contradicts the Police Ordinance, which requires police officers to identify themselves,” the organisation said.

Furthermore, Adalah expressed concerns over the discriminatory nature of the step, maintaining that “the very act of directing a unit's activity to a distinct population group on the basis of national belonging is racist and amounts to racial profiling”. 

Meanwhile in the West Bank, as the Israeli Shin Bet and army’s reliance on the mista’arvim increases, Palestinian activists are learning to adapt.

Using social media, they have begun sharing warnings about the presence of undercover agents – with instructions on how to avert being arrested or hurt by them. Others, according to The Guardian, have started openly confronting the agents and even directly clashing with them.  

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa