Mista’arvim: Israeli Spies Disguised as Arabs
By Palestine Center Intern
Imagine yourself as a Palestinian youth. You’re in the Israeli-occupied West Bank among a group of demonstrators, wearing the keffiyeh as a symbol of national pride, protesting against yet another human rights violation perpetrated by Israeli-occupation forces against your community — an act of settler violence, extrajudicial killing, home demolition, or unwarranted arrest. You’re chanting slogans of defiance and throwing stones in the direction of the heavily-armed occupation forces.
Although you’re unable to reach them, many of you still find it unusual that the occupation forces have only responded with sporadic fire well above your heads. Then, a few unfamiliar men in the group encourage you and a few of your friends to get closer. Emboldened by the occupation forces’ minimal response, you do so, but with the expectation that things will likely escalate. However, as all of you approach them and separate from the rest of the group, you notice that the occupation forces remain unphased and uninterested.
All of a sudden, those men encircle and wrestle you to the ground, placing you and your friends under arrest. They take out the guns they had hidden under their loose-fitting clothes and fire shots into the air to disperse the crowd of demonstrators. The occupation forces finally swarm in and begin firing rubber bullets, sound grenades, and tear gas towards the fleeing protesters — yet another use of unnecessary and excessive force.
Meanwhile, these apparent traitors and some of the occupation forces repeatedly beat you — one of them even hits the back of your head with the stock of their gun. Finally, your bloodied body is dragged into an Israeli military vehicle and you’re driven away. Semiconscious, you sit there in silence and listen to those men, who had earlier been speaking fluent Arabic, conversing in Hebrew with each other. The physical pain of the beating doesn’t compare to your fear of indefinite detention and possibility of torture under interrogation.
These are the Mista’arvim (or Musta’arabeen in Arabic), the plural form of “musta’rib,” which loosely translates to “Arabized,” a term originally given to Arabic-speaking Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who lived in the Arab world. The first Mista’arvim unit was established in 1942, prior to the creation of the State of Israel. They dress like Palestinian protesters, speak with the Palestinian dialect of Arabic, and exhibit their mannerisms, but they’re actually undercover Israeli agents. The Mista’arvim are chosen for their similar physical appearance to Arabs and undergo a comprehensive training process. They complete courses on Palestinian social and religious customs, Arabic language and culture, and engage in field and operations training.
The mission of the Mista’arvim is to infiltrate and disrupt nonviolent Palestinian protests in order to arrest demonstrators, with the ultimate aim of sowing fear and distrust among the Palestinian people to deter their resistance to Israeli occupation and colonization. However, Palestinians have become more vigilant during protests, maintaining caution when a group tries to bring protesters closer to occupation forces. They are encouraged to wear lighter colored clothing and tuck their shirts into their waistbands, where weapons would have otherwise been concealed.
The Mista’arvim were notably active during the First (1987–1993) and Second (2000–2005) Intifadas, although recent Mista’arvim activity has been reported over the years, albeit there has not been extensive coverage in this regard. Apart from disrupting protests (e.g., October 7, 2015; November 6, 2015; December 13, 2017), Mista’arvim have been known to infiltrate Palestinian communities to gather intelligence (November 11, 2018) and arrest or assassinate targets (January 4, 2007; November 12, 2015; March 7, 2018).
An early yet notable Mista’arvim operation lasted from the early to late 1950s, in which Shin Bet officer Shumel Moriya recruited ten other Iraqi-born Jewish Israeli men to infiltrate Palestinian villages to gather intelligence in the event that a war broke out between the Arabs and Israelis. To maintain their covers, some of the operatives married Palestinian women unaware of their true identities and fathered children with them. When the group disbanded due to the supposed minimal intelligence outcomes, the women were later informed of the operation. They were told by the Mossad that they could remain in their communities or convert to Judaism and raise their children as Jews in the so-called State of Israel — most of them chose the latter option. The women and their children were reportedly traumatized.
Moreover, the Mista’arvim have operated in other Arab countries outside of Palestine. The most famous among them was Eli Cohen, who, under the alias, Kamal Amin Thabet, infiltrated Syrian society and obtained intelligence on the Syrian government and military. Cohen was born in Egypt to Syrian Jewish parents, but became an Israeli citizen and was recruited by the Mossad.
He posed as an expatriate Syrian businessman in Argentina and made contacts with the Syrian embassy in Buenos Aires in 1961. Thereafter, he entered Syria from Lebanon with Majed Sheikh al-Ard, whom he had met while sailing from Europe to Beirut. Sheikh al-Ard, who was unaware of Cohen’s real identity, helped Cohen find a furnished apartment to rent on Abu Rummaneh street in Damascus. Apart from gathering intelligence on the Syrian government and military, Cohen reportedly toured the Syrian Golan Heights in 1962 with Maazi Zahreddine, the nephew of then-chief of staff Abdul Karim Zahreddine. At some point following the 1963 Ba’athist coup d’état, also known as the 8 March Revolution, Cohen was apparently considered for the position of ‘deputy defense minister’ by then-president Amin al-Hafez, though this claim is dubious. Finally, in 1965, Syrian counterintelligence, with the help of chief of staff Ahmed Suweidani, detected unusual radio signals and arrested Cohen in the middle of a transmission. Following Cohen’s detention, he was interrogated, convicted of espionage, and publicly executed in al-Marjeh square in Damascus.
Another notable but less well-known example is that of Jamil Cohen. He was born in Damascus but left to work for a kibbutz in the British Mandate for Palestine at the age of 21. Baghdad-born Saman Somech recruited him and others into the Mista’arvim to operate in Beirut, Lebanon in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Jamil Cohen posed as a Palestinian Muslim refugee under the alias of Yussef el-Hamed. He was never detected by Lebanese authorities.
A related case is that of Argentinian-born Shulami ‘Shula’ Cohen, code-named ‘The Pearl.’ She provided intelligence to the Mossad and was part of an operation to smuggle Jews from Arab countries through Lebanon into Palestine, dubbed ‘Aliya Bet.’ She was married to Lebanese Jewish businessman Josef Kishik, and hosted salons in Beirut attended by businessmen, politicians, and senior military officers. There were rumors of prostitution at her events. The Lebanese intelligence agency Le Deuxieme Bureau, which was established by then-president Fouad Chehab, arrested Shula Cohen following two months of surveillance in 1961. Her trial began later that same year. Upon her guilty verdict, she was sentenced to death on July 25, 1962. However, her sentence was commuted to twenty-years imprisonment due to international pressure, only six of which were served — following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Shula Cohen was among those exchanged in a prisoner-swap with the Arab states.
In sum, the Mista’arvim have a long and nefarious history of deceit and sadism. They’re among the many tools of oppression that the Zionist colonial establishment has used to oppress the Palestinian people and the Arab nation at large. Despite the appalling nature and critical impact of their missions, there is limited Arabic- and Hebrew-language press coverage of this subject, not to mention the lack of scholarship and English-language media coverage. In addition to the glaring need for more research to better understand and expose the Mista’arvim, this void must be filled by greater political and media attention on the matter — in the Palestinian community, Arab world, and international community at large. In doing so, the Israeli occupation may be pressured to end one of its many egregious practices.