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.
Profiling Israel‘s undercover Mistaarvim unit
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 newsreported 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…
…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…
…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.