In recent weeks and months, Israel’s elite undercover Special Forces units, known as the Musta’ribeen (Mista’arvim), have increased their activities against the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. The units are responsible for the arrest and assassination of Palestinian resistance members wanted by the Israeli occupation authorities.
For example, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) revealed that the murder of Omar Abu Laila, who carried out an operation in Salfit, in Ramallah in late March, was a result of a Special Forces unit infiltrating the city. The soldiers posed as vegetable vendors before making the hit. In December, the Musta’ribeen killed resistance member Asem Barghouti in the same manner. In March, Special Forces disguised as journalists killed the former head of the Birzeit University Student Council Omer Al-Kiswani, within the university campus in Ramallah. Last November, Hamas uncovered a unit of Israeli Special Forces in the southern Gaza Strip and killed its commander in a bloody clash.
How do these elite troops disguise themselves, and why are the Palestinians unable to identify them? How many assassinations are they responsible for, and how can resistance fighters evade them?
Ever since the First Intifada (1987 to 1993), and including Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000 to 2005) and the subsequent popular uprisings until Al-Quds Intifada in 2015, the media has been showing pictures of apparently armed civilians arresting Palestinian protestors and handing them over to the Israeli army. These “civilians” are the Musta’ribeen.
The uprisings created the opportunities for the revival of these units, which are a weapon of the IDF used to counter the increase in armed resistance operations resulting in losses among Israeli soldiers. The Musta’ribeen have played a major role in the pursuit and liquidation of Palestinian resistance fighters.
The term Mista’arvim is derived from the Arabic word Musta’rib, meaning a non-Arab wanting to integrate with the Arabs; Musta’ribeen is the plural. Members of these units are trained to know the Palestinian area in which they operate, the dialects spoken there and the names of well-known families. This helps them when they infiltrate a Palestinian town, either to gather intelligence, to arrest wanted persons or, sometimes, to carry out assassinations.
Members of the units use a number of means to carry out their tasks: they impersonate Arab individuals, join in alongside protestors and impersonate journalists to kill, arrest or take pictures of their targets. They graduate from ordinary army units after passing out from a long and difficult training programme. Priority is given to those with Middle Eastern features, especially those with a darker skin who look like Arabs.
They are trained in a mock-up of an Arab town, complete with shops and a mosque. The town school has Palestinian slogans on its walls, and cars are parked in tight alleys. The process is designed by the IDF so that the Musta’ribeen units can learn how to live the Palestinian way of life so as not to raise suspicions about who they are when they are undercover.
The Musta’ribeen generally arrive in their target area in civilian cars with Palestinian licence plates. Trucks are also used for the easy transfer of large numbers of agents and their weapons, and are useful for evacuating team members who are wounded or killed in the event that things don’t go according to plan.
The Musta’ribeen will dress in the same style as the residents of the area of operation, either wearing locally made clothing or traditional Arab clothes. Moreover, at least one member of the undercover unit will speak Arabic fluently. They also disguise themselves using wigs and crutches, wear loose clothing to hide weapons, and pose as foreign journalists. On several occasions, one of them has pretended to be cradling a baby, which turned out to be a weapon.
Undercover operations are coordinated with other IDF units and intelligence officers, who provide background information on the intended victims. Planning involves setting up ambushes and traps for the targeted individuals or groups. The element of surprise is important for a successful conclusion.
It is clear from the targets and the nature of their killing that operations are based on accurate intelligence from a local source, which can only be obtained by collaborators. It is also obvious that arresting the targets is often not an option; the intent is to kill with no prior warning. This, obviously, creates panic in the local community, as well as fear.
Not every undercover operation is successful, though. There have been several known failed attacks, when the Musta’ribeen made fatal mistakes which have blown their cover.
Although there are no accurate figures for the number of Palestinian victims of the undercover units, the estimates suggest that it is in the hundreds. YouTube is filled with footage of Musta’ribeen operations.
The increased use of undercover units has led international human rights organisations to express deep concern. Such operations in the occupied territories are illegal under international law and violate the principle of distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Having soldiers disguised as civilians puts the genuine civilians at risk. Moreover, the manner in which Palestinians are beaten and killed inevitably has an effect on innocent bystanders.
International journalists’ unions and relief organisations have also expressed their concern at the actions of the Musta’ribeen in disguises which clearly endanger the lives of their personnel operating in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Nevertheless, the Israeli occupation authorities are showing even greater reliance on the undercover Musta’ribeen units and allow the Special Forces to be trigger happy in order to reduce confrontations with the army and keep clashes with Palestinians to a minimum; reduce the number of demonstrations and protests against the occupation by intimidating protestors; and resolve the problem of bad publicity and media coverage, which show Israeli soldiers as they arrest and kill Palestinians, which is the most important achievement in the IDF’s view.
An analysis of the killings committed by the special units shows that at the time of their death, the victims were either writing slogans on the wall, protesting or throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers; others were doing regular activities, such as visiting friends, being at home with their family, going to or from prayers at the local mosque, riding in a car or walking down the street. They were generally all killed at a very close range of between two and five metres.
The Musta’ribeen can be said to incite the Palestinians amongst whom they are hiding, encouraging them to throw stones or attack soldiers. They even provide water to demonstrators. Then, suddenly, they will open fire and await the arrival of uniformed soldiers a few seconds later.
It has been common over the past few weeks for Musta’ribeen to stand on the front lines, only a few dozen metres away from uniformed Israeli soldiers at whom they throw rocks. Hiding behind barricades to avoid tear gas and rubber bullets, they separate suddenly from the rest of the demonstrators and open fire on them. Those Palestinians who are not targeted to be killed are dragged into waiting IDF vehicles.
The Palestinians are now wising up to the tactics used by the Musta’ribeen. For example, they know that their appearance is often preceded by a state of calm during which the army retreats and reduces the number of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fired. The Musta’ribeen usually encircle the protestors, with the cooperation of the army, in order for the soldiers to advance from the front while the undercover troops wait behind.
Palestinian activists have been carrying out an awareness campaign among demonstrators to protect them from the undercover units. Tips include wearing light-coloured clothing, as the Musta’ribeen usually wear dark and loose clothing to hide their weapons. This helps them to identify the infiltrators. Another tip is for protestors to tuck in their shirts because Musta’ribeen keep their shirts untucked, again in order to hide their guns. Palestinian protestors are also advised to engage in confrontations with the Israeli army in small groups in order that everyone knows each other and strangers are easier to identify.
The IDF’s repeated use of the Musta’ribeen Special Forces is considered a war crime and a crime against humanity that is punishable by law, because they carry out assassinations in cold blood and in front of cameras. This requires us to document their crimes on film, to add to the International Criminal Court’s case files on the Israeli military occupation and its crimes and violations of Palestinian rights.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.