Israel’s ‘Ghost Warriors’ stealthily combating terror, says US expert on confronting Palestinian uprisings
By Ruthie Blum
“Israelis have been masquerading as the indigenous Arab population since the turn of the twentieth century in order to infiltrate areas that otherwise would have been denied to them,” US-based author Samuel M. Katz told The Algemeiner, to describe a key method of combating terrorism that is still being used today, in the face of what has come to be called the “lone-wolf intifada,” perpetrated over the past few months by mainly young, knife-wielding Palestinians.
The release of Katz’s new book, The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism, came on the heels of this current surge. And though it deals with how the special anti-terrorist forces of the IDF and Israel Police operated during the Second Intifada — the Hamas-driven suicide-bombing war against Israelis that began in 2000 and was curbed by Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza – he explained its relevance today.
“When the wave of violence that has swept over Israel since September erupted, Border Police (or Border Guard) units carried out ‘low-key’ operations, infiltrating gangs of Palestinians hurling stones and Molotov cocktails, and they have carried out larger operations apprehending wanted terror suspects that intelligence identified as planning elements of the violence or plotting future attacks,” said Katz, author of previous books Relentless Pursuit and Israel Versus Jibril. “The importance of the undercover units is that they can move in and out of volatile — downright explosive — locations with stealth: silently, efficiently and without the need for the ‘shock and awe’ of larger-scale forces.”
This kind of activity, said Katz, is known in Hebrew as “avodat pintzeta” or “tweezer work” – what he called “the selective plucking of a suspect in for questioning — a pinpoint operation without collateral damage.”
This type of clandestine combat, said Katz, goes back a long way. “The elite striking companies of the Haganah (the Jewish paramilitary force during the British Mandate of pre-state Israel that preceded the IDF) — the Palmach — even created a unit comprised mainly of Syrian Jews, who had the complexion and language skills to gather intelligence and strike deep behind enemy lines; many of these veterans would go on to serve with Israel’s nascent intelligence services — the Mossad and the Shin Bet. Meir Dagan, a future Mossad director, was the first to harness the Arabic-language skills of Israeli soldiers from the Arab Diaspora into a counterterrorist force with the creation of an undercover unit that helped eliminate a terrorist offensive in the Gaza Strip in 1970-71.”
During the First Intifada, according to Katz, “The IDF created two conscript units, Duvdevan in the West Bank and Shimshon in the Gaza Strip, which utilized costume, Arabic language skills and audacious tactics, to apprehend ring leaders of the violence.”
The Border Police, as well, he recounted, “created three undercover units of their own during the First Intifada, known as Ya’mas (short for Yechidat Mista’aravim): one in the West Bank, one in Jerusalem and one in Gaza. The Border Police were ideally suited for this work; they were truly a force that integrated all the cultural and ethnic groups of the Israeli mosaic: native-born Israelis, new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Druze, Bedouins, Circassians and Christian and Muslims citizens of Israel. They had these native-born Arabic speakers in their ranks and newcomers to the country very eager to prove their worth and courage.”
The Border Police, Katz explained – which has dominated the news since the outbreak of the current wave of Palestinian violence – “is a conscript force with a large professional component, so the undercover unit operators made the counterterrorist work their careers. These professionals had more operational, geographic and cultural knowledge of the terrain and the enemy than their IDF counterparts, because they spent years in the field.”
Indeed, he added, “Many of the men who began with these units in the First Intifada fought a relentless counterterrorist campaign deep inside Palestinian cities and enclaves in the Second Intifada, and are still engaged in fighting Palestinian terror, undercover, during the current uprising. Some of the men who began their careers 25 years ago are now unit commanders. This specific and multicultural experience is unrivaled in the field of counterterrorism, which separates the Ya’mas from any other counterterrorist force inside Israel and even around the world.”
According to Katz, the true brilliance of Ya’mas units “lies in the way they instill fear in the hearts and minds of those who are behind the terror. The fact that the undercovers could be lurking invisibly behind makeup and a disguise, speaking Arabic like locals and knowing their cultural mannerisms scares the daylight out of the terror commanders — because they, of course, don’t wish to be ‘martyred’ and certainly don’t want to be apprehended.”
Ruthie Blum is the author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’
First published in The Algemeiner