Israeli army troops posing as Arabs are being sent on missions to ambush, arrest or simply provoke rebellious Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli and Arab sources say.
The undercover activity, a little-discussed tool of fighting the Arab uprising that is now in its 16th month, has been revealed in several ways: through the death of Arabs in unusual or mysterious circumstances, through botched operations in which the disguised soldiers have been endangered or from eyewitness reports.
In at least one case, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed the use of soldiers out of uniform. Questioned in general about missions using disguised soldiers, military spokeswoman Ofra Preuss remarked: “We have many ways of fighting the uprising. Sometimes we have to penetrate the ranks of the terrorists to catch the stone-throwers and the leaders.”
Setting Up Roadblock
In the case in question, in late February, two out-of-uniform soldiers fatally shot a Palestinian in the West Bank village of Eizariya, just a few miles east of Jerusalem. The villager had accosted them as they were setting up a roadblock in an alleyway.
The pair had wrapped traditional checkered Arab kaffiyehs, or cloth headdresses, around their faces, witnesses said. On previous occasions, such masqueraders had been seen throwing stones at Arab houses along the highway to Jericho.
On this occasion, when the Palestinian, Mohammed Said Rishik, ripped a kaffiyeh off one of the men, a fistfight erupted, and one of the disguised agents opened fire with a pistol, hitting Rishik with a bullet near the heart, Arab neighbors said.
Both armed men then chased three of Rishik’s sons into a nearby drugstore. The boys hid in a corner of a small bathroom while one pursuer fired through the door. The back wall of the bathroom is pockmarked with at least four bullet holes. The door of Rishik’s house is also scarred with four marks from bullets.
Rishik, 57, a father of 13, lay dying on the road. Arabs say that a car with Jewish license plates stopped and that the driver offered to take the man to a hospital but was shooed away by the undercover soldiers. A car with blue license plates, the color assigned to West Bank Arabs, stopped and took Rishik to Mokassed Hospital in Jerusalem. He died on the way.
Soldiers who manned a rooftop outpost within view of the proceedings intervened only after the two men in kaffiyehs had fled. The uniformed soldiers arrested the three youths who were cowering in the bathroom, later releasing them.
At first, army spokesmen were quoted in press reports as saying the shooting may have been a mistake. Afterward, the army confirmed the activity of the undercover operatives but denied that there was anything untoward about the incident.
Preuss, the army spokeswoman, said the victim had stabbed one of the undercover agents in the hand, inviting retaliation.
“If this happened anywhere, say New York, the target of the stabbing would have the right to open fire,” she said.
The use of soldiers in civilian dress raises tangled questions about the purpose of Israeli troops in the occupied lands and how the soldiers are controlled. Army officials have taken great pains in recent weeks to emphasize the legality of all military actions directed at Arabs, including the tearing down of homes, detentions without trial, expanded sentences for stone-throwers and relaxed rules for firing weapons on Arab protesters and rioters.
The tactic of setting ambushes for stone-throwers or leaders of the uprising suggests that judgment and punishment of suspects is sometimes in the hands of anonymous commandos. Critics have charged that while such actions may be justified under rules governing Israeli security, they hardly fall within norms of lawful behavior.
Speaking on the question of law and the suppression of the uprising, human rights lawyer David Kretchmer recently called the government’s tests of army action in the West Bank and Gaza “formalistic.”
“Under military occupation, the people who carry out the law make the law,” he argued. The major question in rules concerning who can fire on whom and under what circumstances is secondary to “what units do in the territories,” Kretchmer added.
After an unfavorable human rights report from the State Department and growing criticism of Israel’s handling of the uprising, the Bush Administration is urging Israel to reduce tension in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
During talks this week in Washington with Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, American officials are expected to ask the Israelis to reopen West Bank schools, release Arab prisoners and curb the practice of jailing Arabs without trial. Reports here suggest that Israel may make some gestures to meet Washington’s requests but will not bend on its basic position that the intifada, as an assault on Israeli security, must be put down.
Outlines of the undercover work began to take shape last fall when reports surfaced of plainclothes units operating both in the West Bank and Gaza. The British news agency Reuters reported the existence of two units, code-named Cherry and Samson, deployed “as a mobile force using unconventional methods to penetrate remote villages before residents raised the alarm.”
‘Blood on Their Hands’
Such units were under orders to catch stone-throwers and shoot to kill fugitives “with blood on their hands,” the report added, quoting Israeli security sources.
The Israeli government denied, however, that the army had assassinated anyone. The military censor lifted the credentials of two Reuters reporters for several weeks after publication of the report.
On Oct. 9, unidentified men shot and killed two Arab activists in the West Bank village of Yatta. Palestinian witnesses said the assailants wore checkered headdresses, a common Arab fashion, and fired from an unmarked van. The Jerusalem weekly magazine Kol Ha-ir reported that witnesses saw the two Palestinians being dragged into the van still alive. A shot inside the van was heard as the vehicle sped away.
The day before, a Palestinian activist in a village near the West Bank town of Tulkarm was shot in the heart at close range. Palestinians said he was hunted by undercover agents; the Israeli army said he was the victim of an Arab clan feud.
Last August, armed men in civilian dress commandeered an Arab-licensed bus and shot and wounded three Palestinian stone-throwers.
One such unit was involved in a violent mix-up in September. An Israeli settler on the West Bank whose car was firebombed shot at two men he believed were Arabs responsible for the attack. Instead, the men were soldiers in civilian dress waiting in ambush on the road, according to Israeli press reports.
Members of such units have also posed as reporters in order to close in on protesters and rioters. Last summer, American television crews complained to Israeli authorities that agents had masqueraded as TV reporters to arrest an Arab suspected of throwing a gasoline bomb at a public bus.