Undercover Warfare Overview

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Overview


Israel has a long history of deploying undercover units, dating even prior to the declaration of the Israeli state and the formation of the IDF in 1948. Known as "Mistaravim" units (Hebrew for disguising as Arabs) their formation is a reflection of the IDF tendency to form small dedicated units specializing in specific types of warfare or geographical areas. These units are also a reflection of the Israeli-Palestinian clashes in the Territories from the late 1960's to present day.

Unlike security organizations' intelligence agents, Mistaravim units are CT oriented units which are not designed for prolonged undercover infiltration, but rather for surprise, hit and run missions within the hostile urban environment. In fact, most Mistaravim operators' linguistic skills are limited and are only sufficient for short-term casual conversation required to approach the target without exposure.

Contrary to their infamous reputation as assassinations units, the Mistaravim outfits are actually a surgical tool, which is not only highly effective and economically in its deployment, but can also prevent unnecessary bloodshed on both sides. Without the Mistaravim units many operations could not have taken place without the involvement of a large heavily armed military force, a situation which could have easily escalated into a fire fight with civilian population caught in the middle. Undercover riot control is a good example of that aspect of the Mistaravim units' work. A few undercover operators infiltrating a riot, can quickly take out the riot's leaders, preventing the need to use riot control techniques on the participants with large uniformed forces.

Undercover deployment is useful not just as a primary tactic but also in supporting functions such as covert infiltration, intelligence gathering and securing insertion and extraction routes.

Israeli SF Undercover Units

Name

Area of Operation

Organization

Formed

Disbanded

Rimon

Gaza Strip

IDF

1970

1972

Duvdevan

Judah and Samaria

IDF

1986

-

Shimshon

Gaza Strip

IDF

1986

1996

YAMAS

Judah and Samaria

Israeli Border Guard

1990

-

YAMAS

Gaza Strip

Israeli Border Guard

1990

-

Gideonim

Jerusalem

Israeli Police

1990

-

YAMAS

Jerusalem

Israeli Border Guard

1993

-

The reason behind the formation of various Mistaravim units, each with a specific geographical area, is the unique Arabic dialect, customs, traditions and clans associated with each region. An undercover operator must be fully familiar with these differentiated cultural aspects in order to pass on as native, blend in and complete his mission.

Mistaravim units have different roles:

  • Duvdevan had dramatically changed over the past years and is today more of an overt CT unit rather than an undercover unit. Only small number of the unit's veteran operators still conducts Mistaravim type work while the rest are uniformed CT operators in both training and deployment.

  • YAMAS units had maintained their Mistaravim skills and conduct many undercover missions. YAMAS units also assist conventional IDF and Border Guard units in riots control, a mission in which the other Mistaravim units rarely take part in.

  • Gideonim is more an intelligence oriented unit rather than a direct action CT unit, such as the other Mistaravim units. It primarily assists the Israeli General Security Service in its various missions in the Jerusalem area and also posses counter crime capacities.

The Mistaravim units have similar training fundamentals consisting of:

  • Arabic linguistic skills.

  • Arabs' traditions, manners, customs.

  • Disguise methods such as hair dying, wigs, contact lenses and clothing, which are used in order to allow the operator to pass as an everyday Arab person, including women and elderly people.

  • Urban warfare, CT tactics and undercover deployment such as the usage of concealed weapons and civilian unmarked cars for snatches and transportation.

  • Due to their deployment within a hostile civilian population the units place a special training focus on Krav Maga, which allows them to minimize the use of live fire.

  • Intelligence gathering in urban environment.

History


1936-1948

From 1936 to 1948 Israel was under the British Empire's regime. The Israeli Jews, who were a small minority at the time, weren't allowed to establish armed forces and to fight back against the Arab terrorists who regularly attacked them. Instead of an army, the Israeli Jews created several underground paramilitary resistance movements and conducted limited war against both the Arab terrorists and the British regime.

The biggest such organization was the Hagana, which had several small companies known as the PALMACH (Hebrew acronym for "Smash Companies"). The PALMACH were the SF of their time and had several specialized platoons which were later the basis for the formation of Israel's SF units and intelligence services.

One of those specialized PALMACH companies was the "Arabic Platoon" also known as "Shahar" ("Dawn" in Hebrew), which was formed in 1943 and specialized in Mistaravim type work within Palestine and the nearby Arab countries.

The Arabic Platoon missions consisted of:

  • Operating within Arabs' villages.

  • Performing undercover sabotages against the British regime.

  • Covertly move weapons between Jewish posts.

In 1948, Israel gained independence and all of the underground organizations were merged to form the IDF. The Arabic Platoon was reassigned under the command of the IDF new Military Intelligence branch, and two years later, in 1950, was disbanded. However, the experience gathered from this platoon as well as the considerable tactical and psychological effects it had, weren't forgotten.

1970-1972

In 1970 the IDF formed Rimon in order to counter numerous terror attacks, which originated from the Gaza Strip after its occupation by the IDF in the 1967 Six Day War. The formation of this unit was a landmark in Israeli SF history, as it was the first dedicated CT unit for the Territories as well as the first Israeli SF unit to utilize undercover tactics on a large scale. The unit was in fact the IDF first Mistaravim type unit and invented many of the Israeli SF renowned undercover CT tactics, some of which are still used today.

In many ways, Rimon took after the 1940's PALMACH Arabic Platoon. However, while the PALMACH Arabic Platoon specialized in intelligence gathering, often involving prolonged infiltration periods, Rimon was designed as a direct action hit and run CT unit. The unit's mandate was to deploy counter guerrilla warfare tactics against terror, hence, fighting terror with terror. After completing its objectives, by serving a key role in crashing the Gaza Strip's resistance, Rimon was disbanded in 1972.

1987-1999

In late 1987 the First Intifada - the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli regime in the Territories - broke out. Few months prior to its mass breakout, small scale riots and attacks on Israeli vehicles in the Territories began. The IDF realized there was a need to counter these attacks before they escalated and decided on the formation of two new Mistaravim units based in part on the experience and knowledge from the 1940's Arabic Platoon and the 1970's Rimon. Each of the two new units specialized in a different area: Shimshon operated in the Gaza Strip and Duvdevan operated in the Judah and Samaria.

Following the IDF Duvdevan and Shimshon successful deployment, in 1990 MAGAV formed its own two YAMAS units (Hebrew acronym for "Mistaravim Unit") each specializing in a different area: YAMAS Gaza Strip and YAMAS Judah and Samaria. In the same year, the Israeli Police, wanting an undercover unit of its own, formed Gideonim, a clandestine elite intelligence gathering oriented unit designed to work primarily in the Jerusalem area. Finally, in 1993, when the Intifada extended into the Jerusalem, MAGAV formed its third Mistaravim unit - YAMAS Jerusalem, bringing the total number of Israeli SF Mistaravim units at the time to no less then six dedicated specialized units.

Though rumors of the Mistaravim units existence began circulating after their formation in the late 1980's they were considered classified and were not exposed to publish until May 1992, when a detailed TV special aired covering Duvdevan and Shimshon. The existence of the YAMAS units was reveled to the public few months later in August 1992, when Eli Abraham, the CO of YAMAS Judah and Samaria at the time, was killed during a operation in the Territories. Finally, Gideonim was not exposed to the public until 1998 following the mutiny which erupted in the unit and in the YAMAM at the time.

In 1994, due to an agreement reached after the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks held in Oslo, Norway, the Israeli forces were no longer allowed to enter and operate in the Gaza Strip. The need for Shimshon and YAMAS Gaza was almost entirely diminished and both units were drastically minimized. Two years later, in 1996, Shimshon was disbanded.

2000 -

The second half of the 1990's was a relatively quite period In the Territories, the IDF and its SF shifted their focus to the South Lebanon front in which the guerrillas fighting had rapidly escalated into a brutal LIC. With a diminishing need for the Mistaravim type units, there were considerably downsized and there were even discussions of weather they should be disbanded or shifted into counter crime oriented units rather then counter terror.

However, in late 2000, just few months after the IDF withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000, the Second Intifada broke out and everything changed again. The Mistaravim units again became the Israeli tip of the spear in fighting terrorists in the Territories. They were enlarged and their gear and training were upgraded, in particular YAMAS Gaza was considerably biffed up. Unlike in the First Intifada, the IDF could now deploy in the Territories in full military force, which allow the units to perform much more overt missions then their traditional undercover deployment.

Deployment


The units' combat deployment can be divided several categories:

  • Riot control - infiltrating the riot in order to seize the leaders and take out armed terrorists hiding among unarmed rioters. Usually, after the undercover operators draw their weapons and arrest the riots leaders, they put on identifying hats so other Israeli forces won't mistake them as terrorists. At the same time a large heavily armed group of uniformed soldiers arrived to the scene, secure the perimeter and finish up the arrest, with the undercover operators and the captured terrorists pushed into military vehicles.

  • Direct action - arrests, targeted killing and ambushes. These operations can take place during nighttime or broad daylight, in the terrorists' hideouts on the streets.

  • Intelligence Gathering - to assist the Mistaravim units, other SF units and the Israeli security organizations in their various missions.

Mistaravim units are among the business SF units in Israel and had seen tremendous success over the years. The units conduct hundreds of operations per year to kill or capture. With many wanted terrorists killed instead captured, the Mistaravim gained reputation as assassination units. This reputation is only partly true. Most of the terrorists were fanatic, deeply religious people who preferred to fight to the death and becoming martyrs than surrender to the Israeli forces.

This high missions' rate had its price. Many Mistaravim graduates finished their three years IDF mandatory service with psychological and physical damage. Broken ribs, smashed noses, head concussions and other injuries had become almost a daily routine in the units' early years. Many of the IDF units graduates, not finding their place in low adrenaline civilian life, volunteered for YAMAM.

Psychological Effect


Other than the direct effect of capturing or killing numerous terrorists, the Mistaravim units had a tremendous psychological effect on terrorists causing confusion and fear. Their remarkable ability to deploy undercover tactics and operate anywhere anytime made no place safe. In particular, their broad daylight daring operations in heavy populated places, killing or snatching terrorists into unmarked cars, caused confusion among the terrorists and the local Palestinian population.

Some of the units' operations were even mistakenly associated to rival terrorists fractions or to the Palestinian security organizations, adding to this confusion. In some cases when the Mistaravim performed an operation to capture a terrorist, the locals thought the soldiers in disguise were actually Palestinian security personnel apprehending Israeli collaborators or Israeli agents, and even started cheering at the Mistaravim soldiers.

The Mistaravim units' tactics were so effective that on occasion even the Israeli security forces and fellow operators from the same unit made identity mistakes, resulting in friendly fire incidents.

Unmarked van used by the units.

Future


In recent years the Mistaravim units had undergone several changes. In the Second Intifada undercover missions were used less frequently than in the past as many of the tactics involved were previously exposed. In addition, as the IDF could operate more overtly in the Territories the focus was shifted to uniformed CT missions. This change is most vivid in Duvdevan in which undercover missions are now another tactic instead of core as in the past. It is therefore still remain to be seen which path the Mistaravim units will take in the future.

Undercover Units Guide