by Jonathan Cook in Nazareth
rights groups in Israel have expressed outrage at the announcement last
week that a special undercover unit of the police has been infiltrating
and collecting intelligence on Israel’s Arab minority by disguising its
officers as Arabs.
is the first public admission that the Israeli police are using methods
against the country’s 1.3 million Arab citizens that were adopted long
ago in the occupied territories, where soldiers are regularly sent on
missions disguised as Palestinians.
to David Cohen, the national police commissioner, the unit was
established two years ago after an assessment that there was “no
intelligence infrastructure to deal with the Arab community”. He said
that, in addition, undercover agents had been operating in East
Jerusalem for several years to track potential terrorists.
Arab leaders denounced the move as confirmation that the Arab minority
was still regarded by the police as “an enemy” – a criticism made by a
state commission of inquiry after police shot dead 13 unarmed Arab
demonstrators inside Israel and wounded hundreds more at the start of
the second intifada in 2000.
a letter of protest to Israeli officials this week, Adalah, a legal
rights group, warned that the unit’s creation violated the
consitutional rights of the Arab minority and risked introducing
“racial profiling” into Israeli policing.
the police claim that only Arab criminals are being targeted, Arab
leaders believe the unit is an expansion of police efforts to collect
information on political activists, escalating what they term a
“climate of fear” being fostered by the rightwing government of
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Abdel Fattah, general secretary of the National Democratic Assembly
party, whose activists are regularly interrogated by the police even
though the party is represented in the national parliament, said there
was strong evidence that undercover units had been operating in Arab
communities for many years.
question is, why are the police revealing this information now? I
suspect it is designed to intimidate people, making them fear that they
are being secretly watched so that they don’t participate in
demonstrations or get involved in politics. It harms the democratic
agents disguised as Arabs – known in Hebrew as “mista’aravim” – were
used before Israel’s founding. Jews, usually recruited from Arab
countries, went undercover in neighbouring states to collect
Haaretz newspaper revealed in 1998 that the secret police, the Shin
Bet, also operated a number of mista’aravim inside Israel shortly after
the state’s creation, locating them in major Arab communities.
unit was disbanded in 1959, amid great secrecy, after several agents
married local Arab women, and in some cases had children with them, in
order to maintain their cover.
the mista’aravim are better known for their use by the Israeli army on
short-term missions inside Arab countries or in the West Bank and Gaza,
where they have often been sent to capture or kill local leaders.
Ehud Barak, the current defence minister, was sent to Beirut in 1973
disguised as an Arab woman to assassinate three Palestinian leaders.
recently, however, the army’s mista’aravim have come to notice because
of allegations that they are being used as agents provocateurs,
especially in breaking up peaceful protests by Palestinians in the West
Bank against the separation wall.
April 2005, during a demonstration at the village of Bilin, north of
Jerusalem, Palestinians throwing stones at soldiers were revealed to be
mista’aravim. They were filmed blowing their cover shortly afterwards
by pulling our pistols to make arrests. The army later admitted it had
used mista’aravim at the demonstration.
claim that stone-throwing by mista’aravim is often used to disrupt or
discredit peaceful demonstrations and justify the army’s use of rubber
bullets and live ammunition against the protesters in retaliation.
week Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of the parliament, warned other
legislators of the danger that mista’aravim police officers would adopt
similar tactics: “Such a unit will carry out provocations, in which the
Arab public will be blamed for disorderly conduct.”
Abdel Fattah said there were widespread suspicions that mista’avarim
officers had been operating for years at legal demonstrations held by
Israel’s Arab citizens, including at the protests against Israel’s
winter attack on Gaza. He said they were often disguised as journalists
so that they could photograph demonstrators.
said a woman activist from his party had been called in by the police
for interrogation after a demonstration last year in the Arab town of
Arrabeh. “The officer told her, ‘I know what you were saying because I
was standing right next to you’. And he then told her exactly what she
his testimony to a government watchdog, the police commissioner, Insp
Gen Cohen, said he had plans for the unit “to grow” and that it would
solve a problem the police had in infiltrating Israel’s large Arab
communities: “It’s very hard for us to work in Umm al-Fahm, it’s very
hard for us to deal with crime in Juarish and Ramle.”
unnamed senior officers, however, defended their role in monitoring the
Arab community, claiming the commissioner was wrong in stating that the
use of mista’aravim inside Israel was new. One told Haaretz: “Existing
units of mista’aravim have operated undercover among this population
for about a decade.”
Cohen, a lawyer with the Adalah legal group, said the accepted practice
for police forces was to create specialised units according to the
nature of the crime committed, not according to the ethnicity or
nationality of the suspect.
warned that the unit’s secretive nature, its working methods and the
apparent lack of safeguards led to a strong suspicion that the Arab
minority was being characterised as a “suspect group”. “Such a trend
towards racial profiling and further discrimination against the
minority is extremely dangerous,” she said.
two years ago from Yuval Diskin, the head of the Shin Bet, have raised
fears about the uses the police unit may be put to. He said the
security services had the right to use any means to “thwart” action,
even democratic activity, by the Arab minority to reform Israel’s
political system. All the Arab parties are committed to changing
Israel’s status from a Jewish state to “a state of all its citizens”.
Abdel Fattah said: “This is about transferring the methods used in the
West Bank and Gaza into Israeli to erode our rights as citizens. It
raises questions about what future the state sees for us here.”
Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest
books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the
Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing
Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His
website is www.jkcook.net.