Monday, May 20, 2019

The Jews Who Became like Arabs: The Early Days of Israeli Intelligence - Janet Levy

by Janet Levy

A new book unveils the daring exploits of the Arab Section, the embryonic Israeli intelligence service.

When Israel was still a dream, an idea far from plausible reality, Jews from the Arab world risked their lives for the nascent state and went undercover in enemy territory: Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. This special Palmach unit, dubbed the “Arab Section” or the “Ones Who Become Like Arabs,” received cursory training in spycraft, intelligence gathering, and sabotage. Resources -- cars, cameras and radios -- were in short supply, as was money to cover ordinary expenses and even salaries. Yet, the Arab Section infiltrated Arab communities, gathering useful intelligence and radio reports, carrying out acts of sabotage and even attempting an assassination. 

The exploits of this elite unit of the Haganah, the Jewish underground army in Palestine, are told through the lives of four of its Arab-Jewish recruits in Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2019). Author Matti Friedman uses material from interviews, Israeli military archives, unclassified Haganah documents, published histories and unpublished testimonies from participants to tell the story of four of the men who helped establish what would become Israel’s intelligence services.

These young men, Jews born in Middle Eastern communities, could easily navigate between two worlds, but were, for the most part, amateur spies who survived mainly by their wits. They paid close attention to Arab morale, their opponents’ military strength and schemes, any potential subterfuge plans, and most importantly, what was happening around them.
In 1947, the British announced their departure from Palestine. For more than 25 years, the British had struggled to cope with rising tensions and the increasingly difficult task of governing two hostile populations at odds with each other. The United Nations decided that the British Mandate for Palestine would be divided into two separate states: one Jewish and one Arab. Although the U.N. had no way to enforce this plan and it was unclear how it would be resolved, Jews rejoiced at the long-promised creation of a Jewish state in their ancestral land. Arab Muslims reacted with fury. In Arab-Muslim countries, Arab rioters burned Jewish homes, stores, and synagogues in Jewish communities that had existed for centuries. The U.N. and other international agencies failed to intervene, and many Jews fled, abandoning their property and belongings. 

This violent civil war evolved into full-scale war. When Israel’s War for Independence began in late 1947, it wasn’t clear that a state of Israel would ever exist. At that time, British authorities believed the Arabs would prevail. To further complicate matters, British soldiers and police were still on the ground, and the British navy continued its efforts to keep Jewish Holocaust survivors from reaching Palestine. 

During this turmoil, the four men portrayed in Spies of No Country became recruits in the Palmach Arab Section. They were Gamliel Cohen from Damascus, Isaac Shoshan from Aleppo, Syria, Havakuk Cohen of Yemen, and Yakuba Cohen, born in Jerusalem. Friedman describes how they often operated alone in isolated, hostile environments without the backing of an established intelligence agency or even an existent country, as the Israeli state was not yet a reality. An incorrect word or clothing, a gesture, an accent could engender suspicion, blow their covers and result in torture and death.

The author also discloses an uncomfortable reality at the time for these Mizrahim, or Middle East Jews, as they were called. They didn’t feel fully accepted by most of the inhabitants of what was to become the Jewish state. European Jewish refugees, or Ashkenazis, with their Left-leaning, secular ideas about Zionism, viewed the “otherness” of Arab Jews with discomfort and referred to the them as “blacks.” With this intrinsic bias, it was difficult for the Palmach to place these spies in training on kibbutzim for instruction purposes.

Thus, the goal for the Arab Section was to create agents who could pass as Arabs. They had to learn about Arab culture and Islam and practice Muslim prayer rituals. “They had to become the people they fled,” Friedman writes. While undercover, the agents struggled to keep a distance from Jewish residents of the Arab communities. Sometimes, they succumbed to their emotions and visited family members, which proved to be a dangerous, life-threatening proposition for several agents.

Despite the bias and dangers, the Mizrahim played a crucial role during the first stage of the war that was fought inside Palestine by Jewish and Arab irregulars. This fighting preceded the 1948 fall of Haifa and the later invasion by regular Arab armies into the area partitioned for the Jews. In one early reconnaissance operation described by the author, an Arab Section agent noticed a suspicious vehicle in Haifa. It turned out to be a truck bomb destined for the Jewish part of town. It could have caused much destruction and many deaths, but the alert agent and a cohort had the truck blown up and a catastrophe was avoided. 

As part of another mission in Beirut, a letter written by a German serving the Arab cause was intercepted. It contained information about a yacht that had formerly belonged to Hitler and on which 20 escaped German POWs in Beirut were working to install new armaments for the Egyptian navy. The ship posed significant danger for Israeli coastal areas. Three Arab Section spies rigged the ship with explosives, eliminating the threat.

On another operation, a Muslim cleric was targeted for assassination. After several failed attempts on his life, a two-car team was employed: one to make a positive identification, the second to follow with a hit. Although the operation went awry and the sheikh was only wounded, he sufficiently feared for his life after the incident and fled from Israel to Beirut.
Agents of the Arab section also proposed to blow up a refinery in Tripoli in northern Lebanon. The operation was seriously considered but shelved because of concerns about the safety of local Jews and the political repercussions that could arise from European companies with financial interests in the refinery.

By then, the course of the war had shifted with Jews becoming more successful in the fight against the disorganized Arabs. It began to appear that the Jews would prevail and establish their state. At this point, the new government jettisoned the partisan militias and disbanded the Palmach. Toward the end of 1948, the Arab Section became a unit of the Israel Defense Forces.

The state of Israel was already beginning to evolve from a secular solution to Europe’s long-standing, pathological anti-Semitism to more of an amalgamation of European Jews and Jews from the region. As fleeing Arab Jews began populating the state, its character was altered by their culture, deeply tied to Jewish tradition and community. Their profound appreciation for the importance of religion and strength empowered a changing view of Israel from a refugee camp for the Jews of Europe to a country that had resisted, fought, and suffered in the Arab world.

The daring exploits of the Arab Section, or the “doctrine of Arab cover,” were later codified and organized into formal Israeli intelligence courses. The “One Who Becomes Like an Arab” was dismantled in favor of a more professional intelligence service and was replaced with brief operations to arrest or kill suspects rather than a unit of rugged individuals that lived like Arabs. Friedman quotes one Palmach agent who said, “Israel’s intelligence doctrine was built on their backs.” The author concludes that with present-day Arab-Jews far removed from their roots and a well-established Israeli identity, the modus operandi of the Arab Section would be very difficult to duplicate in today’s world.

Janet Levy


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