Palestinian social media war against Israel’s elite undercover unit

Palestinians on social media have been warning their fellow countrymen of the “Musta’ribeen” (the Arabized), Israel’s undercover security units whose members operate as disguised Palestinians.

During recent clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protestors near the Beit El Jewish settlement near Ramallah in the West Bank, members of the elite Duvdevan unit were caught on camera in action.

#شاهد.. فيديو خطير يوضح عمل المستعربين بشكل دقيق في مواجهات بيت إيل اليوم

Posted by ‎Radio Bethlehem 2000 راديو بيت لحم‎ on Wednesday, 7 October 2015

A video filmed by an AFP reporter showed the undercover agents disguised as Palestinian stone throwers--covering their faces with Palestinian kaffiehs, as Palestinian stone throwers would typically do.

They were seen in the midst of Palestinian protestors, throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Then, in an instant, they drew weapons that had been concealed and opened fire at the demonstrators next to them, according to AFP.

The Musta'ribeen [[Mista' arvim in Hebrew] receive special training to assimilate into the Palestinian population. The cultural and linguistic knowledge they gain enable them to disguise themselves as Palestinians from all walks of life, sometimes as elderly men or even women, often drawing on the expertise of makeup artists.

Palestinians' familiarity with the Musta’ribeen dates back to the first and second intifada [uprisings], in 1987 and 2000, when the Arabic-speaking units were deployed to help subdue the insurgency.

A third intifada could be in the offing as protests over Israeli settlement expansion and incursions into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem boiled into violence earlier this month.

Palestinians on Facebook warned of “the Facebook Musta’ribeen".

"People disguised as young women opened 5,000 accounts to gather information about young Palestinians,” one warning read.

Other Palestinians advised protestors to keep their shirts tucked, “the reason being the Musta’ribeen almost always wear shirts untucked in order to hide firearms and handcuffs", said a Palestinian Facebook group.

Other marks that distinguish them from Palestinians are "the brand trainers" they often wear and their strong build, much needed in their job when they arrest or attack the targeted individuals, other warnings on social media read.

Pictures purportedly of members of the Musta’ribeen in action were posted on Facebook for Palestinians to make a mental note of. 

To Palestinians, Musta’ribeen are “shabiha”, the Levantine Arabic word for thugs—a term often used to describe forces of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad. But to the Israelis, they are national heroes.

A report on the Israeli news channel i24news looked at the role of the Musta’ribeen with its two units the Duvdevan and the border police.

The channel broadcasts in Arabic, English and French.

The Musta’ribeen’s strong build and expensive brand shoes could be a giveaway. But more importantly, their knowledge of Arabic may fail them every now and then, as it did Yoram Binur, an Israeli journalist who also posed as a Palestinian, not for intelligence or defence purposes but as an undercover reporter. Instead of mere days or weeks, he spent six months in disguise to record the day-to-day reality and suffering in the occupied territories and inside Israel.   

In a documentary on the Musta’ribeen broadcast on Al-Jazeera in 2014, Binur gave an account of what it is like to assimilate among the Arab population.

Binur went undercover during the 1988 intifada. He recorded in a book [“My enemy, Myself”] his six-month journey into the world of Palestinians. He posed as an Arab using a Jordanian identity card of a man who was killed in Jerusalem. Binur invented the story of being from a Palestinian family, originally from Haifa in northern Israel, who moved to Lebanon after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 before migrating to the United States.

He said he was so immersed in his new identity he began to dream in Arabic even though he was brought up with Hebrew as his mother tongue. Despite his cultural immersion, he does not know all the words in the Arabic vocabulary, as he put it. The word comb [misht in Arabic] was one such words—too easy for a journalist who is more of an expert in political phraseology than in simple day-to-day vocabulary of ordinary Arabs.  

He told of an incident when he was in the midst of a group of Arab workers when he was asked if he had a “misht”.

“As a journalist, I have been talking politics all my life; suddenly someone asked me if I had a misht. I did not know what misht means. It is not a journalistic word, it is a slang word.” He managed to duck the question, drawing on his cultural knowledge of how an Arab would react if he did not want to talk.

Binur’s six-month undercover work differs in many ways from that of the Musta’ribeen—the main difference is the motive behind his undercover work.

The aim of his infiltration into the world of the Palestinians was to get a firsthand experience of the treatment they receive at the hand of Israelis. The insight he seeks to gain stands in contrast to the motive of the Musta’ribeen—“to scare and frighten the Palestinians, since fear is what prevents their action in the future”, a member of the unit said to i24news.