Somewhere in the West Bank or in an Arab-Israeli town in Israel, a protest is unfolding. Protesters, their faces covered with checkered keffiyehs or balaclavas, chant against the Israeli army. They soon start throwing rocks at the Israeli troops. Their accents, mannerisms, and expressions are those of any Palestinian. 

But these aren’t the run-of-the-mill Palestinian protesters. And when the protest begins to grow and others cluster in a mob to threaten the troops, their true purpose and identity become all too clear. In an instant, the “protesters” spring into action, producing weapons, firing into the air, grabbing the protest’s ringleaders, and wrestling them to the ground for the army to arrest them.

The other protesters immediately scatter screaming “Musta’ribeen!” They have just fallen prey to the Israeli elite special operations units known as Mista’arvim.

Mista'arvim operative
Mista’arvim operative arrests a Palestinian rock thrower and warns a photographer to stand back. (Reuters)

“Think and Act Like a Palestinian”

Mista’arvim, or Musta’ribeen in Arabic, are the undercover counter-terrorism units assigned to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli Border Police, and Israeli police units. They are specifically identified, selected, trained, and operate among the Arab population. Their primary missions are performing intelligence gathering, law enforcement, hostage rescue, and counter-terrorism. Stealth and disguise are their primary means of accomplishing their mission. 

The specially trained Mista’arvim units are tasked with working undercover in the Arab areas. Their ability to assimilate in the Arab cities and towns is paramount.

Mista’arvim derives from the Arabic “Musta’arabi”, meaning “those who live among the Arabs.” It refers to the Musta’arabi Jews, Arabic-speaking Jews who lived in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab rule in the 7th century.

Mista’arvim’s Training

To serve in a Mista’arvim unit one has to undergo intensive training. This takes, generally, between 15-18 months at a minimum. The training is comprised of the following components: 

  • Twelve weeks of basic infantry training at the Mitkan Adam army base – the IDF Special Training Center.
  • An additional 10 weeks of advanced infantry training in the same base.
  • Two months of the unit’s basic skills training, which consists of advanced urban navigation and the beginning of counter-terrorism training.
  • And additional 16-20 weeks of the Mista’arvim course. Operatives must learn and master Arab traditions, language, and customs. Some of the dialects taught consist of Palestinian, Yemeni, or Tunisian. They also learn how to use civilian camouflage (makeup, hair dyeing, contact lenses, clothing).
  • A follow-on advanced training component consisting of one-month courses – sniper course, driving, or other courses that the unit will designate.

In the video below, undercover Mista’arvim agents can be seen assisting the Israeli troops during a protest.

Mista’arvim Operational Risk Is Very High

Countless Mista’arvim intelligence-gathering missions go unnoticed and unpublished. Yet, occasionally, operations can go to hell in a handbasket.

One such highly publicized operation East took place in November 2018. Hamas security forces became suspicious of the activity of a group they believed to be smugglers. In reality, they were members of Mista’arvim.

The unit was forced to shoot it out with Hamas while trying to withdraw back into Israel. It was only after the Israelis began shooting at the Hamas forces with drones and aircraft that Hamas realized that they were chasing Israeli operatives and not smugglers. 

The commander of the operation, identified only as LTC “M” was killed. A reserve captain was seriously wounded. Six Hamas men were killed, including a senior member of Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

In the aftermath of the operation, Hamas was shocked to learn that the Israeli unit hadn’t been in Gaza for just a few days but for several weeks. They traced their activities backward and found that the unit had rented safe houses and was scouting strategic locations, including the homes of senior Hamas officials. 

Hamas published the photos of the Israeli undercover operatives, which will probably preclude them from ever working undercover again.

It’s unclear if the unit’s mission was to plant spy devices at key locations in the Hamas-controlled city or kidnap Nur Barakeh, head of the Hamas military wing. Barakeh was reportedly killed in the firefight between the unit and Hamas. 

The realization that there are entire teams of elite Israeli Special Operatives working freely on the streets of Gaza is a scary proposition for Hamas.

Known Mista’arvim Units

Ya’mas (Yamas)

Yamas is the elite undercover counter-terrorism unit of the Israel Border Police. It operates in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

Many Ethiopian immigrants and others who could openly pose as Sudanese and other North African migrants have been recruited by Yamas.

The unit’s missions include domestic hostage rescue operations, offensive hit-and-run raids against targets in civilian areas, SWAT operations, undercover police investigations and intelligence gathering, VIP protection, and covert operations targeting organized crime.

Mista'arvim and Israeli security forces arrest Palestinians during a rock-throwing protest.
Mista’arvim and Israeli security forces arrest Palestinians during a rock-throwing protest. (Reuters)

Duvdevan (Unit 217)

The unit is part of the special operations “Oz” 89th Commando Brigade. Duvdevan operators undergo their basic training in the Paratroopers Brigade. Its members are also trained in human and mechanical counter-surveillance

Dundevan units operate independently and can conduct several operations at the same time. The unit’s missions are very similar to Yamas’s but also include infiltration, targeted killings (assassinations), ambushes, kidnappings, and urban warfare operations.

The unit is actually recognized with only an identity number (Unit 217). Duvdevan is simply the nickname given to it. 

Gideonim (Unit 33)

Unit Gideonim (Unit 33) is the Israeli Police’s own special operations intelligence-oriented undercover unit. The unit was formed in 1994 to conduct intelligence gathering and fight organized crime in the East Jerusalem region. But the unit soon began training and conducting counter-terrorism (CT) operations. Nevertheless, a change in leadership resulted in the unit being more involved in police-type of operations since 1998.

Gideonim had a contentious relationship with Ya’mas as they competed for funding. Gideonim’s mission-set partly expanded as a means of receiving increased funding. 

The unit operates both inside and outside of Israeli borders. It is headquartered in East Jerusalem at a classified location.