They appeared to be a group of Palestinians who entered the Ibn Sina Hospital in the West Bank city of Jenin to seek medical help or visit relatives on Tuesday evening.
Some wore traditional Arabic women’s robes, one carried a baby seat. Another was in a wheelchair.
Within minutes they had made their way to a ward on the hospital’s third floor, where they revealed themselves to be members of an elite Israeli intelligence service hit squad, and with silencers on their guns killed three alleged terrorists who Israel said were planning an Oct. 7-style attack from the West Bank.
If the scene evokes the Netflix series Fauda, about a fictional group of Israeli undercover agents infiltrating Palestinians in the West Bank, that’s because the team that carried out Tuesday’s attack in the Jenin hospital is the real-life mista’arvim, a Hebrew word derived from the Arabic–musta’ribeen–that means those who “disguise themselves as Arabs.”
Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service has at least four units of mista’arvim, recruited from among Israelis whose families come from the Middle East, or even Israeli Arab and Bedouin. They must speak fluent Arabic and are often free to roam inside the Occupied Territories.
The agents are given rigorous training and are taught to think and act like Palestinians. Their main missions, Antoine Shalhat, an Israeli Arab writer and researcher told Al Jazeera, include gathering intelligence, arresting Palestinians, and counter-terrorist operations.
The earliest mista’arvim units were established when Israel was still Palestine and a British protectorate in World War Two, staffed with Jews who had come from Arab countries–or grown up in Palestine and spoke fluent Arabic–to help keep tabs on Nazi sympathizers. It was absorbed after the war into the Haganah, the Jewish resistance group that fought the British and Arabs, and then into the Israeli army when the State of Israel was created in 1948.
They are necessarily secretive, and Israel reportedly dissolves these units if their work is compromised, forming new units in their place.
“The agents must speak Arabic as if it is their mother tongue,” Shalhat said. “They undergo courses to master Palestinian dialects and Arabic accents according to which Arab country they operate in, such as Yemen or Tunisia.”
Mista’arvim are often used to instigate riots and stone-throwing incidents in certain neighborhoods in order to lure targeted Palestinian activists from their homes and arrest them. Press reports have described incidents where mista’arvim, their faces shrouded with traditional bedouin keffiyehs, shout anti-Israel slogans, and even throw rocks at soldiers. As more Palestinians join them, they edge the group closer to the soldiers and when the soldiers finally advance, sometimes firing rubber bullets or tear gas, the mista’arvim grab their targets and wrestle them to the ground.
Some Israeli Arabs and Palestinians say it’s easy to pick out the mista’arvim. “They’re the only ones in the Arab villages who look like Arabs,” columnist Sayed Kashua wrote in Haaretz more than a decade ago. In fact, he said, the word mista’arvim (mista’arev in the singular) has become local slang.
“ ‘What kind of shoes are those?’ ” an Arab youngster will say, mocking his friend who bought shoes from last year’s collection. ‘What are you, a mista’arev?’ “
Esmat Omar, a Palestinian expert on Israeli affairs and intelligence, told The Guardian that one of the goals of the mista’arvim is to create an atmosphere of mistrust, fear, and paranoia among protesters, “because you can’t really know if this person next to you [at a protest] is another protester like you, or an undercover agent that can abduct you at any moment or pull out a weapon.”
Their use stirred controversy in Israel when police used mista’arvim to attempt to infiltrate criminal gangs that were preying on Arab Israelis. But in the Spring of 2022, mista’arvim shot and killed a man in the middle of Rahat after he allegedly fired at them.
Haaretz called out what it said was the “troubling creep of practices used in the occupied territories against a population under a military rule, into Israel proper, against Israeli citizens.”
“Is there justification for sending mista’arvim units to infiltrate Israeli communities as if they were in the West Bank, and to treat Israeli citizens the way Israel treats an occupied population and in the war on terror?” the newspaper wrote.
And using the mista’arvim in a war may be illegal.
“The lawfulness of using undercover forces has been questioned, as it might be perceived to be a violation of the prohibition of perfidy or other forms of treachery tantamount to war crimes,” Ido Rosenzweig of the Israel Democracy Institute wrote in an article several years ago.
In Jenin, one witness described to Israeli media a scene straight out of the Netflix show.
“They entered individually, one was dressed as a woman, another as an old man, a third as a staff member, one was holding an infant seat,” the witness said. “After they assembled on the third floor, they went into the room where the three were, shot them at point-blank range, and left.” Ten other people in the ward were unharmed.
Another witness said that only a few of the mista’arvim entered the room and shot the suspected terrorists, while the others spread out across the hospital and its main entrance.
The three people killed were identified as Basil Ayman Al-Ghazawi, who was hospitalized after being wounded three months ago in an air strike on a cemetery in Jenin; his brother Mohammad Ayman Al-Ghazawi, and another Palestinian named Mohammad Walid Jalamna. The three were members of the JeninBrigades, a local militant group.
According to an Israeli government statement, Jalamna was affiliated with Hamas’ military wing and was in contact with Hamas headquarters abroad, transferring weapons and ammunition to terrorists and was planning a raid on Israeli settlements inspired by the Hamas attack on October 7.
The bigger question, though, is whether using the mista’arvim to kill suspected terrorists is effective.
“It’s efficient in the short term, but in the long term I have real doubts,” said Ariel Colomonos, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, and an expert on targeted killings. “Studies show it increases hatred and drives others to join the [terrorists’] organization.”