JERUSALEM (Jun. 23)
Israel Defense Force soldiers disguised as women, old men and masked Arab youths have been waging an undercover war against intifada activists which the IDF claims has been eminently successful.
Disclosure of the hitherto top-secret operation on a popular weekly television show Friday night, with the approval and full cooperation of the armed forces, was hailed by some Israelis but shocked and angered others.
Actual scenes were shown of soldiers putting on disguises and undercover squads wearing black-and-white checkered headdresses quietly nabbing surprised suspects in the middle of the street.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens and IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Ehud Barak said the “surgical” operation by teams of specialists captured the real troublemakers, thereby avoiding the collective punishment of entire Arab towns and villages and lowered the IDF profile in the territories.
The decision to publicize the operation was taken by Barak.
IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Nahman Shai said Sunday that the purpose of the disclosure was to let the Palestinian activists know they are not safe in their own backyards.
Another important purppose, military sources said, was to refute Palestinian claims that the undercover units were “hit squads” sent to assassinate intifada leaders.
But an unidentified Arab caller from the Gaza Strip told Voice of Israel radio that the local Arab populations can easily spot outsiders regardless of any disguises.
Yitzhak Rabin, a leader of the opposition Labor Party who was defense minister when the intifada began in 1987, was a sharp critic of the disclosure, as was Eliahu Ben-Elissar of Likud, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee.
Rabin conceded that the undercover operations were no secret to the Palestinian population in the administered territories. But exposing them allows “hostile elements to blame us for things we haven’t done by merely noting the fact that the IDF, too, was using masked men in the territories.”
Rabin called the television broadcast a “grave mistake.”
The television report was discussed at the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, where ministers reportedly differed sharply.
Likud Health Minister Ehud Olmert praised the televised report. He welcomed the fact that the army has found a way to deal with specific intifada targets, thereby sparing the general Arab population.
But Rehavam Ze’evi of the far right-wing Moledet party, a minister-without-portfolio, took an opposite view and threatened to leave the coalition — a threat the Prime Minister’s Office said it did not take seriously.
Ze’evi objected to the release of “hundreds” of Arab prisoners on the occasion of the Moslem feast of Id Al Adha.
About 80 Gaza Strip residents were freed Sunday from the Ketziot detention camp in the Negev for the feast. Most had either finished their sentences or would have shortly.
Another 80 prisoners are to be released Monday from Ketziot and nine were released from the Megiddo military prison near Afula.