In Israel, Piano Player from Russia Wins an Honor for Undercover ‘kills’

A Russian immigrant turned Israeli policeman has won the Jewish state’s second-highest military honor. Known only by his initial, Y., the commander of the border police undercover unit called Yasam was awarded the Ribbon of Valor on Tuesday for a string of deadly counterterrorist missions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Yasam is the Hebrew acronym for Police Reconnaissance Unit.

“I just did my job as best I knew how,” Y., a 30-year-old father of two, told Ma’ariv before the awards ceremony. “I wasn’t expecting a decoration.”

Yasam usually seeks out recruits among Sephardi Jews who can pass for Palestinians and handle the rough world of covert operations.

It might seem an odd home for Y., the piano-playing son of Muscovite academics who immigrated to Israel when he was 16. But he now has two dozen confirmed “kills” of terrorist fugitives to his name.

Y. described Yasam as his Zionist calling. “Even in the worst of times, we always knew Israel was the place for us,” he said. “The same went for the military. Even back in Russia, we would hear about the Israeli military. For me, it was a personal challenge to serve in it.”

“The Holocaust is very deeply ingrained in me. With time, I understood how terrible it was, and understood that we, the Jews, must know how to protect ourselves without asking questions or permission.”

Drafted into the paramilitary border police, Y. performed so well that the commanders asked him to become an officer despite his faulty Hebrew. Then came the outbreak of Palestinian violence in 2000, and Y. found Arabic to be just as useful.

According to comrades, he is first to volunteer for the most dangerous missions in the grim alleyways of the refugee camps favored as hideouts by Palestinian gunmen. “There is something wrong with his fear instinct. It does not exist,” one said.

A slender 5 feet 6 inches, Y. does not stick out in a crowd. He made up for his pale complexion by growing an Islamist-style beard.

He describes undercover work as a matter of attitude.

“When you see Yasam men in the field, you know they’re not regular soldiers. They’re at home out there. Regular soldiers go around taking cover behind walls, ducking all the time. Our guys hang out in the village as if they were their own,” he said.

But Y.’s tactics also involve improvisation, which can mean the difference between dying in the field and making it home.

In one case cited by the Military Honors Commission, Y. and a comrade accepted a mission in the Tulkarm refugee camp that other units had turned down, complaining about the narrow lanes. Y. got around the problem by designing a motorized vehicle that could handle the camp’s confined spaces.

Once inside Tulkarm, Y. and his comrade found their target. When he resisted arrest, they shot him dead, waking up all the other gunmen in the camp.

So Y. decided to use the commotion to their benefit, driving out at full speed and shouting “Army! Army!” in Arabic. The Palestinian locals, thinking the two undercover cops were gunmen on the run from Israeli special forces, made way, letting them escape.

Y. “was the only one who said the mission was possible,” said Col. Tamir Heyman, a West Bank brigade commander. “And he made it so.”

Despite being the first serviceman to win the Ribbon of Valor in 23 years, Y. has no intention of coming out of the shadows.

Though he confides in his wife, an Israeli of Yemeni extraction, he made sure not to tell his parents what he does for a living. They found out about the awards ceremony by accident.

“My aunt told them. It’s a shame. I wish she hadn’t,” he said. “The Russian mentality is that you don’t ask questions. It doesn’t mean they love me less than Israeli parents, though.”

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