If I were a Palestinian
After 20 years in the Shin Bet security service, Nissim Levy understands the people he pursued better than he understands the leadership that sent him after them. If he were in their place, he says, he would embitter our lives.
Nissim Levy served in the Shin Bet security service for 20 years. In his job as field coordinator in 1984 in Lebanon, and in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip before and after the Oslo Accords, he was in regular contact with the "other side." The endless searches for one more bit of information and the firsthand contact with the residents, those who "want to throw us into the sea," did not turn him into an Arab-hater who is tough on security matters. Perhaps even the opposite.
Although Levy does not regret anything he did in the Shin Bet, he has much more empathy and understanding for the people he pursued than for the Israeli leadership that sent him after them. He does not speak about a shady security service that tortures people, but feels that the very presence of Israeli forces in occupied territories gives the other side legitimacy to carry out terror attacks.
"Once in Lebanon they told me that they had caught a 12-year-old boy with an explosive device in his hand," he recalls. "I didn't really believe it; I thought the soldiers must be exaggerating. I arrived at the place and it really turned out that the boy was walking along the highway with an explosive device ... We drove to his village, entered his parents' home. I said to the father: 'Is this your son?' He said yes. I said to him: 'We caught your son with an explosive device in his hand.' The father looked at me and made a gesture as if to say, what can I do?
"I asked the boy who had given him the device and he told me: 'I found it.' I asked the father if he had given him the device, and he said no. What could I do? A 12-year-old boy - I wouldn't take him to jail. So I told the father that I was leaving him at home, but if I caught him one more time, I would put both of them in jail.
"A week later, the same story, the same boy. I took him to his father and he said to me: 'I have no control over him. He goes to school, they give him an explosive device and tell him to throw it. They throw it. That's how we're raising our children.' I sat opposite him. I believed that he hadn't given the boy the device, and I said to him: 'You're endangering the boy's life. He'll die.' He said to me: 'He'll die? So he'll die.'"
From this Levy concluded that "reality exceeds all imagination." In his first novel, "Shana bli tzipporim" ("A Year Without Birds"), which was published in Hebrew a few weeks ago by Am Oved, he describes the experiences of a Shin Bet coordinator in Lebanon who is pursuing terrorists that have harmed Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The searches are not always successful, and even when they are, the question that hovers throughout the story is: "What the hell are we doing here?" In reply to the question as to whether the book is autobiographical, Levy refers to the preface he wrote: "If any of you believes that this is a work of the imagination, I apparently have a well-developed imagination. If any of you believes that it actually happened, he was apparently there."
Lessons from Tehran
"Unlike Gaza," explains Levy, "the process in Lebanon did not begin with the fact that I was the occupier and they were the occupied: It began with the fact that I was the redeemer and they were glad I had come. Slowly but surely, because of the things I do, because of my thoughtlessness as a nation, as a government, I gradually exacerbate the situation. I turn my friend into my enemy."
Levy is convinced that the second Lebanon war is a direct outcome of the mistakes made in the first war, and tries to imagine what would have happened if immediately after Israel initially entered Lebanon in 1982, there had been a bombing attack that would have caused it to withdraw quickly rather than to become stuck there for almost 20 years: "Someone once said, imagine that we had worked a little less well, and a bus with 50 soldiers had exploded immediately. It is possible that the State of Israel would have fled South Lebanon immediately. The death of those 50 people would have prevented the death of 700 soldiers over 18 years."
In the end we left Lebanon as a result of the helicopter disaster.
Levy: "True, and I'm telling you that it might have been better for us had the helicopter disaster taken place in 1983 or 1984, and then there would have been not Four Mothers, but 20 mothers, who would have exerted such pressure on the government that it would have been persuaded to get out of there already then." (Four Mothers was a grass-roots movement founded in the wake of the 1997 IDF helicopter collision that killed 73 soldiers; it called on Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.)
Levy, 52, grew up next to the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. At the age of nine, after his parents separated, he was sent to Kibbut Dorot as an "outside child" and adopted by a family from the kibbutz. In the army he served as an officer in the Golani Brigade and in 1978, after his discharge, he joined the Shin Bet. His first job was as a security guard at the Israeli Embassy in Iran. In Tehran toward the end of the shah's regime, he was impressed by the enthusiasm of the pro-Khomeini demonstrators, who did not hesitate to confront the armed soldiers opposing them.
"The revolution began while I was working there; it was a major milestone for me," he says. "You're standing in the street and, against your will, find yourself in a demonstration of tens of thousands of people walking forward and being shot at. I was a foreigner looking on from the sidelines there. In films, when you see a nation rising up against the cruel government, you always identify naturally with the weak side that rises up and fights. Suddenly you see this, a meter away from you."
Levy finds no comparison between the Iranians who were fed up with the shah and the present feeling of disgust felt by many Israelis toward their government. "There you could see people's readiness - here it wouldn't happen. We don't fight even for simpler things. We don't even change the government democratically."
After he left Iran, Levy was trained as a Shin Bet field coordinator, and in 1984 he was sent to Lebanon, where he was in charge of recruiting and operating agents in the refugee camps and villages south of Tyre. At this point he was already married to his wife Dorit and the father of a child. He remained in Lebanon for about a year and a half, and his experiences from that period are the basis for his book. Today Levy, who now has two more children, lives in Moshav Gea near Ashkelon. Since retiring in January 1999, he has written and staged several children's plays, produced a film about a friend who was killed in a training accident in the naval commandos, and worked as an assistant producer and assistant director in cinematic productions.
In Lebanon and Gaza Levy was in charge of recruiting and handling collaborators. As a field coordinator, he explains, he had to be very familiar with the population living in the area for which he was responsible, and to find people who would agree to collaborate with the enemy. "A coordinator who is responsible for a refugee camp of 18,000 people knows all of them. He's the prince of the area. An intelligence person has to be something of a 'gossip.' He has to know everyone, to know how they look, what they wear, what their nicknames are, how many children each one has and where he comes from. You accumulate a huge amount of information in your head, because when you go out to work it's only you and your head. You don't go out with a computer."
Do you have to know where to apply pressure to your source?
"That's already a matter of your talent. There are endless motives. The motive can be universal, like money, or just a smile you gave the man and captivated him when he was in a certain situation ... Anything that can lead to the man's becoming receptive. But make no mistake: Not everyone can be recruited; the slogan that every man has a price is not true."
Do you use people's weaknesses?
"Every motive is a weakness. I had a certain policy: I helped people whom I saw were in distress. The bottom line was that I knew that I would reap the profits, that was definitely the purpose, but I and the Shin Bet had red lines that could not be crossed: If someone comes to me and says, 'I have a great piece of information for you, but I have two kilos of heroin that I want to transfer to Israel,' that will be rejected out of hand and the man will go to the police and be interrogated. When you begin to violate the law with your agent to receive information, the deal falls apart very quickly. Because he is also clearly handling you.
"The same is true of sex. We will not photograph a woman who is cheating on her husband and is at a point where if I use her, I can get a lot of information. That's a red line. When you understand how to use operatives, you understand that these motives are very short-lived and the motives in a relationship with an agent have to be long-lived."
Can you give an example of recruiting an agent?
"Someone needed surgery urgently and it went through me. I immediately said that he should receive the medical treatment, without thinking twice. He received the treatment and someone made sure to tell him that the person who had approved the treatment was an officer in the Mukhbarat (secret service). Afterward he already felt obligated."
It sounds very nice, but don't you ever make treatment conditional on collaboration?
"There are certain issues, like medical treatment, that I never provided conditionally. I'm not trying to present myself as a righteous man in Sodom, but if I begin my relationship with grudges, I won't get anywhere. When you exploit a motive you also have to use your brains concerning it."
To what extent can a source motivate you and deceive you?
"It depends to a great extent on you, on your wisdom when it comes to noticing little things and your ability to gather information about him from other sources. Your ability to discover deterioration at an early stage is a daily struggle. If you're not sufficiently alert and not sufficiently sophisticated, you're in trouble."
Did that happen to you, too?
"We say that a coordinator who never had a source who betrayed him doesn't know how to be an operator. It happened that a source betrayed me, it happened that a source tried and I managed to stop it in time. There are enough coordinators who are lying in the cemeteries today because a source betrayed them. When a source comes to you and says to you, 'I didn't come to that meeting because I was ill' and you know that he didn't come because he was at a business meeting, that's the beginning. If you didn't take care of it immediately you could expect a problem."
'Snowball of hate'
One of the important things in his line of work, says Levy, is creating the feeling that you will stand behind the things you say. "Once," he recalls, "I entered a house looking for a wanted man and I was sure he was in the house, because we had sealed it so hermetically. I didn't know exactly where he was. I didn't want to begin to open closets and take them apart or to search under the bed. I approached the mother, because I thought she was a somewhat weaker link. I asked her who her children were, and she told me the names of all the children except one - so I understood that she already knew what we were talking about and why I had come.
"I told her: 'That's not all your children, you have more. What about Mohammed?' Then she tells me, 'I forgot Mohammed.' So I ask, 'And where is Mohammed?' And she says, 'Walla, I don't know. I haven't seen him for a long time.' Now I follow her eyes and check where she's looking. I know that at a certain point her glances will go over him. If he's in the room, her eyes are supposed to speak to me. I saw that she was drawn to the closets.
"I said to her, 'You're saying that he's not at home?' She says, 'Yes.' So I said to her, 'No problem. I'm going to fire into the closets now. I'm going to shoot a bullet into each closet. What do you say about that?'
"Now it's a game of nerves, who will give in first. I wouldn't have fired into the closets, but I wanted to save time. To get out of there quickly. Try to imagine the atmosphere. There's absolute silence in the room. Then she says, 'That's enough. Mohammed, come out.'"
Levy once again recalls the concept of "a snowball of hate": "Let's say that in a certain village there's someone who carried out a terror attack against soldiers. The moment you've traveled to the village, taken the man and left, you've created another four potential terrorists. You have to understand that. I had no hesitation when I had to enter homes. But imagine that you are entering a small room where five people are sleeping, and to get to my Mohammed I have to step on four. That's exactly the snowball I'm talking about. On the way to entering a village to arrest someone I'm already doing damage, and the question is why have we reached this situation. Today, if the chief of staff, after dropping a bomb that killed four children, says that he feels only a tremor in the wing - what is the Palestinian who lives there supposed to think?"
As someone who is familiar with the conditions of the Palestinians in Gaza, do you feel empathy toward them?
"Ehud Barak once said that if he were a Palestinian he would join a terror organization. If I were in their situation, I would make our lives bitter. I would not blow up women and children. I'm totally opposed to that. But yes, I would fight against the foreign occupier. When you take a person and put him up against the wall and don't leave him many options, then what do you want him to do?
"Let's forget our patriotism for a moment. If a boy in Be'er Sheva falls in love with a girl in Haifa, what does he do? He picks up the phone, makes a date and drives to see her. If a boy from Bethlehem falls in love with a girl from Nablus, what does he do? He has to cross checkpoints, he needs a 1,001 permits. The moment that you reach the conclusion that you have nothing to live for, you immediately find that you have something to die for."
Are soldiers legitimate targets?
"Yes. In this battle soldiers are legitimate targets. My father was in the Etzel [the Irgun, a pre-1948 right-wing Jewish military organization that fought the British and Arabs]. There was the British occupier and he fought against it. The Palestinian is fighting against the Israeli occupier. When you come and call someone a 'terrorist,' the definition is totally subjective. I consider the Etzel fighters freedom fighters, and the British considered them terrorists ...
"Weren't we the ones who invented this business of sacrifice? Who sanctified 'it is good to die for our country'? Didn't we sanctify those who were the first to charge in order to save the homeland? Okay, so the Palestinians have taken it to much greater extremes. Do you think that if we were in their situation we wouldn't have suicide bombers? Isn't Baruch Goldstein a suicide bomber? [Goldstein, a Jewish doctor, fired at Muslim worshipers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in February 1994, killing 29 and wounding 150]."
"At the height of the first intifada, when Yitzhak Rabin was defense minister," recalls Levy, "he asked to meet with us, the people in the field. He didn't make declarations. He asked us to tell him what was going on and said, 'Tell me the truth, what's happening?' And people talked. They talked about the corruption of the youth, about the fact that our youth and our reservists were confronting 18-year-old children, about the fact that this conflict cannot be won with tanks unless you run over everyone. People spoke from the heart and told him that it was hard, that we were arresting dozens of people and then releasing them, that it was a bottomless pit. The overtone was that there is no choice other than a diplomatic process that would solve the problems."
"My goal as a general security service," Levy continues, "is to reduce the terrorist threat to zero, or almost zero, so that the government in Israel will solve the problem we have, but not when there is a pistol to its head. I and my friends worked like dogs and managed to reduce the problem almost to a minimum. There were almost no terror attacks, and then the government came and said, 'There's nothing, so why make a decision now? Let's postpone it.' And they postponed it. In this equation I kept my part of the bargain and the governments didn't keep theirs."
Not everyone left the Shin Bet with the same opinions as you.
"At least in the group of people with whom I come into contact, people think like me."
Levy's harsh criticism of the political leadership emphasizes the fact that in his book, as in this interview, he sounds and speaks like a defender of the Shin Bet.
"You're not the first to tell me that," he replies. "Someone told me that in the book there is nobody who steps on an Arab, slaps him and tells him that his mother is a bitch. But that was the situation."
You never beat anyone up?
How is it that you have no criticism of the organization?
"The organization has very strict criteria. People were thrown out for writing in their diaries that they had a three-hour meeting and it turned out that they just wrote that they had a meeting so that they could have a break."
Nor is Levy impressed by testimony regarding abuse carried out by Shin Bet people, which appears on the Web site of the Public Committee Against Torture. When asked how it is possible that his descriptions of the organization are so far removed from what the public knows about it, he replies that as a field coordinator he did not participate in interrogations. Nevertheless, Levy also has explanations of the reports of torture. "Imagine that someone sat opposite an interrogator in prison, opened his mouth and talked about 14 cells that perpetrate terror attacks. He returns to prison and the people he exposed are looking at him. What should he say? He'll say: 'They placed me on a machine, they did this and that.' In order to justify themselves people tell stories."
Were there things that you regret having done?
"I don't regret anything. That's a sweeping statement, but there is nothing etched in my memory that I can say I regret. I feel pain about failures, and have scars from the fact that I did not succeed in figuring out certain things that afterward turned out to be from my area - things like that." W