What Drove This British-Israeli Jewish Exec to Convert to Islam and Abet Terrorist Activity

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Timothy Bernard, right, and, above, his wife Balsam Sharaiya.
Timothy Bernard, right, and, above, his wife Balsam Sharaiya.Credit: Shin Bet Security Service
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

For weeks, passions have run high in the quiet community of Lapid, near Modi’in. “No one was surprised, but everyone is in a state of shock,” says a local resident. “Our Timmy, who was chairman of the town committee and deputy head of the Hevel Modi’in Regional Council, went to help the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. He was always a colorful character, a manipulator, smarmy, but no one can figure out how he descended to this.”

Senior investigators also found it hard to believe when they discovered who it was that apparently tried to smuggle 60 cell phones to an imprisoned senior figure of Islamic Jihad.

“You’re a brazen, dangerous person who will do everything to prevent us from thwarting terrorist attacks,” a Shin Bet interrogator code-named “Robbie” said accusingly to Timmy, in the security service’s Petah Tikva facility last November. “Your contemptible behavior is a surprise to us. It’s very regrettable to see that you’re willing to sell your future and your family’s future and harm state security in return for money.”

“Timmy” is Timothy Bernard, a tall man who immigrated to Israel with his family from the United Kingdom in 1966. Until a few years ago, he and his wife were raising four children, he was director of the company responsible for maintenance at Airport City, adjacent to Ben-Gurion International Airport, and he held senior posts in Lapid and the Modi’in District. Today, though, he is known to many as Karim, a resident of Lod and a security detainee who is suspected of becoming involved with terrorist activists. He is married to Balsam Sharaiya – “she’s the brains behind the operation,” according to a senior Israel Prison Service official – and the two have an 18-month-old son.

Bernard is charged with taking part in an operation to smuggle cellphones into a prison last October by means of a quadcopter drone. The phones were earmarked for a senior Islamic Jihad figure from the Gaza Strip who is serving a 17-year-term for setting off explosive devices targeting Israeli troops in the Rafah area. The smuggling operation was thwarted when the prison cook observed a drone a few hundred meters away and summoned the Israel Prison Service’s Dror unit, which deals with crime behind bars. Bernard and his wife were apprehended.

The investigation revealed that they had another Israeli accomplice – Tomer Bjornsted, from Givat Ko’ah, a moshav also situated in the Modi’in District. Five other people were also involved, including two residents of the West Bank town of Budrus and one from the Druze village of Isfiya in northern Israel. According to a senior security source, the smuggling operation was funded by Islamic Jihad. “You see the characters in this Hollywood story and you’re in shock,” a ranking IPS officer said.

Both Bernard and Bjornsted denied knowing the phones were intended for terrorists. The others, including Bernard’s wife – who incriminated him – admitted knowing who the recipients were.

‘Indefatigable schemer’

Timothy Bernard, 56, was born in Britain to Ray and Patricia, a Jewish Zionist couple who immigrated to Israel in 1966. Initially they lived on Kibbutz Beit Ha’emek, in Western Galilee, before moving to Jerusalem, where Ray headed the PR department of The Jerusalem Post. Timothy attended a branch of the ORT vocational schools network in the city and afterward did army service as a tank technician in the 720th Division (the Judea Division). Following his discharge, he owned and operated a vegetarian restaurant in Jerusalem. He then established a business importing writing utensils. He married for the first time in 1986. In the mid-1990s, the family was one of the first to settle in Lapid, many of whose residents are army officers and defense establishment personnel.

Timonthy Bernard with former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. “All he was interested in was good jobs and money,” said a fellow local councilor.

Bernard immediately stood out in Lapid – and not only because he is quite tall. “His dream was to be head of the [regional] council,” says Oved Shetah, chairman of the Lapid governing committee. “He and his wife were very active in local matters,” he adds. “He was always very buddy-buddy in social events, shaking hands and impressing everyone with his fluent English. Smiley and friendly. I never heard him talk about Israeli-Palestinian issues, not extreme right and not extreme left, but he thrived in local politics.”

In 1999, Bernard was elected a member of the Hevel Modi’in Regional Council and appointed its deputy head, under David Tuviana. “The residents of Lapid brought a lot of pressure to bear for him to become deputy council head, so he was appointed,” Tuviana told me when we met at his home in Moshav Beit Nehemia. “But in practice,” he added, “he didn’t do anything special and had no power. It was mainly a title.”

Then the disputes began. Tuviana: “The Interior Ministry informed me that having a deputy was out of the question, and I had to inform him that he was going to have to give up his post. He didn’t take it well and started to argue with me. He came to council meetings with a whistle and would blow it when I started to speak. He wasn’t the most sympathetic guy in the world, but that’s a long way from a picture of him dressed in the uniform of a security prisoner. Listen, the only thing that interested him was to make sure that the residents of Kfar Oranim didn’t get to their town via the road through Lapid. He was someone who only fought, he liked to live with action and conflict.”

Moshe David was a political ally of Bernard’s, and became a local council member together with him. “I thought he wanted what was best for the settlement, and we worked together, but then I discovered that all that really interested him was to be deputy regional council head, for a salary. All he was interested in was good jobs and money. He’s an indefatigable schemer who only looked for places where he could make trouble – and now he’s found them.”

David Tuviana lost the election in 2004 and afterward was involved in a bribery affair and was sentenced to a prison term of three-and-a-half years. Shimon Sussan took over as council head, but his initial alliance with Bernard didn’t last.

“I met Bernard in 1998,” Sussan relates. “Timmy represented a large group of people from Lapid. Already then I saw him as someone who was crafty, in the negative sense of the word, but we ran things together. He always found a reason to quarrel. Instead of working for the public, I saw that he was constantly looking after his personal interests. My attitude was, ‘respect him, but suspect him.’ He had a gift for ingratiating himself with people with his glib tongue. He’s a person who’s capable of everything. What kind of person leaves a normal family with marvelous children and converts to Islam? Can you trust someone like that with anything? He’s capable of any kind of extremism.”

After a time, serious allegations began to be voiced in Lapid about Bernard’s behavior. “He would lie to people in their face, about nonsense,” a local resident says. “There was something very self-destructive about him. He said he would bring in money, he did build sports fields, but above all he set people against each other and turned out to be a politician of a low, unreliable kind. He made a lot of enemies.”

Going for broke

In the 2009 local election, Bernard decided to go for broke and run against Sussan for regional council head. “Everyone knew it was a joke, but he was serious and I went along with it,” a close friend recalls. “The truth needs to be said – he also did good things for Lapid. He understands planning and building, and the Lapid of today is largely thanks to his planning. He built the soccer pitch in town, and he got money, but he was always lying to people. He would call local journalists and give them information as though it was me speaking. He has a lot of imagination, lives in fantasies. It was the same in the election. He told everyone he would win handily, he had no inhibitions.”

But reality gave Bernard a jolt: He didn’t even win a majority in his own Lapid. According to the friend, he ran into debt because of the campaign expenses. At that time, he also left his job in Airport City. On top of this, he was fined 25,000 shekels (about $6,000) and court costs because of his part in slanders that were published about Sussan in a local newspaper.

Bernard and his wife separated in 2012, but they continued living together in Lapid until their divorce became final, when she and their three children moved to Modi’in. Lapid residents recall that Bernard “seemed to evaporate and disappear from the map.” One neighbor said, “The last time we heard about him was half a year ago, when WhatsApp groups said that he had converted to Islam, married a Lod woman and had a child with her. People here were in shock.”

The phones, money, drone and map of the drone’s route that were confiscated.Credit: Shin Bet Security Service

After leaving his job in Airport City, Bernard worked in building maintenance. In 2011, he was appointed vice president of Ofek, a company that provides management and cleaning services for buildings, mainly in the center of the country and the coastal plain. But finally, says Motti Levy, the CEO, he was fired “because he didn’t get results.” He then began to work freelance in building management.

According to the investigation, it was in Nes Tziona, where Ofek has its headquarters, that Bernard met the woman who would become his wife and his accomplice in smuggling cellphones. She was a pious Muslim named Balsam Sharaiya, 33, from Lod, a divorcee with two children.

“I met Timothy in 2013, when I was working in a travel agency next to his office,” Sharaiya told a Shin Bet interrogator code-named “Raphael” in her first round of questioning. “I used to smoke outside, and we met there and became close.” Employees in the Ofek building identified Sharaiya’s photo and related that she had worked there as a cleaner. They became close, despite their age difference, and started to correspond secretly. In 2015, however, according to the investigation, Sharaiya’s father became suspicious. He found the correspondence and locked his daughter in the house and prevented her from going out for a year.

Bernard decided to convert to Islam in order to be with Sharaiya. “I converted about five years ago,” he said in his Shin Bet interrogation. “I would like this to remain private, because I know it’s not accepted in Israeli society, especially among security personnel, who have prejudices.”

Bernard and Sharaiya were married in July 2016 and moved to an apartment in Lod’s Ganei Ya’ar neighborhood. Their son was born in 2017.

“She is a very charismatic woman who has the ability to connect with people,” says a senior IPS official who’s knowledgeable about the case. “If she brought down a normative person like Bernard, that says it all. She was able to conquer him and connect him with terrorist and criminal elements in the territories. Her motivation is not nationalist – money is all that interests her. She knows very well that the phones are earmarked for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and that doesn’t bother her. All she thought about was the money.”

The investigation revealed that Sharaiya had been involved in smuggling phones for some time. At the end of 2014, she hooked up with Yusef Abed al-Karim, from the village of Budrus, adjacent to Ramallah. Karim, who is active in Fatah and had served time in Israel on a shooting charge, persuaded Sharaiya to help him smuggle cellphones in return for payment. The intended recipient was a senior figure in Islamic Jihad, Ahmed Abu Jazer, who is serving a 17-year sentence.

The initial plan was simple. With Sharaiya’s aid, Karim and a cousin smuggled dozens of small phones into Israel from the territories. The phones were taken to Nafha Prison, north of Mitzpeh Ramon in the south, and thrown over the wall in a bag. Someone inside was supposed to collect them, but the phones were seized by the IPS.

The squad tried again in 2016, this time at Eshel Prison, outside Be’er Sheva. By now, Sharaiya was living with Bernard, who claimed not to have known about his wife’s moonlighting. This time the phone-smuggling operation was initiated by Said Othman, a top Hamas moneyman who is serving a life sentence for involvement in a suicide attack on a Ramat Gan bus in 1995 in which six Israelis were killed. The method was the same – 39 phones in a bag were thrown over the prison wall – and so was the result: The phones were seized by the IPS.

The other defendants in the case, from left: Majdi Awad, Yusef Abed al-Karim and Ahmed Abu Jazer.Credit: Shin Bet Security Service

‘Mission No. 29’

The idea of using a drones had been mooted as early in 2016, but the implementation took two years.

Bernard had no criminal record, though he was caught driving without a valid license several times. In 2017, he was sentenced to six months of community service at a day-care center for the elderly in Lod. There, in a place that’s light-years away from terrorist activity, he worked on the plan to smuggle phones into the prison.

The latest round of activity began last August, when Karim suggested to Bernard and Sharaiya that they smuggle dozens of cellphones into Nafha. Each device would mean around 10,000 shekels (about $2,600) for the smugglers. Sharaiya was not happy about the proposal, apparently because she had problems getting paid for the previous attempt, but Bernard was gung-ho. “That same day, Timmy told me he was thinking of doing it,” she said in her interrogation.

The plan was to purchase an advanced quadcopter drone that would carry the phones to Abu Jazer’s cell. “It’s a daring, ambitious idea, and they trained for it thoroughly, like a military unit in every respect,” says a senior security source. At the day-care center, Bernard recruited another Israeli for the job: Tomer Bjornsted, 40. He too was paying off a community-service sentence, for operating slot machines. Bjornsted told the interrogators that he accepted the offer because he was heavily in debt.

Bjornsted: “[Bernard] told me that he had been deputy head of a regional council, and that he had been CEO of Airport City. He looked like a very successful businessman. Timmy said he had a deal involving phones that would land them a bundle of money. He said it was to smuggle phones into a prison. I told him that scared me, but that I was in.”

Bjornsted’s task was to purchase a quadcopter. For that, Sharaiya gave him 10,000 shekels, which according to the defense establishment came from Gaza. In his interrogation, Bjornsted said he had nothing to do with terrorists and that he hadn’t known that the phones would end up with imprisoned members of terrorist organizations. He cooperated fully with the Shin Bet from the outset: “What do I have to do with terrorism?” he said. “Timmy looked like a successful person, I didn’t think he would endanger himself… Timmy managed things. I have nothing to do with terror.”

“I can’t say who came up with the idea for this activity,” Bjornsted said. “On the one hand, Balsam said she had the connections; on the other hand, Timmy was the one who made all the arrangements with me, so it was probably both of them together… I say that everyone who deals with terrorism or who wants to harm Israeli citizens deserves death. I wish them death… What do I have to do with terrorism? What do I know about state security? I would never do anything in my life to endanger the country.”

According to an old acquaintance of Bernard’s, in the months preceding his arrest, when he was already married to Sharaiya and was living in Lod, he expressed extreme left-wing opinions. “Sometimes I was shocked by his opinions about the country,” she says. “He spoke like a member of the minorities, like an Arab who’s humiliated every day at checkpoints. He talked about the occupation and about the state’s humiliation of the Arabs. My feeling was that it wasn’t the Timmy I used to know, or maybe that he had always thought like this but had never said so. He seemed to be messed up.”

According to the acquaintance, Bernard was still reeling from his demeaning removal from the Lapid leadership and from his loss in the 2009 election. This, she thinks, led him to do what he did. “My feeling was that he was looking for revenge to the point of rebelling against the state,” she says.

People involved in the investigation said they doubted very much that the motive was ideological: “Bernard had debts,” said one source, “in part because of the lawsuit against him and his financial dealings, and also in the wake of personal crises, like his divorce. We have no doubt that he was well aware that the phones were intended for terrorists, but our assessment is that it was money that drove him and Balsam.”

In September 2018, Bjornsted, Bernard and Sharaiya were in the midst of their preparations. The phones were brought from the West Bank and covered in bubble-wrap. At the same time, the three also started to practice flying the quadcopter, albeit without much success. Bernard even brought in his 21-year-old son from his previous marriage, who had just completed army service, to help them master the technology.

“Dad asked me to help… They’re older, they don’t understand the technology,” the son said in his testimony during the investigation. “I taught them how to fly the quadcopter on their own. I asked Dad why he had a quadcopter, but he always evaded an answer: ‘Don’t worry,’ ‘It’s nothing.’ So I wasn’t suspicious. My father is very good at telling stories and making you believe them. I asked him if it had anything to with weapons or drugs, and he calmed me down, and said I was way off-base and that everything was fine.”

“Mission No. 29,” as it was code-named, was launched one Saturday last October. Bernard, Sharaiya, Bjornsted and Majdi Awad, Karim’s cousin, drove south and parked their car about two kilometers from Nafha Prison. The 60 small phones were in a bag. The plan was for Abu Jazer to wave a red cloth attached to a stick from the window of his cell, and they would fly the drone with the phones toward him. Beforehand, they practiced flying the quadcopter with a load of potatoes and apples, to ascertain that it could bear the weight.

Timothy Bernard with politicians Ayoob Kara and Yuli Edelstein.

A few hundred meters from the prison, the quadcopter with the test items crashed because of a technical hitch. The IPS and the police had already set an ambush for them at that point, on the basis of intelligence information. They spotted the quadcopter and arrested Sharaiya and Bernard, but Bjornsted escaped and hid for hours behind a rock, where he also buried the bag with the phones. He returned home later that night. The next day he reported for work at the day-care center as though nothing had happened, but was shocked to read on the internet that two people had been arrested on suspicion of attempted phone-smuggling.

Bernard and Sharaiya were taken to the Dimona police station for questioning. Neither admitted to having anything to do with the incident. She said nothing; he claimed they had been on a trip to the Negev. After a few days, the police had to release them for lack of evidence, but a month later they were detained by the Shin Bet. Sharaiya and the rest of the squad incriminated one another almost immediately. Bernard tried at first to deny his involvement, but when his interrogators showed him that his wife and Bjornsted, who had also been arrested by that time, were talking to them, he admitted having been an accomplice.

Throughout the interrogations, Bernard maintained that he had not known that the phones were earmarked for security prisoners. The police and the Shin Bet didn’t believe him. “Tomer, Balsam and Timmy knew which prisoners we were sending the phones to,” Karim stated. “They know he’s a friend of mine from Gaza.” He also disclosed that the agreement between them involved some 600,000 shekels (about $158,000), to be divided among the squad’s members.

Two meetings organized by the interrogators, and confirmed by them, stand out among the various investigative ploys that were executed after the mutual incriminations. The first was between Sharaiya and Karim. The latter had asked the investigators to allow him to meet with her and offered to take the blame on himself, provided no harm would come to her. Clearly, a meaningful relationship had developed between the two. Four days later, Bernard was taken to meet with his wife. They embraced and then, according to a Shin Bet official, “engaged in small talk about domestic matters and about the baby.”

At present, all the suspects are in detention until the conclusion of the proceedings against them, waiting for their trial to get underway. Sharaiya is incarcerated in Damon Prison, on Mount Carmel outside Haifa, with other female Palestinian security prisoners, where she has taken part in recent protests by the inmates against the prison guards. Bernard who was classified as a security prisoner, was initially jailed in a separate wing in Eshel Prison. Two months later, IPS moved him to the Fatah wing in Rimon Prison, adjacent to Nafha.

Thus the immigrant from Britain, who dreamed of being head of a regional council, is currently under detention in a security wing with the top terrorists imprisoned in Israel, among them perpetrators of attacks, commanders of the Tanzim militia and even ISIS personnel, awaiting his trial.

“Well, he tried to get phones to security prisoners and he converted to Islam,” as one IPS source put it, “so why shouldn’t he be in the same wing with them?”

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