The Name Is Gino, Yossi Gino, the Closest Thing to James Bond Israel Had

Legendary IDF fighter Yossi Gino looks back on decades of hair-raising missions beyond enemy lines, and on the subsequent, less thrilling years in which he says he was forgotten by the country for which he so often risked his life.

Yossi Gino in Sudan.
Eyal Toueg

"Once in Lebanon, in Fatahland [the Palestinian stronghold in southern Lebanon], during the gay 1970s, I had a mission to assassinate a sentry in a terrorist camp," recalls Yossi Gino. "For a week or two I practiced catching and strangling young calves with a lasso. You fight the calf until it collapses. At that time in the unit, we ate a lot of veal. But the assignment was to kill a sentry. I came and saw that instead of the huge, strong guard they said would be waiting for me, there was some pathetic Arab over 80 years old, warming himself at a small bonfire that he had lit. I was really overcome by pity and I threw an old coat on the fire, which caused a lot of flames, and in the background I made ghost-like noises, so that others fled from there. That poor Arab fell over immediately and died on me from cardiac arrest."

For 30 years, Captain (res.) Yossi Gino, the first of the mistarvim (undercover soldiers who are disguised as Arabs in order to participate in military missions) of the Israel Defense Forces' elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, went behind enemy lines time after time. But in the end, all that he is allowed to reveal is that anecdote and a few others, some of them seasoned with a bit of folklore, which don't even come close to telling the whole story.

One can get some idea of the man by perusing a declaration submitted by former chief of staff Rafael Eitan (Raful) to the High Court of Justice in January 1992. "I know Yossi Gino from his period of military service," he wrote. "In my role as chief of staff I sent him on operational activities about which I cannot yet go into detail. But all I can say is that this activity surpassed all imagination, and that Yossi fulfilled these huge assignments by dint of his unique personality and his operational abilities, his capacity for self-sacrifice and his professional and military knowledge, which are unparalleled in the entire IDF and in the entire security apparatus ... Many Israelis owe their very lives to Yossi."

The relationship between chief of staff Eitan and Captain Yossi Gino exceeded all the accepted hierarchical frameworks. As one of the members of the Sayeret Matkal at that time puts it: "Raful considered Gino a kind of Israeli Rambo, a hero of Israel. He told us that since the courage of scout Meir Har Zion and (IDF special operations) Unit 101 under the command of Arik (Ariel) Sharon, there had been no other fighter in the IDF as courageous as Yossi Gino. He went on assignments that the Mossad or Shin Bet security services did not dare to carry out before him. He is the Israeli soldier who went the deepest, the furthest and to the most dangerous places. Sometimes he had to reach a meeting place 1,500-2,500 kilometers from the Israeli border. Gino did the almost impossible."

The relationship between the commander and his subordinate was maintained even when Gino was finally discharged and discovered that life after the army was no less difficult: He managed to establish a restaurant on the shores of Lake Kinneret, to see it demolished by court order - even after a statement by Raful didn't help - to become entangled in affairs of corruption with senior members of the Likud party, to be state's witness in the case of the fictitious party invoices, and to be rescued by the skin of his teeth. Eventually he tried to eke out a living by restoring a farm dating back to the First Aliyah period and called Heftziba, near Hadera, together with a group of former members of the South Lebanon Army (SLA). Like him, they are soldiers who were left out of the picture when the war continued.

Yossi Gino.
Eyal Toueg

Gino, 58, is armed with a tremendous number of jokes, which reflect considerable bitterness toward his country. He gave it his soul, and after he worked in security for three decades, the country refuses to grant him a business license. And, of course, there are the cigarettes. Gino lights each new one with the last. It's only noon, a herd of buffaloes is waiting for him for lunch, with tens of thousands of cormorants hovering above them, and he is already on the middle of his third pack; by evening he will have finished maybe six or seven. By evening he will also reveal what he is allowed to reveal, skip over the unpleasant chapters of civilian life, and manage to contradict himself quite a number of times, especially concerning the question of whether he was afraid all those years.

His grandfather's namesake

Yossi Gino was born in 1947 in the moshava (agricultural settlement) of Migdal on the shores of Lake Kinneret. A few weeks before his birth, a horse that was plowing the family plot kicked his grandfather Joseph Gino in the stomach and killed him. The grandfather had been the first Jewish undercover soldier disguised as an Arab. He was famous all over for helping the fighters and settlers of Tel Hai and Kfar Giladi in the "wild Galilee" of those years, immediately after World War I.

"He worked alongside Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor," boasts Yossi Gino, who is named after him.

Yossi's father was also one of the first undercover soldiers in the Palmach pre-state militia, during the 1948 War of Independence. In elementary school in Tiberias, Yossi sat in the same class as one Nava Cohen, who later became the wife of Ehud Barak, a commander of Sayeret Matkal. Gino himself was drafted into Sayeret Matkal in 1965. Upon his discharge from regular army service in 1969, he was drafted into the Mossad espionage agency, spent a year teaching others how to work undercover as he had, and established a fighting brigade for the men of Mustafa Barzani during the Kurdish revolt in Iraq. Gino was also almost killed training with them. Later, in the 1970s, he was "loaned" to the Shin Bet. Over the years he worked from time to time, whenever he was called back, within the context of his home unit, Sayeret Matkal. Until he retired from the security services in 1992, he left the Sayeret seven times, but kept returning to it.

Yossi Gino (Standing second from left) and his right Ehud Barak with friends from Sayeret Matkal.
Eyal Toueg

Gino: "I was the first professional undercover soldier in Sayeret Matkal. From the time I was drafted into the IDF in 1965, and for over 27 years, I would come and go to Sayeret Matkal - in the reserves, in the special standing army and so on. When I came to the unit, I was the first frenk [a derogatory term for a Jew of Middle Eastern or North African origin] in a sea of blond men and all kinds of kibbutzniks, and loads of pale Ashkenazim. I got to Sayeret Matkal by mistake, because they told me that there I wouldn't have to walk, because they traveled in Jeeps and I hate to walk. When they accepted me, they asked me: What's the difference between a frenk and a roll of film? They answered that film can be developed. So it took them almost 30 years to 'develop' me."

Gino is the one who, over the years, developed the combat doctrine of the well-prepared, lone fighter who goes far behind enemy lines, without any means of communication or any way of being rescued, carries out his mission and returns home.

"It is a matter of smooth entries and exits, without anyone being aware that you have penetrated Arab countries," he explains. "These include any country you can imagine, all over the Middle East. I may be more familiar with streets, corners, roads and people in all kinds of Arab capitals than I am with the stores on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv."

During those years Gino worked closely with Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of Likud leader Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who was killed during the IDF's Operation Entebbe ("If Yoni were alive, he would have been worthy of being prime minister. We lost a great guy, and you can only imagine what a head for operations he had, and what a good friend he was, and his IQ is 14 stories higher than Bibi's"). And he worked with former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, too. "Do you know Avi Dichter?" he asks. "Nu, what makes him such a man's man? Who accompanied him for years on secret missions beyond the lines, as his partner? Gino. Me. Yossi Gino."

Reaching deep down

Gino's main job during his Sayeret years was "to reach deep down into enemy territory and to bring back intelligence, mainly to the Israel Air Force. To come, to do the work and to return, without firing a single bullet from your weapon. The fewer killed for us and for them, the better. Each time it was a different hostile country. I have already been told that I have as many lives as two cats - in other words, 18 lives. I have no other way to explain how I got out of there in one piece.

Yossi Gino (second from right), guide troops in Kurdistan.
Eyal Toueg

"The moment you have crossed the border, you're emotional, you're excited, you're thrilled. Your heart beats like 1,000 heart attacks, and you breathe the air, then all your senses suddenly come into play. You turn into a very specific type of fighter - a fighter and an animal. Every step and every sound can be heard, and you sometimes go on foot and sometimes by vehicle for dozens and hundreds of kilometers, missions that go on for days and nights, sometimes for weeks. And you know that it's only you and God, and there isn't a single person in this world who will be able to rescue you alive from there.

"There were dozens of times when I wanted to die, which almost happened, but I got my undercover talents from Dad and from Grandpa, and from a great deal of practice and learning and repetition, every chapter, every minute, every second of the mission. I returned, I went out and I entered what I now call the great hell. Everyone has his own nightmares. My nightmare is to see the bullet come at you at a range of half a meter. That happened to me in Egypt during the War of Attrition, and luckily I finished off the shooter in a moment. Because you're on the intelligence side as an undercover soldier, and the less noise you make, the better."

When you had to, did you kill?

"That, too. I killed only when the situation on the ground really required it. I laid mines, I blew things up, but only when it was really essential. By nature I'm a person who hates blood on my hands. But my first killing took place in an operation to catch terrorists in the Arab village of Samua, on the eve of the Six-Day War. A terrorist came out in my direction, and at a distance of five meters I shot at him. He exploded like a bag of water ... That was the first killing in my life. Actually, all of us here are affected by a very specific type of shell shock, at some level or other. Afterward it was easier to shoot to kill."

Why does the work of an undercover soldier involve?

"It means learning the cover story thoroughly. If I'm 58 years old now and I tell you that I come from the city of Nazareth, and let's say I'm really from Jenin - they will expect me, at my age and with my status, to be familiar with every hamula (extended family) in Nazareth, and to know what the members of each family do. These people are involved with garages, those with installing shutters, others are in the fruit-and-vegetable business, or the cattle or sheep trade. And you have to know, perfectly, all the types of sheep that are raised in the Middle East, all their varieties. I have to know how to identify, even from a distance of 500 meters, whether this is a Baladi ewe, or a merino, or some other type. Otherwise they don't believe you."

Yossi Gino in 2006.
Eyal Toueg

And they never caught you?

"Never. Not almost, not at all. Never. I had a lot of luck, which I didn't have in civilian life."

What do you do if a policeman catches you in an Arab country?

"That's a whole different story. It's easier there, because everything is baksheesh (a bribe). Listen to a story about a policeman who caught me in a traffic jam on the outskirts of a certain Arab city, quite a few years ago. He wanted to see papers. But then you already know what to do and in the most spontaneous way, without putting your finger down your throat, God forbid, you throw up on his shoes and immediately apologize, and slowly become friendly with him and tell him about your wife in such and such a village. That no matter how much trouble she causes you, you love her. And then the policeman cleans his shoes with a rag that I found on the side of the road, and I make him die laughing. You have to know how to laugh at the moments of greatest fear. Mainly I have a bunch of jokes characteristic of every single Arab country, in any Arab dialect you want."

'Your wife doesn't recognize you'

So you actually have to be an actor. It's actually all an act here.

"I assume that under other circumstances, I would have had a nice pension today from Habimah or the Cameri Theater. It sometimes took me a month, sometimes half a year, to take on the character of a native of an Arab country, with the right clothing and the right pack of local cigarettes, in order to enter that same hostile country. Because you can't light up a Time or Noblesse (Israeli cigarettes) in the middle of the main square in Damascus. When you return home, during the first days even your wife doesn't recognize you, just because of the smell and the beard or mustache you've grown.

"Sometimes I entered alone, sometimes with a partner. You penetrate an enemy country, once it was Egypt during the War of Attrition, for example, and you have to move around on foot or sometimes with a vehicle, sometimes in simple peasant's clothing, sometimes as a wealthy local Arab, sitting and driving in a huge, terrific American car, sometimes in civilian clothing. And you have an assignment to carry out, and you know that it's like walking on the razor's edge. And you walk into the great darkness. And that's already a very specific type of orgasm. Believe me, I loved that orgasm each time anew. And you're in big trouble if you speak Arabic in a dialect that is not local, God forbid, and you are in big trouble if you don't know how much a kilo of tomatoes costs in the marketplace of, let's say, Damascus or Baghdad or Cairo."

Were you emotionally prepared to die in some prison in an Arab country?

"To die? Why should I die? For me, the world is divided into two types: people who get heart attacks and people who cause others to have heart attacks. And I'm not the type to commit suicide, with all due respect."

What does the word heroism mean to you?

"It's like cradling and embracing the fear from below, from where it emerges in your growling stomach. But I'm only a human being; of course I was scared. If you control fear well, it saves you from all kinds of tragic situations. When you already enter the hostile territory, you're afraid for the boys of the Sayeret, for whom it's the second or third time. And more than once we brought back dead from there, because someone panicked. There were also operational mistakes over the years. People didn't arrive at the meeting place, or they waited and fled from the place in fear. There are a number of people in the Sayeret who deserved a beating for that, but I'm very merciful. I made a vow that I wouldn't raise my hand against Jews."

Did it ever happen that through your work you changed and influenced the entire front?

"Not often, but it happened. On the eve of the Lebanon War in 1982, for example, several senior members of the Israel Air Force came to our unit, among them some brigadier generals and a large number of senior pilots. They told us that the Syrians had a new anti-aircraft missile, which was indecipherable. It was the battery of Russian SA-6 missiles, which at the time were considered the terror of the air force pilots. They said that we could lose the entire air force if we didn't do something. I remember that I saw brigadier generals turn white as chalk.

"At the time, the Syrians had several such missile batteries deployed, so we planned an operation and we did what we did, and one fine day they lost a whole missile, including its transport tracks and electronic systems. The thief lifted one Russian missile at night. Half a year later, during the Lebanon War, the air force finished them off, all those missile batteries, in an hour and a half of total destruction and with marvelous operational precision."

So you had satisfaction in your work?

"Satisfaction? A real orgasm. The IDF saved dozens, if not hundreds of dead, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of planes, which would have fallen there like flies."

Personal ties with Raful

One person who did know how to appreciate Gino's unique abilities was, as mentioned, Raful. "In 1979, a year after Raful was appointed chief of staff, he opened the skies to the Sayeret and to the intelligence forces and others," recalls Gino. "For a fighter like me, this meant approval for assignments beyond the bounds of imagination and daring. He used to say about the operations I carried out, 'Gino, good morning, you're going to another suicide.' And he always winked at me very amiably and hugged me as though I were his son. That didn't happen so fast, because convincing Raful to approve a mission happened only after 19 and 20 and 30 practice exercises for the mission, training sessions that I carried out in his presence.

"For almost every operation on which Raful sent me during those days, before and after the Lebanon War, he would come personally during the night as chief of staff, alone, to the unit, and go out with me for operational training, and ambush me to show me where I was still liable to make a mistake. That was how we spent nights together, Raful and I and the water canteen and the sandwiches that he made for both of us, until he gave in and approved the missions. Because almost every one of our operations was approved not only by the chief of staff, but by the defense minister as well, and occasionally even the government heard about me.

"One fine day after I had returned from a mission - and on paper I was only a staff sergeant, the only staff sergeant with the longest career in the Middle East - Raful brought me officer's stripes, put them on my shoulders with an officer's pin, and said to me: 'Gino, you have already done perhaps more than 90 officers' training courses, take your rank as captain and be well.'"

During one of the last cabinet sessions in which prime minister Menachem Begin participated before he retired in 1983, chief of staff Raful entered the room in the afternoon in his uniform, his forehead creased with worry. He told the ministers that his liaison man for some large operation that was supposed to take place in the far north, and would affect the entire front, had not arrived at the designated meeting place at 5 A.M., and it was likely that he had already been killed. He was supposed to bring back exclusive high-quality intelligence of utmost importance, said Raful to the worried ministers.

Begin asked for the name of the heroic Jewish soldier who had done all that, and Raful said, "You don't know him, his name is Yossi, Yossi Gino. His grandfather fought side by side with Ze'ev Jabotinsky in the 39th Brigade of the King's Fusiliers in the British Army during World War I, and we all owe him a great deal." Begin, who was then sunk in the depression that characterized his latter years, muttered something like, "Ah, Jabotinsky, yes, yes," recalls one of the ministers of that period.

For Gino, Raful, the chief of staff during the Lebanon War, was the best chief of staff in Israel's history. "In my opinion, as chief of staff Raful managed to reach a situation of 'and Israel dwelt in security' when it came to the Arab countries. We're sitting on their windpipes, on their necks. All of them, the entire Middle East."

The Lebanon War was a failure.

Gino: "The Lebanon War was the most important victory carried out by the IDF since the founding of the state. They'll still be studying it years from now. We began that war because a month or two later Syria was supposed to attack Israel all along the northern front. After we gave the terrorists a kick in Lebanon ... And (Yasser) Arafat was talking on the two-way radio of the ship and said - and I am quoting more or less what I heard on our radios - 'We wanted to throw the Jew into the sea, and now the Jew is throwing us into the sea.'"

Did you ever have run-ins with Hezbollah during Raful's term as chief of staff?

"That's what drives me crazy about Hezbollah. Because we, the IDF, set them up as a tool against the Palestinians in Lebanon. After all, we gave them, the Shiites, our full support. I can't answer directly as to whether I dealt with Hezbollah; you may read about that 10 years from now when I write the story of my life. But you and all of the people of Israel living in Zion should be aware that we owe the Shiites, who at first served in the South Lebanon Army, a great deal of thanks beyond what we can publish on the subject here or there. And these were Shiites who were the soldiers most loyal to the State of Israel and to our interests in Lebanon.

"I have here on the farm SLA members who are also the brothers and the uncles and the brothers-in-law and the relatives of Hezbollah soldiers. Listen to me carefully, don't listen to the news on television or to the newspapers, because the Middle East is something completely crazy. Something unexpected with everything turned inside out. I believe that the entire issue of Hezbollah will end faster than they think there. They still don't know that they will conclude their role on the garbage heap of history."

The relationship between Raful and Gino continued until the former chief of staff's last day.

Gino's last operation was in 1992, "somewhere deep inside Syria. Yitzhak Rabin was the defense minister then, too, and he asked me beforehand, 'Tell me, Gino, is it possible?' I told him: 'Yitzhak, we did that in 1967.' Only then, when he had calmed down a bit, did he give his approval."

The transition to civilian life, even earlier, was far from smooth. In 1989 Gino became a state's witness in the affair involving the Likud's fictitious invoices - the same affair in which senior finance figures in the party were indicted, with the exception of treasurer Ehud Olmert, who was exonerated due to reason of doubt. According to publications from that period, Gino was the spirit behind "the group" - a collection of businessmen, politicians, accountants, lawyers and company owners, who came together in order to make money, not always honestly. According to those publications, Gino promised to make a bundle for them, but when he didn't succeed, bailiff's cases and complaints of fraud piled up against him. At this point Gino approached Benjamin Siegel, the legendary commander of the National Fraud Unit, who has since retired and become a private attorney. Siegel advised him to turn state's witness.

Gino is unwilling to reveal any more about those embarrassing years. "I lost my pants," he says. "They introduced me to people in the Likud and I took a fall, I fell hard. It happened that I found a breach in the VAT law to the effect that a telephone system that is installed has a price, but its cables do not. So they would bring in hundreds of meters of cables, and then issue a credit invoice. They would issue an invoice and throw it into the garbage, and then they would take money back from VAT, and I discovered it. The only one. It was really highway robbery ... That's how all kinds of people cheated the government, and earned billions. I told Siegel everything about those affairs and others."

And then there was the affair of the illegal restaurant on the shores of Lake Kinneret. "Once I flew with Raful and Arik Sharon, during the Lebanon days, above Capernaum, where I wanted to start a restaurant, which they demolished because I hadn't received a permit. Arik said to me: Listen, Gino, it's a government promise that you'll get the restaurant. And in the end they demolished that one, too, and Raful and Arik and the courts didn't help. I have no pension fund, because I was foolish with the army and with the security services. And I have no savings for my old age. But I'm an optimistic person. If I weren't optimistic, I wouldn't have returned from the Arab countries."

At present, Yossi Gino is in charge of a large group of former SLA soldiers, who are engaged in restoring the Heftziba farm near Hadera, where the Israel Electric Corporation's educational center is also located. It's the same farm that in its day belonged to the renowned land-redeemer Yehoshua Hankin. Gino says he has nowhere to go if, God forbid, they close the farm and get rid of all his SLA men.

"I took care of the country all these years, but the country has forgotten me. A year ago," he says, "some Americans who knew me from the IDF and from training exercises where I taught fighters suggested that I join the U.S. forces in Iraq and serve as an interpreter, for $20,000 a month. After half a year there, I was promised that I would receive an American passport and a green card, if I wanted.

"After that they suggested that I serve as an interrogator of Iraqi captives inside the United States, but believe me, I don't have the strength for that. At the age of 58, without a pension, with my overdraft at the bank and without a savings account, with a wife who works as a saleswoman in a department store in Tiberias, and three daughters to whom I also have to give something - if they disband the group of SLA men who have been building the Hankin farm with me for three years, there is a kind-hearted Jew here who wants me to drive his milk truck. Then we'll earn NIS 3,500 minimum wage, and thank God that he has allowed me to survive all these years."

Dying to make peace

During those long years in Arab countries, did you develop some kind of political viewpoint?

"Yes, definitely. My war is not with the Arabs. I'm not really crazy about the Arabs, but I like the Syrians with their jokes and their common sense. I learned to like Arabs of all sorts, among them are good friends of mine, both here and on the other side of the border. From my grandfather I inherited the right to be a judge at a sulha (reconciliation meeting) between clans, among the Galilee Arabs. My war and our war is against 15,000-20,000 Arabs who want to throw us into the sea, as opposed to 250 million Arabs who are suffocating under benighted and undemocratic regimes, who want to live with us in peace. After all, the average person in Syria or Lebanon is dying to make peace with us; in principle they are very good Arabs."

The Syrians don't want peace.

"Who told you that they don't? Of course they want peace. They're deathly afraid of us. They're dying for peace. A cold peace. They're scared and they don't want you to come with your car from Tel Aviv with your shishlik and kebab and all your disgusting things in order to have a barbecue in the beautiful parks of Damascus. I honestly believe that peace with Syria will come more quickly that they think. It's a historical imperative. You'll see, I promise you that I'll drive you in my beat-up van from Migdal straight to the parks of Damascus. Just as I traveled in 1979 with the late Dr. Eliahu Ben-Elissar, the first ambassador to Egypt,s0 who heard what Yossi Gino had done in Egypt before the 1973 Yom Kippur War so that (president Anwar) Sadat would run to make peace. I traveled in our first representative delegation to Cairo in 1979."

And can you guess how everything will end here?

"It will end after our generation; people will have had enough of wars, or as Jabotinsky used to say, 'We'll build ourselves an iron wall.' When they're tired of it, we'll know. But at the same time, we have to talk to them and grind them down very finely. And talk to them again. The big mistake of our governments is that they don't talk to the Arabs enough. The real solution is to talk. To batter them, and immediately to talk."