Ex-spy Who Set Up Zionist Underground in Iraq Dies at 95

Shmuel Moriya regretted founding the undercover ‘mistarvim’ unit, whose members posed as Arabs and infiltrated Israeli Arab communities

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The ‘mistarvim’ undercover unit of the Palmach,1948
The ‘mistarvim’ undercover unit of the Palmach,1948Credit: Archives

By the time of his death this week at the age of 95, Shmuel Moriya’s deeds of derring-do could easily have filled a thick volume. It would include organizing the first illegal immigration to pre-state Israel by air; setting up the Shin Bet security service’s undercover unit, known as the mistarvim; and capturing an SS member who had infiltrated the Israel Defense Forces.

Moriya, originally named Sami Muallem, was born in Basra, Iraq in 1924. As a young man he helped set up the city’s Zionist underground. In 1947, he moved to Baghdad, where he organized illegal immigration to pre-state Israel on behalf of the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet, which later became the Mossad intelligence agency.

In the summer of 1947, he helped organize what became known as Operation Michaelberg, named after the two American pilots, Michael and Vessenberg, who flew around 100 immigrants from Iraq to pre-state Israel in two flights. His job was to liaise between the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet agents, who organized the operation under the command of Shlomo Hillel, and the Zionist underground in Iraq. “Madness, lunacy, a story from heaven,” he later said of it.

The operation began in late August of that year, when Moriya sent telegrams to underground leaders throughout Iraq asking them to send “bales of wool” and “bales of silk” to Baghdad – the code words for men and women, respectively. He then organized cars to take the immigrants to the airport, one car at a time.

Moriya drove the last car, whose passengers included his fiancée, and almost missed the flight. “I was approaching the airfield and suddenly saw hundreds of camels, of a size even the devil wouldn’t create, blocking the road,” he recalled. But he managed to get there just before the plane took off.

When the planes landed at Yavniel, near Lake Kinneret, one of the passengers who disembarked was Shoshana Arbeli-Almozlino, who was later to become Israel’s health minister.

That same year, Moriya also led a convey of dozens of immigrants who walked all the way from Iraq to Israel.

In 1949, he was recruited into the Shin Bet by Isser Harel, its founder and first director. He initially served in the Arab department, whose job was to thwart espionage by Arab countries.

In 1953, Moriya set up the undercover mistarvim unit, whose members posed as Arabs. Years later, after journalist Yossi Melman first revealed the unit’s activity, he admitted, “This won’t be remembered as one of our finest hours.”

The unit, which consisted of around 10 combat soldiers, was comprised of new immigrants from Arab countries. They were given special training and then embedded in Arab Israeli towns and villages.

Shmuel Moriya, 1955.Credit: Shmuel Moriya

“Today’s mistarvim show up in an Arab village or town, dressed like the locals, for a single operation,” Moriya said. “At the end of the operation, they return to the relative comfort of their base. But a true mistarev, for me, is someone who lives like an Arab, in an Arab environment, and sets up a home and family.”

Their training included studying Islam, including the Koran, and learning the local Palestinian accent, as well as traditional tools of espionage like tailing suspects and writing in code. Some of them even married Muslim women and had children with them, without ever revealing their true identities.

“When we sent them on the mission, we didn’t order them to get married, but it was clear to both sides that this expectation existed, and that it would accomplish the goal better,” Moriya said.

In 1959, the unit was dismantled, but its members suffered from the effects of their work for years afterward.

“From being Ahmed, you suddenly have to return to being Yossi,” Moriya said. “And you need to tell your wife the truth – not just that you aren’t the Arab nationalist you pretended to be, and which she admired, but that you’re a Jew. Families were torn apart. And what about the children?”

In retrospect, Moriya regretted what he had done. “It very quickly became clear that we didn’t really need these mistarvim. There were a lot of collaborators. We could get all the information we wanted without sacrificing anyone, without meddling with people’s lives and paying such a heavy price for this.”

Another operation in which Moriya was involved also sounds like something out of a movie. In 1955 he went to Germany on behalf of the Mossad to capture Ulrich Schnaft – a German who had served in the SS, infiltrated into Israel after the war, been drafted into the IDF under a fictitious identity and was later recruited by Egypt as a spy.

Moriya posed as an Iraqi intelligence officer, met with Schnaft, became friends with him and pretended to recruit him to spy on Israel for Iraq. That led to Schnaft being arrested, tried and sent to prison.

In the 1960s Moriya headed the Mossad delegation in Paris. But he eventually left the intelligence world and began working as a lawyer.

His wife, Shulamit, died in 2013. He is survived by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.