Just East of Zar’it, Northern Israel
“You want to know a secret? Hezbollah is watching! They are usually up there with binoculars,” an Israeli soldier confided to me. She pointed north amid the green hills in the direction of Ramya, the Lebanese village which was the approximate starting point of the terrorist group’s flagship tunnel, named Wilderness Flower by the IDF but more commonly known as the Ramya Tunnel. We were standing amid a group of tourists at the tunnel’s mouth, now framed in concrete and with a metal door, nearly four years to the day that the Israel Defense Forces had exposed the assault passageway, one of six dug from inside southern Lebanon under Israeli territory. The IDF has blown up the other five.
If Hezbollah was indeed watching, it must have been a shaming experience for the surveillants. This marvel of military engineering, which would have enabled a flash mob of Shia fighters to emerge in the Upper Galilee to slaughter at will, was now entertaining a group of about 50 mostly elderly and Jewish tourists, some using walkers, many commenting on what schmucks the Hezbollahis must have been to invest so heavily in not one but six failed tunnels, as we moved on to Misgav Am for ice cream.
“It took the IDF four years to figure out all the tunnels,” said Major Nehemiah, another soldier who invited visitors to photograph anything except himself. “Hezbollah envisioned an elite force to surprise us through the tunnels. They would have surfaced here on the Old Northern Road. It would have a been a tactical, propaganda victory for them, against civilians.”
The Ramya Tunnel, he said, had taken Hezbollah about 10 years to build, and apart from Iranian funding, no foreign expertise or other role was evident in its creation. It ran for about a mile under Ramya into this area near the town of Zar’it, and the concluding section consisted of a circular cement staircase rising nearly 80 yards upward to this point. The steps were too steep for many tour members to explore, but some of our orange-helmeted number tried them out, noting that the damp dolomite walls sported power cables (labeled “Original Hezbollah Infrastructure” in Hebrew and English) but no handrails; presumably Hezbollah fighters would have been of a spryer demographic than us.
Hezbollah’s surveillance duties at this site must be light, because visits are rare—the tunnel is not open to the public. But we were not sightseers but fortunate members of the Ultimate Mossad Mission, a biannual tour sponsored by the Israel Law Center and Shurat HaDin (“Letter of the Law”).
The busload skewed mature, affluent, American, European, and Canadian, with a scattering of family ties to Israel—several would hang on after the tour to visit grandchildren or in-laws—and we could have passed for an extended family on the road with our uniform casual clothes, sturdy shoes, mobile phones, water bottles, and laminated IDs hanging from matching lanyards. Most men wore ball caps, with or without kippahs. Some women’s hair blew in the breeze, some sported snoods or bucket hats resembling the kova tembel or fool’s hat beloved of old-timey kibbutzniks.
We shared the élan of the security-conscious elect conversant with the Spy Museum in D.C., the NSA Museum, which is open to the public, or the CIA Museum, which is not. Our travel highlights would not be luxurious hotels or opulent buffets but coveted access to sites like this, and the high-level intelligence briefings we would judge and follow up with penetrating questions.
The connections between our weeklong jaunt and the Mossad were in fact rather modest. Retired and active Israeli security officers with various affiliations provided backgrounders on security matters, but they were often from the military or law enforcement sectors, which should not have been a surprise. The Mossad is a foreign intelligence organization unlikely to provide foreign visitors with information on bread-and-butter security issues. Someone apparently figured that an “Ultimate Border Police Mission Tour” would lack snap.
Shurat HaDin’s founder, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, modeled her organization on the Southern Poverty Law Center, embracing the principle of using lawsuits to target bad actors, especially their funding streams. At one point in 2004, Mossad approached her, impressed with her abilities to sue terrorist groups and their sponsors, and win. Mossad’s own efforts to disrupt terror finance bore the code name HARPOON, and Darshan-Leitner chose that as the title of her book, Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters.
“[Mossad] never instructed the newly-launched law center to sue any specific target,” we read in the book. (Ultimate Mossad Mission members get free copies.) “Shurat HaDin wasn’t working on behalf of any government agency. That would have been inappropriate. But there were always suggestions … useful hints that were offered. ‘Harpoon never directed us,’ Nitsana recalled.”
Anyone familiar with U.S. intelligence agencies might see a parallel to the CIA’s relationship with cooperative contacts, which cannot be tasked, as opposed to recruited assets. Darshan-Leitner notes in the introduction to the book that given her extensive contacts with Mossad, she submitted her manuscript for Mossad officers for pre-publication review and redaction. It is useless to read anything more into this, though, as Darshan-Leitner’s friendship with Mossad is not something she tries to hide, justify, or boast of. Her law center shares common cause with the intelligence service against Hamas, Hezbollah, and the PLO, and her book shows her to be a shrewd judge of allies and adversaries.
Anyone familiar with a different book, Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, might see a parallel that concerned me more. In one of the most famous online reviews in the history of Amazon, Israeli writer Matti Friedman mocked its subject as “the kind of Mideast conflagration where writers can sally forth in an air-conditioned bus, safely observe the natives for a few hours, and make it back to a nice hotel for drinks … Most of the essays aren’t journalism but a kind of selfie in which the author poses in front of the symbolic moral issue of the time: Here I am at an Israeli checkpoint! Here I am with a shepherd!” My name appears in Kingdom of Olives and Ash because I translated one of the essays from Arabic. As I sallied forth in an air-conditioned bus every day of the tour, it was not Hezbollah’s potential scrutiny that mattered, but Friedman’s. Here I am at a Hezbollah tunnel! Here I am looking at a border fence!
Israel is watching, too, of course. Our next stop had been selected for its vantage point along the Israeli-Lebanese border because altitude matters—it is the rare spot along the frontier where the Jewish state looks down upon its northern neighbor.
“Misgav Am is the fingernail of the finger of the Galilee,” our guide informed us. The towns of Metulla and Shlomi are farther north but are set lower. At his back, a wide set of windows offered a panoramic view of the extreme northern Galilee and of southern Lebanon, separated by a fence topped with barbed wire. Israel is a small country and Lebanon is even smaller, but this view of Lebanon’s Shia heartland, which I had studied as a student of the late Imam Musa Sadr, later of Hezbollah, and still later doing National Geographic fieldwork, was truly a postage stamp. Here Kafr Shuba nestling in Mount Hermon was a stone’s throw from Ghajar, the village famously bisected between Israel and Lebanon; Metulla, surrounded on three sides by Lebanon; and al-Khiyam, where Israel and the South Lebanon Army had maintained a prison camp decades ago. And on the horizon, Nabatiyah and Beaufort Castle. Closest of all, practically in our laps, was the Lebanese town of Adeyseh (“little lentil”). You could take all this in without turning your head an inch.
“Look at Ghajar,” our briefer said. “All of its residents are Israelis. On the south side they are in Israel, on the north side, they are Israelis in enemy territory. Imagine the security issues, with Hezbollah controlling beyond that line. Until our pullout in 2000, Israeli and Lebanese children played together in Adeyseh—no longer.”
I had once moved around this part of southern Lebanon and noted the profusion of mansions in these humble villages built with the money expatriate workers sent home from their jobs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, so that the outskirts of Tyre, Jibshit, Nabatiyah, and Bint Jbeil had a walled, landscaped Beverly Hills look in contrast to their sad-looking village centers.
“Very nice mansion houses,” our briefer observed, deploying his pointer. “But please notice in these towns and up to Nabatiyah al-Taybeh, the ones that are Hezbollah. Beautiful mansions but no windows! A three-story mansion in scenic territory with not one window! Interesting, yes?”
Each stop on the Shurat HaDin tour touched on some theme of Israel’s interrelated security dilemmas. Here it seemed to be the grand, Iranian-backed regional threat subsumed in this Lilliputian geography. Little Kafr Kila, for example, renowned for the fine olive oil and honey, is home to Hezbollah arms depots and observation posts. It was also the site of the first Hezbollah tunnel the IDF discovered.
Nearly 30 years before, my Hezbollah guide had kept me on a short leash as we ventured into what was already a largely (now thoroughly) militarized zone. I had already got on his bad side by photographing and laughing out loud at a town square in Nabatiyah signposted “Martyr Bassel al-Assad Square”—commemorating the late Syrian president’s no-good son who drunk-drove his Mercedes into a lethal crash in 1994 on the way to Damascus Airport on a foggy night.
Against this background, Darshan-Leitner and her husband, Aviel, took questions. Darshan-Leitner is a striking Persian beauty from Petah Tikva whose parents arrived from Shiraz around the time of independence. Avi’s rotund and lawyerly presence belied a rap sheet for violence in his youth. Addressing Shurat HaDin’s latest efforts, especially against Iran, Darshan-Leitner reeled off several, including gambits to recover money for terror victims against Boeing; an Iranian-owned property at 650 Fifth Avenue in New York; and a house in Lubbock, Texas, formerly owned by a son of the late shah and now owned by the Iranian government. This cheerful news put the group in the mood for more ice cream and energy bars.
Winding our way to the next stop past notable villages—moshav Elkosh, home to Yemenite and Kurdish Jews, and Fassuta, the birthplace of Israeli-American writer Anton Shammas—our guide reminded us that while southern Lebanon might produce excellent olive oil and honey, the towns and kibbutzes around us produced world-class poultry, apples, and even armored steel plates, some of them exported to the USA for the army’s use in military vehicles.
Behind me, tour members were engaged in cross-cultural sparring over terminology. A reference to a nursery in a kibbutz led an American to correct a Spaniard, saying, “When you say nursery, you mean kindergarten. That’s what we call it.” The Spaniard disagreed, saying, “I am talking not about children. I am talking about peach saplings.”
The conversation was notable because tour members otherwise rarely disagreed about much. Not only were all uniformly concerned with Israel’s security, about half had been on previous iterations of the mission, whose itinerary has changed with the times—the Hezbollah tunnel was a post-COVID addition. Even so, it was surprising how well-read a diverse group of nearly 50 adults was on the subjects they agreed on. Former President Obama had few fans, not only because of the Iran deal, but because of his fact-challenged account of the partition of Palestine and the independence of Israel in his memoir, which most of us had read. Stephen Hawking was known to all as someone who had soured on Israel despite needing Israeli technology to stay alive.
The Golan Heights
In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain categorized his fellow travelers to the Holy Land as pilgrims or sinners. The passengers on board the sleek bus now winding its way towards Quneitra were mostly pilgrims—true believers in Israel’s security equities, plus one or two hawks who seemed to find the Israeli military or security officers we met a little too dovish for their taste. A few more, who may have been hunting for spouses of a congenial political background, were the closest we had to sinners. I was in a sort of penumbra, a Catholic with Jewish roots, paternally in southern France and maternally in Ferrara, Italy, and a robust Ashkenazi Jewish DNA score. (I have visited our ancestral village in France, Verdun-sur-Garonne, where my distant cousins pointed out that Theroux was a made-up name with no French root. They laughed at our family folklore relating it to taureau or toro: “C’est ridicule, ça. Tu n’est pas un taureau, tu es juif!”) More particularly, here and now, I was representing the tiny fraternity of Golan geeks who have visited its sloping majesty from within Syria, Lebanon, and now Israel.
Many fellow tourists seemed to be attracted to the intimations of clandestinity in a tour bearing the name Mossad. Among ourselves, we heard the word “spy” a lot in an approving sense, asking the briefers if they were spying on Syria from here, or spying on mosques or cellphone networks in the territories. The exception was a former U.S. naval officer who had served aboard submarines and observed the superiority of everything American over everything Soviet until the John and Michael Walker spy scandal in the 1980s, which suddenly gave the Soviets observable, impressive new capabilities. Then the Jonathan Pollard case had repercussions on religious or pro-Israel Jews who, like, him, were in line for security clearances. “God, how I hate those guys,” he said. “I fucking hate spies.”
A couple of points in the Israeli Golan commemorate a very good spy, Elie Cohen alias Kamil Amin Thabit, executed by the Syrians in 1965. One is a now abandoned and colorfully graffitied Soviet-built medical clinic in the southern part of Quneitra which Cohen once visited, and which contains photos and plaques (spared graffiti) documenting his visit. This is a favorite stop for Israeli tour buses, dirt bikers and four-wheel-drive vehicles—a few of us hopped off our sleek bus to check it out on Kawasaki ATVs. And there is a statue of Cohen’s widow, Nadia, on a hilltop, eternally gazing northward into Syria and awaiting his return, thus far in vain. The return of the remains of murdered Israelis has been a feature of Israeli truce talks with Hezbollah and Hamas, and a request for the return of Cohen’s remains from Syria is occasionally reported as on the table when Israel negotiates with the Syrian regime.
Like Ramya, the Golan is a seemingly dormant frontline that might have live coals under the dead ashes. Our briefer, Major Avraham Levine, had served in the IDF’s elite Golani Brigade and lives in nearby Avney Eitan, a mile from the Syrian border. Levine sported a ginger goatee animated by wry smiles and the build you would expect of a Golani infantryman. He delivered his alarming assessments in the fluent English of the son of American olim. He pointed to a row of white buildings a stone’s throw away, within Syria, that housed the UNDOF mission, an effort frozen in time.
“Look at UNDOF—they are still counting tanks, like a conventional war might break out between us and Syria! Another tank battle? Excuse me? After the American war in Iraq, Iraq is no longer a buffer. One President Bush left Saddam in place—a mistake? Maybe not! Not for me to say! Another President Bush overthrew Saddam, so now we have no buffer—does geography tell you Iran is east of Iraq? Geography is lying!” He held up a map. “This is a bad map! Iran is one mile away.” He pointed to the low valley to the north that looked to be a 20-minute walk.
Levine’s worry was that Syria had involved Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in its brutal internal war against dissidents, giving them not only close access to Israel but opportunities to hone their skills. U.S. forces had killed IRGC Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, but Soleimani’s protégé, Imad Mughnieh’s son Jihad, had been active right here in the Golan, where the IDF killed him in January 2015. Worse, Hezbollah, which had fought defensive wars against Israel in 2000 and 2006, had now spent years learning offensive warfare in Syria.
This you can say for Israeli military or intelligence briefers: Inhabiting this small country with concentric rings of enemies like a bull’s eye, they are rarely cocky, hawkish, or sanguine. As with Major Nehemiah at the Hezbollah tunnel, Major Levine was measured and a little short when assessing his nearby Lebanese and Syrian adversaries.
“Can they beat us? Never. Can they invade and raise the Hezbollah flag over Metulla for two hours? I won’t say. But what would that propaganda victory mean? A boost in morale, for sure.”
“Look,” he said. “Israel might be busy with Jenin and Gaza but the real issue is here. If we did not care about civilians, which our enemies hide behind, we could solve Hamas in a matter of hours for good, but how many would we kill? No, we will never do it.”
“So what are the scenarios for war here? Like 2006, someone starts something small that gets big. Now they have precision missiles, which are a red line. We have air defense batteries for protection, but I can see from my house that Iron Dome batteries keep moving around, which tells me we do not have enough of them. Or Hezbollah or the IDF kills civilians. Or Iran openly has a nuclear bomb. So we go after it with cyber or special ops, or something kinetic but we won’t say it’s us. Hezbollah will be the retribution.”
Whatever happens, Levine said, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi swears we will retaliate not just against Hezbollah but against Lebanon.
“Artillery is not the endgame,” he emphasized, shaking a finger at us. “It is win-win, only a matter of what is the price. Right now, we are not solving the problem, just stalling. Believe me, that will change.”
On a lighter note, for me anyway, Levine pointed to a hilltop of buildings inside the Syrian Golan and said this was where the original inhabitants of Syrian Quneitra had rebuilt after the destruction of their town in the 1973 war. “It is called Khan Arnaba.”
I tried to imagine who named it that. Maybe it was a preexisting name for the hill? But in the era in which the Syrian regime was famously brutal in Lebanon and equally quiescent in the Golan versus Israel, Arab wits had fun with the dynastic name Assad (lion in Arabic) and arnab (rabbit): “Assad fi Lubnan, Arnab fil Jawlan.” A lion in Lebanon, a rabbit in the Golan. This has held true. The Assads empower the occasional Iranian operative or Hezbollah in the unoccupied Golan, but rarely risk a Syrian life.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost wrote. The Journal of Palestine Studies elaborates, “checkpoints, and Qalandia specifically were more than what meets the eye. Of course they were, and still are, spaces where the Zionist/Israeli colonialist project is palpable in all its might and ugliness and where Palestinians are physically reminded of their subjugated position.”
In the Olives and Ash book, one entry about dating in the West Bank is titled “Love in the Time of Qalandia,” though the checkpoint is mentioned one single time, toward the end of the 15-page essay: “Invariably a single image comes to mind when I think of the dehumanization of the Palestinian people: men packed together like caged animals at the border crossing in Qalandiya … It is impossible to see photos like this without confronting the extent to which the architects of the occupation have ceased to view Palestinians as human beings.” Photos like this is the chef’s kiss. An author on a mission in the West Bank who makes the rather large assumption that Palestinian Arabs have been dehumanized, bases her assumption on a place she never bothered to visit, but saw in a picture.
As our spy-enthralled pilgrims and sinners came to see every day, the reality is rather more prosaic. West Bankers line up to enter Israel to report to their jobs. The Israeli Border Police Atarot-Qalandia function as TSA. “Caged animals” reside solely in the dehumanizing imagination of the essayist. The keepers of this supposedly hellish facility rise early to open the gates at 4 a.m. for a long day of admitting workers and shoppers.
“We have 538 of us in uniform to patrol 117 square kilometers,” our young briefer informed us, with the help of a video presentation and its lush orchestral accompaniment, heavy on the Krav Maga close quarters defense training the police employ if they are physically attacked. “We get three to four Krav Maga workouts a week. We have a special mission for special needs members.” There was a video clip of smiling Down syndrome officers.
“There is a drive-through section and a section for travelers on foot. Tens of thousands cross over every day.”
“Why do you let them in at all?” snapped one of the hawkish pilgrims. “You’re helping our enemies!”
The expression on our briefer’s face seemed to show that he had heard this question before and had still not located a concise answer. He gestured in the direction of the densely built-up hills surrounding this building, with the merest suggestion of a shrug. “They are our neighbors. We share this land,” he said.
We moved on into a gymnasium-size space to meet a Belgian Malinois named Felix, and review long tables displaying jaws of life, goggles, a short-barreled Negev rifle, tear gas cannisters, an M-4 rifle, Ruger SR22. The next table held an assortment of drones: the Mavic-2 searchlight, advanced Phantom 4, and the most powerful Matrice 300. The effort is entirely defensive, in light of stabbing attacks against Israelis at Qalandia over the years. The deeply anguished commentators who see Qalandia as uniquely malevolent rarely note the history of violence or the fact that travelers show up there voluntarily.
What makes Qalandia is the topographical crazy quilt around it. There is the old Jerusalem or Atarot Airport closed to civilian flights in 2000, Qalandia village and refugee camp, and the neighborhood of Kafr Aqab. “Aqab residents have blue Israeli ID cards,” our briefer explained. “It’s part of Jerusalem, and yet it isn’t. Legally it is, but practically it is not.”
Aqab is indeed the northernmost neighborhood of formerly East Jerusalem. Organically, however, it is a suburb of Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority slightly to the north; it lies seven miles north of central Jerusalem but just a mile or so from central Ramallah. Beitunia, right next door, is part of the PA.
The routing of Israel’s security barrier is the nub of the problem: Built in the form of concrete walls, wire fences, ditches, and a series of low-signature sensors, it cut to near zero the suicide attacks Yasser Arafat’s PA unleashed against Israel during the Second Intifada. Qalandia and the surrounding areas resemble the baby of Solomon’s judgment. To keep life moving and violence down, Israel cut off an Arab part of its own capital with a barrier and checkpoint, and like the rest of the larger, supposedly unsustainable status quo, life goes on, albeit with chain link, turnstiles, and metal detectors.
Driving south out of central Israel to the capital area, our briefer, Brigadier General Gal Hirsch, saw the way forward as keeping the military and political decision-makers in their lanes to create security, stability, and eventually peace. “The bigger picture—we have Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow, and Arrow 3,” he said. Echoing our briefer in Quneitra, he noted “Four F-16s could solve Jenin, Gaza, and Hamas in a matter of hours, but that is not our morality.”
Jerusalem, and at Last a Real Israeli Spy
At the hotel in Jerusalem, there were only 24 hours to go before the process of starting to pack and getting COVID test results for those of us flying to the U.S. My U.S. Navy veteran friend and I were just wrapping up our meal when I pointed out a stout, white-bearded individual lined up at the sumptuous buffet.
“That’s Pollard,” I said, only appropriating the knowledge another tour member had imparted to me an hour earlier. Apparently, he was here in the company of his lawyer, who was representing his efforts to get the Israeli government to settle with him for the time he had spent in U.S. prisons.
We both got up to leave, but he was not behind me as I walked to the Mamilla Mall to get a COVID test at the Super-Pharm. He was waiting with a couple of whiskeys, however, when I joined him later to celebrate my negative test result, and beaming.
“I think I might have lost a few friends before, down in the restaurant. I had a word with our friend Pollard. He had admirers all around him. I went up and asked him, ‘When is the last time anyone reminded you how you screwed up the careers of patriotic Jews in the U.S. military?’ He started to get defensive, instead of apologizing, so that did it. I had to tell that bastard what I thought of him. I didn’t have much company. Someone called the shomer who came over. Who cares. It pisses me off that people treat that bastard like a hero.”
He might not have lost friends, but he certainly scandalized a few fellow pilgrims, who gathered over coffee to express their disappointment. So out of line! So rude to Mr. Pollard, just when they had been moving in to thank him and try to shake his hand for what he had done for Israel!
So, the penultimate security briefing of the mission had to come from me. Forget the secrets he stole and whether they went to friend or foe, I suggested to my fellow pilgrims. Compromised secrets are gone for good, whether left in a briefcase on the subway, stolen in a laptop, leaked to the media, or handed over to a friend or foe for money. He damaged the country he was supposed to protect. Also, spies are recruited and handled on the basis of their suitability, access, and motivation. If they lack any one of these—good judgment and a cool head, access to information of interest, or proper motivation, they should never be recruited.
Pollard was no pillar of mental stability, and his motivations were a mess. On top of his other sins, when trying to escape capture in November 1985 he sought refuge at the embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., a place he should have properly been warned by his handler never, ever to go near. Of course, he was turned away and arrested. But what if someone inside had let him in? The horrible decision-making behind his recruitment and handling would have insured police cars, FBI vans, and the bright lights of television networks on the embassy’s front door for days or weeks until he was handed over after incalculable damage to the relationship between the State of Israel and its superpower patron.
“Still, his wife just died a few months ago. And he was oversentenced,” a nonhawk pointed out. So the sharpest disagreement of the week had only two dissenters.
Kerem Shalom Crossing
Every daybreak had us scrambling to comply with the previous evening’s final guidance, delivered from high-decibel microphone from the front of the tour bus: some variation on breakfast at 6, all suitcases in place by the bus’s vast luggage bay in front of the hotel no later than 6:30, departure at 7. Each of us possessed a colorful Ultimate Mossad Mission brochure to consult for each day’s itinerary, which, we were forewarned, was subject to change according to local security developments.
There was particular doubt as to whether we would make our scheduled excursion toward Gaza, as it was Jerusalem Day and Hamas had threatened to “confront” Israel to mark the occasion. The threats had been vague, though, and there was speculation that they did not want to spoil a new Israeli initiative to grant a few thousand more work permits to Gazans. In the event, we sallied forth, feeling even more courageous than we had felt sallying out against Hezbollah a week before.
The Golan and southern Lebanon are scenic. Judea and Samaria are less so, but deeply interwoven into Israel’s ancient and modern identity. Gaza, however biblical, is the outlier. Israel gave it up in 2005 and Hamas took over in 2007 Over decades of Arab-Israeli negotiating, Gaza was a stepchild. The Egyptians were offered custody in the Sadat-era peace talks and took a pass. There is nothing sentimental or positive in regard to the place, though as the bus approached the triangle where Egypt, Gaza, and Israel meet, our guide had a shot at it.
“Notice the lovely fields of sunflowers. They need less water than cotton, and we get oil from them! Who can name the five cities of Philistia? We are getting near!”
A couple of pilgrims rose to the challenge—Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath … the guide had to supply the fifth member of the Pentapolis—Ekron. “Like your Akron in Ohio! These were symbolized in the five smooth stones David selected for his sling in the encounter with Goliath.”
“We’re not all American,” murmured a Spaniard.
The briefer at Kerem Shalom, soft spoken but gimlet-eyed Commander Ami, welcomed mission members into a classroom equipped with long tables behind him, laid end-to-end and piled with contraband: pipe bombs; caches of narcotics, mostly pills; fragments of water pipes converted to rockets; and stuffed plush toys which presumably had served as packaging for something lethal.
“I lived in Gush Katif for 20 years, and served as security chief for all Gaza settlements until 2005. The job at Kerem Shalom is moving fuel, gas, concrete, iron, industrial and building materials, and cattle feed, into Gaza.
“You have been to the Erez Crossing? You see glass construction there. Not here. This was built not for dreams of peace, but for threats. We have several missions. To bring Arab people here every day to get what they are importing and exporting. There is no trust between us and them. There have been kidnappings, which are worse than death. You are dealing with five minutes of mourning versus five years of strategic problems. So, we do not meet them. There is no option for Palestinian Arab attacks. One hundred trucks come through every day from Gaza to bring their exports to Israel, Judea, Samaria, and abroad. And we work against dual-use items being brought to Gaza for Hamas to use.”
We browsed the tables for a closer look at the pipe elbows, Captagon tablets, rolls of fiberglass tape, and other nefarious or dual-use items, before setting out on foot to tour the vast areas, separated by high concrete barriers, where goods were trucked in, offloaded, sniffed by dogs, and reloaded onto trucks for the onward journey by Israeli and Gazan workers who never got near, or even within sight of each other. Cameras were everywhere including mounted on a colorful balloon tethered high in the air nearby. Visitors moved around taking cellphone photos whose geolocation software variously indicated “Kerem Shalom,” “Southern District,” or “North Sinai” as we strolled east or west.
A Belgian Malinois performed for us, locating the briefer’s pistol which had been squirreled away between bales of goods, and executing a perfect sit-down response. We saw a truck being loaded with crates of Gaza tomatoes and peppers which then rolled toward an east-facing gate. Commander Ami cited a figure for what Gaza’s agricultural exports via Kerem Shalom were worth. The response came from a hawk, this time a different one.
“So how is this not aiding the enemy? You know how Hamas is going to use that money!”
Ami was soft-spoken, but testier than his young compatriot at Qalandia.
“Thank you. You are such a smart lady, obviously a smart and brilliant lady! Please tell me your brilliant plan to teach us how to live beside more than a million Arabs in Gaza. I need some lessons.”
If any of us wanted to sink into a hole in the ground, that opportunity was less than an hour away. Hamas digs its terror tunnels through sand rather than through the hard limestone of the Upper Galilee, so it was easy for the IDF to copy them for training exercises.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” but only if it can see the wall first. The business end of Israel’s Gaza wall was not visible—it runs underground deep enough to touch the water table, checking Hamas’ tunnel building ambitions as it held off snipers and climbers above ground. This was inside a Southern Command IDF base known by its Hebrew acronym BAF.
“So, what we do here is defend the southern border. A few weeks at this remote base exposes our units to what they will encounter in real life: poverty, simulated riots, and fighting in tunnels. We have a tunnel the IDF has built, on a slightly smaller scale than what Hamas created. Please come this way, it is built for combat training and the opening is a steep downward ramp designed to be slippery, so some of you might prefer to stay here and enjoy some fruit.”
The more mobile among us proceeded to a boxy concrete structure and clambered over a waist-high cement wall to a doorway opening onto the promised dark and slippery slope, at the bottom of which stood a soldier on a dimly lit landing. The BAF resounded with the shrieks of the intrepid visitors who slid down the greased ramp, palpating the cement-barrier walls and gliding or reeling into the soldier’s arms.
It was a labyrinth, more modest than Hamas’ famous miles of “Metro” built to hide, smuggle, and infiltrate, but it contained rooms, right-angled corners, pop-up exits like manholes furnished with ladders, mirroring the extensive Hamas tunnels which the IDF had blown up or flooded.
There was also almost enough lighting to tell friend from foe. Hearing them was something else. Outside, the Israeli Air Force was performing some low and very loud runs, presumably to incentivize Hamas to show some Jerusalem Day restraint.
At the closing banquet, former Defense Minister and IDF Chief of Staff “Bogie” Ya’alon’s theme was the superiority of the IDF and IAF over all their military adversaries, and how this had long since dissuaded those adversaries from any wish to fight back. There had not been a stand-up conventional military fight since the defeat of Egypt and Syria in 1973. This meant Israel’s enemies, chiefly Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, had moved to hitting soft targets. This was why our week had involved examining tunnels, drones, barbed wire, metal detectors, and highly trained dogs, rather than visiting the kind of military museums with tanks and artillery in the courtyards such as you see in more secure countries.
The week wrapped up on a distinctly upbeat note. The geriatrics now dispersing for local family time would be regaling the grandkids with tales of Hezbollah’s foiled plans and the drama of the Gaza border. If anyone wheelchair-bound had tested others’ patience by slowing the boarding or exiting the bus, they were now embraced and offered glowing praise for their intrepidity. As with a family college or reunion, there was already talk of next time—both first-timers and repeat customers were avidly speculating on what the next Mossad Mission might cover. With the tour ending on a weekend, there was mild chagrin among some who had procrastinated in asking Darshan-Leitner to sign their copies of Harpoon, as we learned that the frum author was unlikely to inscribe books on Shabbat. There was talk of Israel’s security and the reminder of the enemies’ focus on soft targets, with the sobering, flattering realization that that’s what we had been all week. We were ready to send away for our decoder rings.
Not that this was anything new. Targeting civilians in the Yishuv and the state has been a tradition from the massacres of the 1920s to the founding of the PLO in the 1960s, and continued even against the IDF, whose members Hezbollah far prefers to kidnap than to meet in combat. Commander Ami at Kerem Shalom had weighed five minutes of mourning versus five years of strategic programs as two different things, but the northern neighbors gloat over imposing both. With any luck, Ultimate Mossad Missions of the future might reflect the defeat of that mindset, too.
Peter Theroux is a writer and translator who lives in Los Angeles.