Documentary on Israeli infiltration units creates furor

June 24, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- A television documentary revealing the work of secret military units in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has provoked widespread criticism here -- not over the units' methods but over the decision to release the information.

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir took the unusual step of banning further reports on the unit, until Defense Minister Moshe Arens "clarifies the matter," Shamir spokesman Avi Pazner said.

The documentary showed Israeli soldiers disguising themselves as Arab men and women, complete with makeup and false mustaches, to make arrests among Arabs. The show was broadcast on state-run television, with army approval.

The documentary said that some Arabs had been killed in raids performed by the special units, although the army denied the existence of "death squads" reported in the foreign press.

In a television interview last night, Mr. Shamir did not say that security had been breached by the disclosures, though he questioned the wisdom of the move.

"There are differences of opinion about this," the prime minister said. "I hope it didn't do damage."

Mr. Shamir's decision to directly ban further reporting about the units suggested his displeasure with the army over having OK'd the documentary's release. Usually, the military censor decides whether information may be released.

Two parliamentarians from the ruling Likud party, Eliahu Ben-Elissar and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said they were surprised by the broadcast and would seek an investigation into who allowed its screening.

During the broadcast, dozens of Israelis reportedly called the state-run television station, rebuking the show's producers as "traitors," the daily newspaper Davar reported.

The documentary appeared Friday, with the approval of the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak. Officially, the army contended that security had not been compromised by the disclosure. Rather, disclosure of the surgical teams would serve as a deterrent, General Barak said.

"The clear intention is that the residents of the territories participating in hostile activity will understand that nothing is safe, not the car on the street and not the man walking past," added army spokesman Brig. Gen. Nachman Shai yesterday.

But other senior military officials were not pleased with opening the traditionally secret reserve of military operations for public view.

"When dealing with this type of unit, the less said the better," Maj. Gen. Uri Nir told the daily Ha--ot. "I don't think that in the present political situation it is necessary to let the enemy know how we operate."

Two leaders of the opposition Labor Party, former Defense Ministers Shimon Perez and Yitzhak Rabin, said the army should not have revealed the unit's work.

Rehavam Zeevi, one of the right-wing ministers without portfolio appointed to the Shamir government earlier this year, said his party would leave the coalition to show its displeasure with Mr. Shamir's failure to quell the 42-month old uprising in the occupied territories.

"I will advise my movement to leave, not to be a partner in this government which has made a security blunder in the war against the intifada," said Mr. Zeevi, of the Moledet Party.

Mr. Shamir would still retain a comfortable majority even without the support of Moledet's two parliamentarians.

Palestinians in the occupied territories have reported knowing of the existence of the undercover units, which they have accused of sowing confusion and enmity among Palestinian youths.

Calling the occupation authorities "the third finger," Palestinian leaders have accused the military of using the disguises to deliberately further violence between Palestinians.

But until Friday, the military censored information about the units. In 1989, two correspondents from the news agency Reuters and one from the Financial Times lost their credentials for reporting on the secret groups.

During the documentary, some of the soldiers hid their identities behind ski masks and black-and-white kefiyehs, and acknowledged infiltrating Palestinian youth gangs, and in a few instances throwing stones at Israeli soldiers during demonstrations.

One soldier, wearing a ski mask on the program, said: "They didn't think of me as one of theirs, but they thought I was from another group. Whatever they did I did, until the moment I felt it was time for me to take them with me."

An army spokesman, who asked not to be named, denied the units operated to spread confusion. "Its more that in certain circumstances, its safer for them to make arrests if they're not dressed like soldiers," the spokesman said.

Hours before the broadcast, the army spokesman's office revealed the existence of the unit in a press communique. The statement said the units had been operating "for a long period of time" and had captured "hundreds of wanted individuals."

It said that the army would increase use of the special units and expand "its various methods of operation."

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