City bus No. 25 rounded the curve in front of the Shuafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem last week. The only other vehicles on the road were a few beat-up Peugeots with Palestinian drivers. Two dozen Palestinian youths were gathered at the roadside, juggling rocks. They had stoned the red-and-white No. 25 a few days before and injured an Israeli woman. As soon as the first stone shattered one of the bus' windows, the bus pulled up and the passengers jumped out. The Peugeots screeched to a halt, and the "Arabs" inside leaped out with pistols drawn. The stunned rock throwers tried to flee, but nine were captured. They were the latest arrests by the Jerusalem police's undercover moustarabine unit.
Israel has three of these undercover units, and they are one of the country's most powerful and feared weapons in the low-level warfare in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods and the Palestinian towns of the West Bank. Moustarabine is Arabic for "those who pretend to be Arabs." The units are a prime weapon in controlling riots, because they infiltrate crowds and pounce on the ringleaders. They're also used for dangerous snatch operations, such as the one in which moustarabine units arrested one of the men who lynched two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah three weeks ago.
It's a risky business. The army's undercover unit, which has its own big storeroom full of Arab clothing, wigs and makeup, shot one of its men six years ago when he was disguised as an Arab. On a midnight raid in August, the unit killed three of its own men--who weren't disguised at the time--as they tried to arrest bombmaker Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a member of the militant Islamic group Hamas. Some of the undercover soldiers get only three weeks of Arabic training before they're sent into dangerous situations. But when they succeed, the undercover squads are dramatically effective. In the second week of the current violence, rioters pelted police with stones at Jerusalem's Gate of the Tribes, which leads to the Temple Mount, after Friday prayers. A moustarabine unit of 10 officers, their faces shrouded by kaffiyehs, joined in the rioting with cries of "Allahu akbar!" (God is most great). At a signal, they threw percussion grenades and nabbed the leaders of the riot.
The Palestinians have their own brand of covert operations too. Israeli and Palestinian security sources believe that Hamas bombers are planning attacks against Israel. An Islamic Jihad activist blew himself up near an Israeli outpost in Gaza last week.
Israeli officials are livid that Arafat has allowed Hamas and Islamic Jihad to sit on his National and Islamic Forces Committee, a gathering of political factions that has been meeting regularly during the latest round of violence. But Hamas activists deny they are coordinating their terror campaigns with Arafat. "Are you crazy?" says a Hamas leader, indicating that Arafat is far too moderate for the ends Hamas has in mind. The group's radical agenda has put it on a collision course with the moustarabine units. A Hamas operative explained last week that his men try to be extra vigilant for unfamiliar faces and awkward accents. If they spot someone suspicious, they begin pestering the stranger with questions about his home village. Moustarabine agents had better be sure they can name at least three neighbors or their cover will be blown.