Israeli rightists will not tell you about the Nissim Levys of Israel. They don’t want you to know that there are IDF and Shin Bet senior officers who spend their careers upholding Israel’s security while ultimately deciding that government security policy is screwing the country. They don’t want you to know there are experienced intelligence operatives like Levy who doubt the IDF and Israeli government’s rationale for pursuing constant war against the Palestinian people:
Levy…has much more empathy…for the people he pursued than for the Israeli leadership that sent him after them. He…feels that the very presence of Israeli forces in occupied territories gives the other side legitimacy to carry out terror attacks.
They won’t tell you–but I will. In fact, that’s why this blog is here. To tell you things the Israeli nationalists and even world media won’t tell you. I should correct myself here and acknowledge that a few sources in the world media will tell you the truth if you know where to find them. Haaretz is one such source. It published yesterday an extraordinary interview with one Nissim Levy, a veteran of 20 years in Shin Bet service. His job was to recruit agents in Lebanese refugee camps. And it appears, if one can believe what he says, that he somehow managed to conduct himself honorably in these endeavors. It would make him one of the few and last honest men in Israel to hold such a position. Decades ago people like Levy certainly existed within the Shin Bet. And I’m not saying they don’t still exist. But if they do they’re in a very distinct and small minority.
There are very few men (or women) serving in any intelligence agency or military force who can view themselves and their superiors will a cold, hard analytical stare that encompasses all there is to see. Inevitably, we wear blinders when viewing our national security apparatus. But Levy, with but a few exceptions which I’ll enunciate later, appears to be such a man. He is capable of rising above his narrow individual perspective to see the entire forest of Israeli-Arab relations for the trees. Here is a man who knows the IDF and government are terribly off course. Who knows first-hand of the corrosive effect of lack of trust in this relationship.
Here’s how Levy describes the beginning of his relationship with the Lebanese among who he worked during the first Lebanon occupation. It will tell you how easy it is to begin that downhill slide which the American occupation of Iraq has experienced:
Levy, “the process in Lebanon did not begin with the fact that I was the occupier and they were the occupied: It began with the fact that I was the redeemer and they were glad I had come. Slowly but surely, because of the things I do, because of my thoughtlessness as a nation, as a government, I gradually exacerbate the situation. I turn my friend into my enemy.”
He takes the rather extraordinary view of wishing that a catastrophic terror attack or Israeli accident would’ve forced the nation to reconsider its invasion right at the very beginning of the adventure, rather than after 700 soldiers had been killed:
Levy is convinced that the second Lebanon war is a direct outcome of the mistakes made in the first war, and tries to imagine what would have happened if immediately after Israel…entered Lebanon in 1982, there had been a bombing attack that would have caused it to withdraw quickly rather than to become stuck there for almost 20 years: “Someone once said, imagine that we had worked a little less well, and a bus with 50 soldiers had exploded immediately. It is possible that the State of Israel would have fled South Lebanon immediately. The death of those 50 people would have prevented the death of 700 soldiers over 18 years.”
In the end we left Lebanon as a result of the helicopter disaster.
Levy: “True, and I’m telling you that it might have been better for us had the helicopter disaster taken place in 1983 or 1984, and then there would have been not Four Mothers, but 20 mothers, who would have exerted such pressure on the government that it would have been persuaded to get out of there already then.” (Four Mothers was a grass-roots movement founded in the wake of the 1997 IDF helicopter collision that killed 73 soldiers; it called on Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.)
Levy propounds the “snowball of hate” syndrome characterizing the relationship between occupier and occupied:
Levy…recalls the concept of “a snowball of hate”: “Let’s say that in a certain village there’s someone who carried out a terror attack against soldiers. The moment you’ve traveled to the village, taken the man and left, you’ve created another four potential terrorists. You have to understand that. I had no hesitation when I had to enter homes. But imagine that you are entering a small room where five people are sleeping, and to get to my Mohammed I have to step on four. That’s exactly the snowball I’m talking about. On the way to entering a village to arrest someone I’m already doing damage, and the question is why have we reached this situation. Today, if the chief of staff, after dropping a bomb that killed four children, says that he feels only a slight tremor in the wing – what is the Palestinian who lives there supposed to think?”
This is some of the most clear-headed thinking I’ve read from a member of the Israeli intelligence establishment in a long, long time. Here he talks about his attitudes toward Palestinian militancy (or “resistance” depending on your perspective):
As someone who is familiar with the conditions of the Palestinians in Gaza, do you feel empathy toward them?
“Ehud Barak once said that if he were a Palestinian he would join a terror organization. If I were in their situation, I would make our lives bitter. I would not blow up women and children. I’m totally opposed to that. But yes, I would fight against the foreign occupier. When you take a person and put him up against the wall and don’t leave him many options, then what do you want him to do?
“Let’s forget our patriotism for a moment. If a boy in Be’er Sheva falls in love with a girl in Haifa, what does he do? He picks up the phone, makes a date and drives to see her. If a boy from Bethlehem falls in love with a girl from Nablus, what does he do? He has to cross checkpoints, he needs a 1,001 permits. The moment that you reach the conclusion that you have nothing to live for, you immediately find that you have something to die for.”
Levy also critiques Israeli notions of patriotic sacrifice and says they are little different from current Palestinian notions of resistance:
Are soldiers legitimate targets?
“Yes. In this battle soldiers are legitimate targets. My father was in the Etzel [the Irgun, a pre-1948 right-wing Jewish military organization that fought the British and Arabs]. There was the British occupier and he fought against it. The Palestinian is fighting against the Israeli occupier. When you come and call someone a ‘terrorist,’ the definition is totally subjective. I consider the Etzel fighters freedom fighters, and the British considered them terrorists …
“Weren’t we the ones who invented this business of sacrifice? Who sanctified ‘it is good to die for our country’? Didn’t we sanctify those who were the first to charge in order to save the homeland? Okay, so the Palestinians have taken it to much greater extremes. Do you think that if we were in their situation we wouldn’t have suicide bombers? Isn’t Baruch Goldstein a suicide bomber?
Finally, Levy excoriates the political echelon for wasting an opportunity for peace during a lull in Palestinian terror induced, so he says, by Shin Bet success in curbing violence:
“My goal as a general security service,” Levy continues, “is to reduce the terrorist threat to zero, or almost zero, so that the government in Israel will solve the problem we have, but not when there is a pistol to its head. I and my friends worked like dogs and managed to reduce the problem almost to a minimum. There were almost no terror attacks, and then the government came and said, ‘There’s nothing, so why make a decision now? Let’s postpone it.’ And they postponed it. In this equation I kept my part of the bargain and the governments didn’t keep theirs.”
I only have one bone to pick with Levy. He seems oblivious to the fact that some, perhaps many of his fellow agents tortured Palestinians during interrogation. The former agent adamantly denies this happened contrary to much other evidence including Supreme Court decisions. In this, I believe he is guided by a sense of loyalty to his former service and those colleagues he worked with there. This is a weakness in Levy’s perspective on the Shin Bet. But it is not one that in any way discredits the rest of his cogent analysis of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and Lebanese.
A hat tip to Noam Shelef of Americans for Peace Now for providing the original link for this article.
Shavua Tov. This is a very interesting and thought provoking piece. Well featured. I can imagine that almost everything Levy says is true and especially the important parts. Those parts are for me in particular when he talks about the political failure and his empathy and understanding for the actions of his Palestinian ‘adversaries.’ Those two items are in my mind the most crucial to convey to ‘reality refuseniks’ and in this case I mean those who refuse to see what Israel is really doing. If more people would understand that then more people would begin to think, ‘hey, maybe there is another side to this story and maybe we do need to pursue another course.’ As to the sanitization of some bits, I can imagine that in the Shin Bet as in every government service I can think of where a very high security clearance is involved and where one operates very close to the inner and not always pleasant circles, there is an airtight confidentiality contract that follows one to the grave. Perhaps in order to be able to publish and say what he does, he knows he can only go so far. And that deal with the devil is one which is easy to see, accept and to see through as reader.
Richard Silverstein says
Glad you found that article useful.
I didn’t think of that. But of course what you say is perfectly true. He may’ve signed a statement saying he could not comment substantively on issues like S.B. torture. But then again, if this was true there’s no reason he couldn’t say that to the interviewer unless the S.B. prohibited his fr. doing even that (it seems unlikely).