TEL AVIV — Isaac Shoshan, a Syrian-born Israeli undercover operative who posed as an Arab early in his career, participating in bombings and an assassination attempt, before making major contributions to the country’s espionage methods, died on Dec. 28 in Tel Aviv. He was 96.
His daughter Eti confirmed the death, in Ichilov Hospital. He had suffered a stroke, she said.
In a tribute on Twitter, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who once served in an Israeli intelligence unit that Mr. Shoshan helped conceive, said Mr. Shoshan had “risked his life again and again” on behalf of Israel.
“Generations of warriors learned their trade at his feet,” he added, “me too.”
Mr. Shoshan was born Zaki Shasho in Aleppo, Syria, in 1924 to an Arabic-speaking Jewish family. He studied at a French-language school, learned Hebrew at Orthodox Jewish schools and as a youth belonged to the Zionist Hebrew Scouts. At 18, motivated by his Zionism, he traveled to what was then British-ruled Palestine and within two years was recruited by the Palmach, the Jewish underground fighting force.
During his training, he was posted to a secret unit known as the Arab Platoon. Made up of Jews who could pass as Arabs, it was charged with gathering intelligence and carrying out sabotage and targeted killings.
The unit was set up in expectation of “a civil war in Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs,” said Yoav Gelber, a professor and historian of the period.
The unit’s members, most of them immigrants from Arab lands, were trained in intelligence gathering and undercover communications — Morse code, for example — as well as in commando tactics and using explosives. They also underwent intensive study of Islam and Arab customs so that they could live as Arabs without arousing suspicions.
Mr. Shoshan began taking part in intelligence-gathering operations after the United Nations voted in 1947 to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, setting off clashes that would turn into war.
But in February 1948 he was called on to put another aspect of his training to use: to help assassinate a Palestinian leader, Sheikh Nimr al-Khatib, who was said to be on his way to Palestine from Lebanon with weapons.
Gunmen were to fire on the sheikh’s car, and Mr. Shoshan, as a seeming Arab bystander, was instructed to “run back and appear to be helping, but actually to make sure the sheikh was dead, and if not, to finish the job off with my handgun,” he said in an interview in 2002.
The sheikh was indeed shot in his car — the assassins “sprayed it with fire from submachine guns,” Mr. Shoshan said — but survived after British soldiers prevented Mr. Shoshan from reaching it. Badly wounded, the sheikh left Palestine and stopped playing an active role in the war.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Shoshan and another member of the Arab Platoon were dispatched to a garage in Haifa, Israel, where intelligence indicated that a car bomb was being assembled.
“The owners never suspected us at all,” Mr. Shoshan said. “Of course they didn’t want to let our car in, but agreed to allow us in for a moment to use the bathroom.”
That was long enough to activate a timed fuse on an explosive device and flee. Minutes later a huge blast shook the entire area, demolishing the garage and several adjoining buildings, killing at least five people and injuring many more.
In 1948, after British forces withdrew from Palestine and Israel declared independence, Arab Platoon agents were dispatched to neighboring Arab countries with the dual goal of gathering information and thwarting perceived threats.
“Although we were sent to gather intelligence, we also saw ourselves as soldiers, and we looked for opportunities to act,” Mr. Shoshan said.
Sent to Beirut, he and his colleagues bought a kiosk and an Oldsmobile, which they used as a taxi to provide cover for their activities.
On one occasion, the unit was ordered to plant a bomb in a luxury yacht belonging to a rich Lebanese. (They were told that Adolf Hitler had used it during World War II.) Intelligence suggested that the vessel would be converted into a gunship for use against the Jews. The ensuring explosion did not sink the yacht but damaged it enough to ensure that it could not be used for military operations.
The team’s most significant operation — a mission to assassinate Prime Minister Riad al-Suhl of Lebanon — was supposed to take place in December 1948. Mr. Shoshan and the others devised a plan to kill the prime minister as they trailed his movements. But the operation was called off at the last moment by senior Israeli leaders, to Mr. Shoshan’s great disappointment, by his account.
In his two years in Beirut, Mr. Shoshan encountered relatives of those killed in the Haifa garage bombing. They spoke with him freely, thinking he was a Palestinian.
“Before that I never thought about the people who were killed there,” Mr. Shoshan recalled in the book “Men of Secrets, Men of Mystery” (1990), which he wrote with Rafi Sutton, a fellow former intelligence colleague. “And there, in Beirut, an old Arab sat facing me and weeping for his two sons who were killed in the blast that I had taken part in carrying out.”
That encounter was one of the events that caused a shift in Mr. Shoshan’s thinking, his son Yaakov said later. “Dad always knew that if we only use force,” he said, “it would only lead to more wars, and he always supported the ‘two states for two peoples’ solution.”
The capture and execution of some Arab Platoon members eventually led Israel to abandon the use of Jewish spies assimilating with Arabs. Mr. Shoshan turned to recruiting and managing Arab agents, a role that called on him to turn them into turncoats.
“He turned out to be blessed with a talent for this job too,” Mr. Sutton, the co-author, said in an interview. “Agents are a problematic lot, and you have to know when they are lying to you or telling the truth, and how not to allow them to extort you and take control of the relationship between you, without damaging their readiness to work with you.”
Mr. Shoshan later urged a resumption of the assimilation program, which led to the formation of Sayeret Matkal, a military special operations espionage unit. The unit was established to carry out intelligence gathering in the heart of enemy countries, in part by using fighters trained to use an Arab cover. Among its members were a young Benjamin Netanyahu, now the prime minister, and his predecessor Mr. Barak, who commanded it.
Mr. Shoshan was given the responsibility of training the members who posed as Arabs.
He played a part in building the cover story for Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who penetrated the top circles of the Syrian regime in the 1960s but who was ultimately exposed and executed. (Mr. Cohen’s story was recently dramatized in the Netflix series “The Spy,” starring Sacha Baron Cohen.)
Ms. Shoshan retired in 1982 but was mobilized from time to time by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to train agents and sometimes participate in operations himself.
Going undercover, he would take the part of an Arab old man who might pretend to be in need of help — to enter a building to make an urgent phone call, for example, or to make casual contact with a target of recruitment. An older man, his handlers believed, was less likely to arouse suspicion.
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