When she arrived in Israel, N. knew that she was ill and that her days were numbered. A female IDF soldier escorted her from the Erez Crossing to the entrance to her son’s home, in one of the Jewish communities near Gaza.
“I opened the door for her and gave her a hug,” her son, D., recalls. “She saw the children. I said to her, ‘Mother, look, my sons are in the army. My sons are soldiers.’ We hadn’t seen each other for years. I looked at her. She was happy. She asked me to take care of them, to make sure that nothing happened to them. Before we parted, she hugged my two soldiers in her arms and said to them: ‘Inshallah, I hope we will soon get to see this uniform in Gaza. When will Israel come back there? We have no life.’”
“Grandmother kissed us incessantly,” says Y., a sergeant in the IDF. “She stroked our hair and kept saying, ‘May God protect you.’”
N. stayed with her family for a month. Shortly after returning to Gaza, she passed away. “I feel so relieved,” says D., “knowing that my mother was pleased with us when she died.”
It’s a complicated story. It begins in Gaza and continues in Israel. D. and his wife gave all their sons Hebrew names. They chose to name them after people from the General Security Service, the Shin Bet, whom they worked with. A., the eldest son, was born in Gaza and received an Israeli name when they came to Israel. Sergeant Y. is the second son. R., the youngest son, serves in the IDF too, holding the rank of corporal.
In order to protect them and their relatives who still live in Gaza City, we are not allowed to reveal their full names and faces. D.’s activity is confidential. Even his three sons don’t know what exactly he did for the State of Israel. He wears a long custom-made chain on his neck with a medallion featuring the map of the Land of Israel and a Star of David. His sons wear Stars of David on their necks. R.’s chain includes the Shema Yisrael prayer as well.
D., a 53-year-old Muslim Arab from Gaza, was a Shin Bet agent, a “collaborator.” People say his contribution to Israel’s security is priceless. Twenty-five years ago, he was smuggled from Gaza by the Shin Bet together with his wife and eldest son. They had two more sons since then, both of whom are now IDF soldiers.
The three sons, including the one who was born in Gaza, are in the midst of a conversion process. The two soldiers are undergoing the process as part of the army’s Nativ program. They both wear a large kippa, put on tefillin and say a blessing before they eat. They keep their cellphones shut off during Shabbat. A. is in charge of cooking the traditional Jewish stew known as Cholent. Y. celebrated the Passover Seder in the army. R. was the guest of a religious Jewish family in the Gaza vicinity. A., the eldest son, recently resumed a conversion process which he had begun several years ago, when he was involved with a young Jewish girl.
“I really feel like I am part of something which is above and beyond,” Y. explains. “I know more about the State of Israel’s history and significant things than I know about our own history.”
Asked how he feels seeing his sons put on tefillin, D. replies: “It’s a pleasure for me, a pleasure. I wish it could be broadcast in Gaza. In our home, the Bible and the Quran lay side by side. I am the proudest person in the world. My sons are ‘made in Israel.’ The first time my son came home in his uniform, I cried. I felt so proud. It was a dream come true. My soldier was born. My hero was born.”
“The uniform means everything to me. Respect, appreciation. I would do anything for this country,” says Sergeant Y.
“The uniform is tailor-made for my body, it’s part of me,” says Corporal R. “I’m willing to die for the state. There’s no question about it. My dream was to serve in the Golani Brigade. I couldn’t, for medical reasons too. But I asked to, I begged, I wrote letters to the entire world. I wanted to be a commander too.”
And what if you were a fighter and you were told that you had to fight in Gaza too?
“I want to go there as part of an operation, a war. I want to show those people in Gaza. This is what I said: ‘I won’t come out with a white flag; I’ll come out with a flag of Israel.”
“If there is a war, God forbid, while my children are serving in the army,” says D., “I would want them to be like any other soldier serving the State of Israel, even if their fate is to be killed.”
The family members like to talk about their successful absorption in Israel, but it wasn’t always easy. “From the first grade to the sixth grade, people didn’t know that I was an Arab, a Muslim,” Y. recalls. “In the seventh grade, we were asked to prepare an ancestry project. The teacher asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to do it?’ I said yes. I stood in front of my classmates for the first time and said: ‘I am an Arab, a Muslim who was born in Israel.’ Then everyone stopped playing with me. They started calling me ‘you terrorist, you stinking Arab’ and spitting on me. It lasted for a long time, until the 10th grade. I didn’t tell anyone at home about it. I thought I would deal with it on my own, but it didn’t go away.”
It’s the only time in our long conversation that he talks about “us” and “them.”
“I’m dying to hear just one story of what my father did,” he says, “so that you’ll all know what we, as a family of Muslim Arabs from Gaza, did and what my father did for this country. I wish he would give me just one story that I could share with everyone. It’s important to me. It’s pride. It’s significant. My father raised me as a Zionist. I am still proud today—but if people heard what he did, I would be able to walk around with my head held high.”
D. began his affair with Israel in the 1970s in Gaza, when his father was shot by terrorists and was hospitalized and treated at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon for more than a month. It was D.’s first close encounter with Israel and with Israelis. The father, who passed away since then, knew all about D.’s secret activity for the State of Israel.
As a young boy, D. actually organized and initiated protests against Israel. “We would chant against the State of Israel, against the occupation,” he said. Nevertheless, people in the neighborhood believed he was connected to the Shin Bet, perhaps because of his family and the story of his father who was shot for collaborating with Israel. “I would sit down with friends while they were in a middle of a conversation. They would see me and immediately stop talking,” he said. “They said that I was an ‘informer,’ that I was giving the Shin Bet names.”
The Shin Bet did try to recruit him, but he refused. It took a while before he agreed. He was already 18 years old, working as a waiter in a café in central Israel and wandering between Gaza and Israel.
"The first round,” D. addresses his activity for Israel, “was when I brought information which led to the capture of two terrorist cells, one from Jabalia and one from al-Bureij. I believed in that way. I believe in the Jews’ existence and in the State of Israel’s existence.”
And what about the Palestinians?
“Those people,” he says, “don’t know how to talk. They only know how to kill. They drink blood.”
In Gaza, you would be called ‘a traitor.’
“I don’t see myself as a traitor. I see myself as a human being who is against bloodshed. Enough, it’s time for us to live. I am proud of being from Gaza and I am against bloodshed. I am proud of being from Gaza and I don’t kill small children. I am an Arab, a Muslim, an Israeli, a Zionist. I am against terror and against bloodshed. I believe in both people living a good life together. I don’t believe in the thing called ‘blood.’ I believe in the Jewish existence. I believe in the Arab existence. I am an Israeli Arab believer who loves the Jewish people.”
D.’s cooperation with the Shin Bet continued. Meanwhile, he got married and his eldest son A. was born. He worked in Gaza as a merchant. He had a good life. In 1992, the Shin Bet received information of a Palestinian plan to assassinate D. Security prisoners distributed in the prisons a list of assassination targets, which included 17 people—agents and collaborators with Israel. D.’s name was on that list.
The Shin Bet tried to get him out of Gaza. A relative of his, a five-year-old boy, was brutally murdered. Pictures of the body, which had been abused, were sent to D.’s family. They left no room for doubt. “They sent the body without an ear. They cut off his organs and sent them,” he recalls. “It was a warning.” D. still holds on to those photos to this very day.
He left Gaza that same year with his wife and son. “Before we came here, I offered my wife a divorce,” he reveals. “I told her, ‘I’m leaving, I’m in danger. I’m going to live in Israel.’ She said to me, ‘Wherever your shoes go I’ll go too.’ My mother cried. She made my wife swear that I would not walk around with a weapon. My wife promised her, although she knew I had a weapon. She just wanted to calm her down.”
The State of Israel tries to help the people who help protect its national security. In the past 20 years, the aid has been official provided through the Security Aid Administration, which is subject to the Shin Bet. The process includes rescue, housing solutions, financial aid to help the collaborator and his family start a new life, professional help, educational programs, employment training and help in arranging the collaborator’s legal status in Israel. It’s a complicated process, which is custom-fit to each person and has often been criticized by different people.
The administration workers who are in touch with the collaborators are members of the Shin Bet, and D. sees them as part of his family. As far as they are concerned, the State of Israel has a moral obligation to people like D. “We don’t use people and throw them away” is the administration’s motto. They even talk about a “lifelong covenant.” The basic goal is to help the rehabilitated person and his family members become independent and integrate into the Israeli society. From this perspective, the story of D.’s family—with the sons who chose to enlist and integrate into the Jewish society—is a success story. The administration encourages the rehabilitated person’s children to integrate into military or national service in order to help them become part of the Israeli society, although it refuses to provide details about the number of these recruits.
At first, the family settled in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Neighborhood. “They placed people around me to protect me, because my life was in danger,” he recounts. “They put a panic button in my house. They told me that ‘as soon as a veiled person approaches you, we’ll come rescue you within two minutes.’ My wife didn’t know Hebrew and signed up for Hebrew studies at an Ulpan. A., my eldest son, was six years old.”
“My integration was very quick,” A. says. “Within a year, I already knew Hebrew. I would go to the synagogue with my friends. On our first Purim in Israel, my father dressed me up as the IDF chief of staff.”
From Hatikva Neighborhood, the family moved to one of the upscale neighborhoods of Be’er Sheva. Later, three years after arriving in Israel, they moved to a Gaza-vicinity community. Their two younger sons, Y. and R., were born there. Nine years separate between Y. and his eldest brother.
“I brought A. into this world to leave behind a memory of me,” D. told me excitedly last week. “I didn’t believe I would live. I was sure I would be assassinated. In Israel, I received a visit from Shin Bet people. They said to me, ‘It’s now time for you to have more children.’ They helped my wife undergo treatments. They are the ones who helped us. Thanks to them, we have more children.”
The children grew up in a rocket-battered area. “I grew up in the Gaza vicinity, and my brother and I would never run into the secured room,” says Y. “Our parents would say to us, ‘Run into the secured room,’ but our father would go sit in the balcony and watch. Children who grow up with Qassam rockets are children who are not afraid of anything. They’re not afraid of tunnels and they’re not afraid of a single thing.”
“I was never afraid,” says R. “I don’t know the meaning of fear. I don’t let it in. Every time it comes, I change the lock. But a reality of missiles is a difficult reality.”
Have you ever seen a Qassam hit?
“I saw a child who was killed by a Qassam, a moment after he was hurt. I was outside and I heard the siren. A. ran toward me, grabbed me, covered my eyes so that I wouldn’t see, and threw me into the house. It was traumatic. I was six years old. But it’s part of my childhood.”
Still, you’re being fired on from Gaza.
“So? I have nothing to do with them.”
A., the eldest son, was the first brother to try to enlist. “They wouldn’t let me,” he says, sadly. “I traveled to the Kirya Base. I wrote to the chief of staff, to Shin Bet people. it didn’t help. The response I received from the recruitment center was that they couldn’t draft me because I was a Muslim and I was born in Gaza and that was what my identity card said. That’s the thing that annoys me more than anything. That’s why I only had an ID issued when I was 20 something. I even asked them not to put down my place of birth, to write that I wasn’t born anywhere, just so it wouldn’t say Gaza. I failed. I still walk around without an ID, only with A driver’s license. I don’t want people to see where I was born.”
His father, D., interrupts him. “No, this is where I stop. Whoever forgets his place of birth is not human. I was born in Gaza and I will never forget that place, but today I live here.”
When Y.—who was born in Israel—turned 18, he was allowed to enlist. The entire family escorted him to the recruitment center. “This is something I always wanted,” he says. “Even when I was in kindergarten, I dressed up as a soldier. I wish I could be a mista’arev (a soldier disguised as an Arab for intelligence gathering purposes). It’s one of my dreams.” For security reasons, we are not allowed to reveal the names of the units Y. and R. serve in, but they are not combat soldiers.
“I can’t say I’m not jealous of my brothers,” says A. “It’s eating me up, it’s killing me. Joining the army is Zionism. It means being loyal to the place I grew up in. I wish I could put on the uniform. If I were given the option, I believe I would keep wearing the uniform to this very day.”
The three sons studied in Jewish educational systems. Their kindergartens were even religious. At home, D. speaks to his wife in Arabic. The children speak to each other in Hebrew. None of them can read or write in Arabic. “I can’t even write my name in Arabic,” says Y. The youngest brother, R., has trouble speaking Arabic too. “I speak Arabic like a new immigrant,” he apologizes, “and with a heavy Israeli accent.”
D. submitted a request to convert to Judaism about 20 years ago. Eventually, he gave up. He is Muslim and his wife, the mother of his children, still prays. She was the one, however, who pushed the children to enlist and to convert, they say. In recent years, they have not been celebrating Muslim holidays, but they do celebrate the Jewish ones.
“I see my connection to the Jewish people as a tight connection,” says R. “From an early age, I knew that I felt Jewish inside despite being defined as a Muslim. I knew that I would convert and join the IDF. In high school, I traveled to Poland. I wanted to. I insisted. I felt that the Holocaust was an inseparable part of Judaism, of what I grew up on. My father supported me. We visited all kinds of places—the children’s forest, Auschwitz, the signs on the wall of people who were murdered. Every second of this trip, every moment, I cried. I am a Muslim. I am still defined in Israel as a Muslim. My ID still says that I’m a Muslim. But in fact, what am I? A Jew.”
“When I arrived in Israel, the first trip the Shin Bet took me on was to Yad Vashem,” D. recalls. “I couldn’t take it. That’s why when I hear people say that there is no existence for the Jewish people, I ask why. So the Arabs are allowed to live and the Jews aren’t?”
They are still in touch with their relatives who stayed in Gaza. “I didn’t cut myself off completely,” D. reveals. “My parents used to come to Israel for a visit every few years. So did my wife’s parents and my sisters and their husbands. My mother was slightly tortured in the beginning. They would come to her house every few days, go from room to room, searching, thinking they would find something.”
Apart from the visits, how do you keep in touch?
“Through WhatsApp, phone calls, whatever we have. We talk every day, under the restrictions. Sometimes they have an eight-hour power outage, so we can’t get in touch with them.”
What do they tell you?
“Everyone wants an Israeli ID now. They say to me, ‘If only we could come live in the State of Israel.’ It’s not only them. I heard it from strangers too, in Gaza, where you see the hunger, where you see the death. A construction worker, who used to come home from a working day with 400 shekels, now works from 4 am to 8 pm for 20 shekels. They are miserable. They have a difficult life. And not all Gazans want Hamas, but they are afraid. Whoever doesn’t support Hamas is shot. After I die, I will go to God, and God will take me in. He won’t take Hamas in.”
And what happened when there were military operations, like Protective Edge, Cast Lead or Pillar of Defense?
“During that period, they were finished. They would tell me that they have no electricity, no food, no water. Sometimes they have no water supply for four-five days. They don’t shower for a week. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel their pain. But what can I do?”
Do you feel lonely?
“It’s sometimes difficult not having family here,” says Y. “I sometimes think it could be so much fun if my aunts and uncles and grandparents would come here like my parents came here. I wish they would also contribute to the state and know about Independence Day and Holocaust Day and the other holidays.”
They don’t talk about Gaza at home. They all agree that there is nothing to talk about. Since they were kids, they knew that their father had “contributed to the state,” and that’s about it. Apart from Y., none of them remembers being harassed over their descent. Nonetheless, R. agrees that “we have a cruel youth. We were cruel and we remain cruel.”
Although they feel like an inseparable part of the Israeli society, they believe it is a racist society. “There is no doubt that the Jewish people are racist,” A. says. “I am racist myself. I don’t like the Arabs’ mentality. It all begins with a knife and ends with a Katyusha rocket.”
“Not all the Arabs and not all of Gaza,” his father calms him down. “In every place, there are good people and there is garbage.
“My son heard all these things from me,” he defends A. “It was my way of strengthening the children. I used to tell them bad things about Gaza. When A. left Gaza, he was five and a half years old. Inshallah, the State of Israel will go back there and I will show him around. He will see the people, and I will tell him who is respectable and who isn’t.”
“I would like to be there, in Gaza, as a soldier,” A. says.
“Waving an Israeli flag,” Y. adds.
“Gaza won’t get to see me and I won’t get to see Gaza,” says R.
In the meantime, he promises to keep contributing to the state any way he can. “I’ll work with the Shin Bet till I have two and a half feet in the grave,” he says. “Even then, people might come and see my finger sticking out of the grave and pointing at someone.”
And A., the eldest son, concludes: “We have no other country.”