‘Israelis refused to see the truth about the Palestinians’

An interview with Tomer Tzaban, a former undercover special forces soldier who knows Gaza like the back of his hand.

By Ran Puni | | Topics: Hamas, palestinians, Gaza
Tomer Tzaban. Photo by Yehoshua Yosef.
Tomer Tzaban. Photo by Yehoshua Yosef.

Tomer Tzaban fought terrorists in the IDF’s Shimshon Unit, which focused on undercover operations in the Gaza Strip before it was disbanded in 1996 following the Oslo Accords. He is the author of the new book “In the Heart of Gaza” and the bestseller “Undercover in Gaza” (Kinneret Zmora-Bitan). Today, he is a diamantaire.


Q: Do you remember your last time in Gaza?

“When I left Gaza, only a few cells had weapons, very different from the situation today. Even if our cover was burned, we didn’t find ourselves facing terrorists with assault rifles and RPGs from every corner. In most cases, it was fauda [Arabic for chaos, and a word Israeli undercover teams use when their mission has been compromised] with knives, sometimes handguns, and rifles.

“My last memory of Gaza is a thought: I’m leaving the place, and I really don’t know what the future will bring to the place. I understand that this is a place we have no interest in controlling, and on the other hand, every area we withdraw from will lead to a nest of terror. Gaza will not change. They don’t want to build, develop, prosper. I find it hard to understand that mindset.”


Q: From your fieldwork did you manage to understand how Gazans differ from us?

“Once, I witnessed terrorists interrogating a collaborator, and in the end stabbing and killing him. What changed my understanding of them was what happened next—they mutilated him and they cut off his legs, hands and genitals. They took a sadistic pleasure that I couldn’t understand.

“This was the first time I realized that they were not like us in any way. I realized that we had failed to understand something very fundamental about them, so what we saw and heard on October 7, unfortunately, didn’t surprise me.”


Q: Things had been boiling under the surface for years, and on Oct. 7 we saw everything erupt.

“Israelis refused to see the truth. We had a mirror held up in front of us and we refused to look at it. Lately, the penny has dropped for me: People ask me: ‘Is there no hope after all?’ What we can see from this question is that many people are willing to ignore the truth; they fall for the illusion that there is a future for us with these people. We insist on finding something, which in my experience doesn’t exist. … There are people here who want to take our place. We have to understand that.”


Q: What particularly worries you right now?

“I believe that the tunnels were built over the years to create a fortress, waiting for the day when we would move in. The IDF works smart, but it’s hard work. As long as we are on the move, we are in good shape. If we are stationary that is when we will have problems; that’s why undercover units were established and this is why the Shimshon unit needs to be re-established—it knows how to go inside, do what needs to be done, and leave secretly.”


Q: Was Shimshon substantially different from the Duvdevan undercover unit?

“No, but our specialization in Gaza was unique. Duvdevan operated in Judea and Samaria. In Judea and Samaria, you dress up as a school principal or a businessman. In Gaza, you disguise yourself as a worker. In Judea and Samaria, the population is more intelligent; Gaza is the pits. As time passes, people with money leave Gaza and what’s left is the worst of the worst. In Judea and Samaria, people use perfume; in Gaza not. We didn’t shower for days so we would be filthy. Imagine washing your hair with scented shampoo and then going out on an undercover mission. You would become a target straight away.

“The closure of the Shimshon Unit was another measure that reduced our human intelligence in Gaza. It is impossible to compare the number of collaborators before and after we left Gaza. In Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians say that whoever dreams of carrying out an attack at night, gets up in the morning and the Shin Bet arrests him. This is not the case now in Gaza. We saw evidence of this with the failure of the elite Sayeret Matkal [the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit] operation there two years ago. It’s like entering an enemy country like Syria or Lebanon.”


Q: From your deep knowledge of Gaza, what do you think will happen there in the short term, even before “the day after”?

“If people are hungry, more and more terrorists will turn to the Shin Bet and Unit 504 [a secretive IDF intelligence unit that operates agents and interrogates prisoners] and provide information in exchange for aid. It’s already happening. Gaza will descend into chaos. For us, this may be an advantage, because it will allow us to gather better intelligence.”


Q: What should “the day after” look like?

“For years, wealthy people left Gaza. They paid to leave. We need to encourage them to leave.”

See related: What should be done with Gaza?


Q: Assuming that there will be countries willing to take them in.

“The problem, and other countries understand this, is that they [Palestinians] have no ambition to be a prosperous people. In 1970, during Black September, they tried to assassinate the king of Jordan. They tried to turn Jordan into a terrorist state and were expelled after a year of fighting.

“Lebanon, a prosperous country, deteriorated into a civil war after they [the Palestinians] built up Fatahland. In Kuwait, the emir expelled them to Judea and Samaria. And since their only aspiration is to eliminate us, in Gaza they will always return to their ways.”


Q: Things are heating up in the north. What lessons can we draw from Gaza when it comes to Lebanon?

“The most important thing is the images coming out of Gaza. The Middle East understands the language of power and the destruction in Gaza resonates in the Arab world. Even those countries that want to make peace with us, the Saudis, the Emiratis, want to know that they are forming a defense alliance with a strong country. So, what happens in Gaza is clearly heard and seen in Lebanon. [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah, unlike [Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya] Sinwar, loves Lebanon, and the [2006] Second Lebanon War left a scar on him. He doesn’t want Lebanon to be left in ruins, and that gives us leverage over him.”


Q: What do you advise reservists coming out of Gaza today?

“The situation of the soldiers is insane; they can be fighting in Gaza, be given a short break, and within half an hour they can be home. Something about this scenario just doesn’t work out. These are powerful experiences and people’s realities can get mixed up. These transitions confuse the mind, and people can find themselves loading their weapons in everyday situations because they are still in a state of operational alertness. This is something that is typical of undercover soldiers—one day you are a resident of Gaza, and another day you are an ordinary citizen.

“I remember going out one time during my military service and stopping to fill up with gas. I saw an Arab gas station attendant holding a fueling nozzle, and within a second, I was in another place, seeing a terrorist, a refugee camp, thinking someone was coming to kill us. That’s when I realized something was wrong with me.

“I dealt with the trauma by myself for years, so I say to soldiers that they should talk about things, and let things go. For the families, my message is to pay attention to outbursts of violence, nightmares and alienation. Without care and attention, this violence seeps into society. It is important to give people the feeling that they are not alone, and more important, to deal with the whole trauma issue at the state level.”