Isaac Shoshan obituary

Syrian-born Jewish spy who posed as an Arab refugee in Lebanon to glean intelligence on threats to the state of Israel : The difference between life and death could be an incorrect verb.

Thursday January 21 2021 The Times

The tiny group of young men of whom Isaac Shoshan was one called themselves “mista’arvim” — Hebrew for “ones who become like Arabs”.

They were Jewish refugees from Arab nations who arrived in British Mandatory Palestine in the turbulent years before the state of Israel was created in 1948. There they were trained as spies and saboteurs by a country that did not yet exist, and returned to Arab countries in the guise of Arab refugees. Unsung men of great courage, they knew that a single slip could cost them their lives, and Shoshan was one of the bravest.

He was born Zaki Shasho in the Syrian city of Aleppo in 1924. His father was a primary school janitor, one of a 10,000-strong Jewish community that had existed in Aleppo for more than two millennia. Some were wealthy merchants but most, like Shoshan’s family, were poor and supported by Jewish charitable institutions.

Short and bespectacled, he was brought up among Muslims in the Ancient City and Arabic was his mother tongue. In the late 1930s, as hostility towards Jews grew throughout the Arab world, a teacher named Monsieur Pedro arrived to teach Hebrew at his Jewish school, bringing with him stories of the Zionist movement in Palestine.

“We understood that what we read about in the Bible [the land of Israel] really existed. It wasn’t in Heaven,” Shoshan told Matti Friedman, author of Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, towards the end of his life.

In 1942, aged 18, he and a friend resolved to reach it and were smuggled across the border. There he joined other Syrian emigrants in a kibbutz near the town of Rehovot where they worked in the fields. Most of the early Jewish settlers were from Europe, and regarded Arab Jews with disdain and suspicion, but as Arabic speakers Shoshan and his peers possessed an invaluable skill. They “discovered that their ticket into their new society was to become the people they had fled”, Friedman wrote.

The Palmach was the elite Jewish underground fighting force during the latter stages of the British Mandate. In the mid-1940s it recruited Shoshan into its “Arab Section” or “Arab Platoon”. He and a dozen other young Jews from Arab countries were taught secret communication techniques, trained to use guns and explosives, and given a crash course in Islamic beliefs, practices and traditions so they could pass as Muslims.

Initially Shoshan was sent into Arab markets and mosques to gather intelligence but in February 1948 he was involved in a plot to kill a Palestinian warlord, Sheikh Nimr al-Khatib. His role was to finish the sheikh off if ambushers armed with sub-machineguns failed to kill him as he drove by. In the event British soldiers prevented Shoshan reaching the car but the sheikh was permanently incapacitated.

Shortly afterwards Shoshan drove an explosive device to a garage in Haifa where Arab fighters had filled a British ambulance with explosives and were planning to detonate it outside a packed Jewish cinema. Shoshan talked his way in and detonated the device using a timed fuse, destroying the garage and killing at least five people.

In the spring of 1948, as British forces were withdrawing from Palestine, Shoshan and a colleague were ordered to join thousands of Palestinian Arabs fleeing from Haifa to Lebanon to escape warfare in their homeland and establish themselves in Beirut. The difference between life and death could be “an incorrect verb”, Friedman said.

Shoshan, then 24, used the cover name Abdul Karim Muhammad Sidki. He and his colleague opened a kiosk and ran a rudimentary taxi service while sending intelligence back to Tel Aviv through radio transmissions.

On one occasion they helped an explosives expert to blow up a luxury yacht that had once belonged to Hitler and was moored off Beirut. His bosses feared the Aviso Grille would be used as an improvised gunboat to attack Haifa.

On another, Shoshan met an old Palestinian man who lamented the loss of his sons in the attack on the Haifa garage that he had carried out. “Before that I had never thought about the people who were killed there,” he said decades later.

Having narrowly avoided blowing the whole undercover operation after an affair with a Lebanese Christian woman, Shoshan was recalled to Israel in 1950, setting foot in the new state for the first time. He was one of the lucky ones. Half of his “Arabic Section” colleagues never returned as they had been caught and executed.

He remained in the Israeli intelligence services for the rest of his career, participating in secret operations, recruiting Arab agents and training young Jews to pose as Arabs. “Generations of warriors have learnt their trade at his feet. Me too,” Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister, said. Shoshan took particular pride in extracting some of the last Jews from his native Syria.

He married a fellow Syrian-born intelligence operator, Yaffa, with whom he had two children: Jacob, a tour guide, and Eti, who teaches inmates in Israeli prisons. After Yaffa died in 1970 he married Rachel, another Jewish escapee from Aleppo.

Shoshan continued to work intermittently for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, training new agents and occasionally vanishing on mysterious assignments, doubtless playing the part of an old Arab man to glean intelligence in a hostile country.

Shoshan respected the Arabs among whom he had grown up. His son said he always voted for left-of-centre parties that favoured peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours, and supported the principle of a two-state solution.

A modest, self-effacing man, he lived in a small flat in a Tel Aviv suburb, taking pleasure in the blossoming career of his one grandchild, Yaffa, a classical musician. Only after Friedman’s book was published last year was Shoshan recognised for his exploits at his nation’s birth.

Isaac Shoshan, Israeli intelligence official, was born on April 19, 1924. He died on December 28, 2020, aged 96