In movies and TV, intelligence operations are often portrayed as glamorously dangerous human chess matches with a series of sexual entanglements and ingenious double crosses. The operatives are master manipulators, forming intimate relationships they must cast off at mission’s end.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover just how closely these storylines reflect reality.
A new book by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, Spies Against Armaggedon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, tells the history of Israel’s intelligence establishment, whose main (known) arms are the Shin Bet (domestic intelligence), the Mossad (foreign intelligence), and Aman (military intelligence).
One of the book’s most vividly described operations launched in 1952. A Shin Bet unit of Iraqi Jews infiltrated Arab villages to monitor the population as a potential “fifth column” that might join with Israel’s enemies in case of war. The spies lived in these villages and most of them married local women and had children. As time passed, the intelligence provided by the men “proved to be almost worthless,” according to Melman and Raviv, but the emotional toll suffered by agents and their families was profound.
The unit was disbanded in 1959, and the spies’ wives, who faced particular hardship, were given the choice of being relocated to an Arab country or resettling with their husbands in Jewish communities in Israel. Almost all chose to stay with their husbands. Decades later, the project’s commander is still haunted by the social and psychological trauma the operation had on the children of these marriages.