Avi Shavit is an unassuming Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veteran, whose unit performed the most daring missions in combatting Palestinian terrorism. Handsome, of average height and a pleasant demeanor, Avi spoke to this reporter about his Jerusalem upbringing, and his service in the “mist’arvim.”
Joseph Puder (JP): Avi, tell our readers a bit about you, your bio?
Avi Shavit (AS): I was born in Jerusalem in 1974, my dad was an archeologist and my mom was a college administrator. I'm the youngest of three brothers and sisters, and grew up in the Bet-Ha’kerem neighborhood, which is in the center of Jerusalem. In 1992, I joined the IDF and went to an undercover counter terrorist unit that operated in the west bank and served there for three years. In 1996 I came to the U.S., planning on staying here, so I went to Pittsburgh to visit a childhood friend, and ended up staying there for 12 years, until 2008. During that period I got my MBA at PITT University, and worked as a buyer for a retail clothing company. After I got my degree, my friend and I established a diamond wholesale business that served the Tri-state area and sold it four years later. I got married in 2002 and established a wholesale bakery business. In 2004 I had a baby boy, and 2 years later I got divorced and sold my business. In 2008, I moved to the Philadelphia area. My latest adventure is an Investment company in the real estate industry.
JP: Please describe what it was like growing up in Jerusalem?
AS: Growing up in Jerusalem was an amazing experience. The city is very unique. It is one of the 3 largest cities in Israel. It is a metropolitan area on one aspect, and an ancient city with an amazing history on the other. You have Secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Arabs and Christians living together and interacting on a daily basis. I'm not an urban person, and although Jerusalem is a large city, I loved it and still do. I guess it is because of its unique nature and look. There are no high rises and all buildings are constructed with Jerusalem stone. As a kid, during the 80's, I remember the many bombings in Jerusalem, and the impact it had on people. I remember that for a number of years there was a feeling of fear and tension in the air, but people from Jerusalem are survivors, and have been for many years. Every year on Yom Kippur, my friends and I walked to the western wall, which amounted to a 6 mile walk. It was an amazing sight for a Jew, especially on Yom Kippur, and nowhere else in the world can you experience that.
JP: How did you end up joining the “mist’arvim” unit of the IDF?
AS: As a kid, I always wanted to be a combat soldier in the IDF. When I was around 15, my parents had close friends whose son joined a "Mist'arvim" unit that operates in the West Bank, and here and there through the years we talked about the unit. I was clearly intrigued, and when I got to be 17 years old I've decided to request to join the unit at 18. During that time, different Israeli news channels talked about the IDF operations in the West Bank by undercover IDF soldiers that dressed and spoke Arabic. So when I got to be 18, I joined the "Mist'arvim" unit. I went through a lot of written and psychological exams, and when I passed them, I went through 3 days of physical exams. After passing them as well, I finally started a 13 month stint, which included training in many weapons, urban warfare, Krav Maga (the Israeli hand to hand combat), Arabic language lessons, studying the Koran, acting lessons, and makeup lessons.
JP: What “unclassified” actions can you tell us about the unit?
AS: I can’t talk about specific missions at all, but I can talk a bit about the way we operated. The way the unit operated is by getting intel from the Shabak (the Israeli security agency) about an individual or a group that need to be captured, and the unit proceeded with a plan and executed a mission. All missions were in hostile territory, so the actions were being performed by undercover soldiers, Israeli soldiers that dress up as Arabs. They can be dressed up as a woman or even as an older man or an older woman. The element of surprise was always a key factor in the success of every mission, hence, in one mission for example we had a hidden soldier in a refrigerator that was strapped standing in a pickup truck. Another time we had hidden soldiers in the trunk of a car. In addition we used soldiers limping, acting as a person with a disability and we did everything and anything to prevent "bad people" from hurting innocent civilians.
JP: What impact did the unit’s action have on reducing terror?
AS: The unit had a tremendous impact on reducing terror against Israeli civilians. Some people would say that for every terrorist that the army captured or killed, five others are willing to replace him. Although this might be true, the reality is that terrorists operate in "cells." They’re part of an undercover movement, therefore each individual holds knowledge and experience that is hard to replace in a short period of time. By taking an individual out of the equation, and we dramatically slowed down the operation of his specific cell, or eliminated it. In many cases we noticed that after we eliminated a cell that operated around a specific city in the West Bank, with members that had blood of Israelis on their hands, we had "quiet" in that area for the next several months.
JP: Is peace possible with the current Palestinian leadership?
AS: In my opinion the short answer is NO. I don't see any peace being possible with any Palestinian leadership in the near future. The reason for that is that in most cases the leadership is basically a mirror of its people, and of its society. Therefore, in order to get a true and meaningful peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, a change needs to happen mainly in the Palestinian society. Let me explain. Currently the gap between the two societies is too wide. On one end you have Israelis that embrace democracy and a western lifestyle, on the other side you have large percentage of Palestinians that don't believe in democracy, and don't know or want to know a lot about the western lifestyle. Unfortunately the current Palestinian youth are being brainwashed to hate and despise Israelis and our way of living. This is due to the Palestinian educational system and family traditions.
Peace can occur between two sides only after a long dialogue and communication. The problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that there is almost no communication. It is like a blind person trying to communicate with a deaf person. As an Israeli, I can say that the majority of Israelis would LOVE to have peace with our Palestinian neighbors, but unfortunately the current Palestinian society is searching for ways to gain materially, and that’s normal and natural. It seems however, that for the Palestinians, the idea of peace is just a tool to gain, and not an end in itself. Without a sincere desire for peace, agreements will never last.