Yossi Gino – An Israeli hero behind enemy lines

By Gideon

On Wednesday, December 21, after a serious illness died Yossi Gino (69), the legend of the IDF, the Shabak and the Mossad, which in the Israeli security services called local agent 007.

For 30 years, Captain (res.) Yossi Gino, the first of the mistarvim (undercover soldiers who are disguised as Arabs in order to participate in military missions) of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, went behind enemy lines time after time.

Gino is the one who, over the years, developed the combat doctrine of the well-prepared, lone fighter who goes far behind enemy lines, without any means of communication or any way of being rescued, carries out his mission and returns home.

“It is a matter of smooth entries and exits, without anyone being aware that you have penetrated Arab countries,” he explains. “These include any country you can imagine, all over the Middle East. I may be more familiar with streets, corners, roads and people in all kinds of Arab capitals than I am with the stores on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.”

Gino’s main job during his Sayeret years was “to reach deep down into enemy territory and to bring back intelligence, mainly to the Israel Air Force. To come, to do the work and to return, without firing a single bullet from your weapon. The fewer killed for us and for them, the better. Each time it was a different hostile country. I have already been told that I have as many lives as two cats – in other words, 18 lives. I have no other way to explain how I got out of there in one piece.

The moment you have crossed the border, you’re emotional, you’re excited, you’re thrilled. Your heart beats like 1,000 heart attacks, and you breathe the air, then all your senses suddenly come into play. You turn into a very specific type of fighter – a fighter and an animal. Every step and every sound can be heard, and you sometimes go on foot and sometimes by vehicle for dozens and hundreds of kilometers, missions that go on for days and nights, sometimes for weeks. And you know that it’s only you and God, and there isn’t a single person in this world who will be able to rescue you alive from there.

Reafel (Raful) Eitan, the Israeli army chief of staff (1978-1983) said about Yossi Gino: “In my role as chief of staff I sent him on operational activities about which I cannot yet go into detail. But all I can say is that this activity surpassed all imagination, and that Yossi fulfilled these huge assignments by dint of his unique personality and his operational abilities, his capacity for self-sacrifice and his professional and military knowledge, which are unparalleled in the entire IDF and in the entire security apparatus … Many Israelis owe their very lives to Yossi.”on many operations, which were attended by Gino, a long time will not be able to tell. Its ability to being an Arab were actively used by the General security service SHABAK and the foreign intelligence service Mossad.

The relationship between chief of staff Eitan and Captain Yossi Gino exceeded all the accepted hierarchical frameworks. As one of the members of the Sayeret Matkal at that time puts it: “Raful considered Gino a kind of Israeli Rambo, a hero of Israel. He told us that since the courage of scout Meir Har Zion and (IDF special operations) Unit 101 under the command of Arik (Ariel) Sharon, there had been no other fighter in the IDF as courageous as Yossi Gino. He went on assignments that the Mossad or Shin Bet security services did not dare to carry out before him. He is the Israeli soldier who went the deepest, the furthest and to the most dangerous places. Sometimes he had to reach a meeting place 1,500-2,500 kilometers from the Israeli border. Gino did the almost impossible.”

Yossi Gino was born in 1947 in the moshava (agricultural settlement) of Migdal on the shores of Lake Kinneret. A few weeks before his birth, a horse that was plowing the family plot kicked his grandfather Joseph Gino in the stomach and killed him. The grandfather had been the first Jewish undercover soldier disguised as an Arab. He was famous all over for helping the fighters and settlers of Tel Hai and Kfar Giladi in the “wild Galilee” of those years, immediately after World War I. “He worked alongside Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor,” boasts Yossi Gino, who is named after him.

Yossi’s father was also one of the first undercover soldiers in the Palmach pre-state militia, during the 1948 War of Independence. In elementary school in Tiberias, Yossi sat in the same class as one Nava Cohen, who later became the wife of Ehud Barak, a commander of Sayeret Matkal. Gino himself was drafted into Sayeret Matkal in 1965. Upon his discharge from regular army service in 1969, he was drafted into the Mossad espionage agency, spent a year teaching others how to work undercover as he had, and established a fighting brigade for the men of Mustafa Barzani during the Kurdish revolt in Iraq. Gino was also almost killed training with them. Later, in the 1970s, he was “loaned” to the Shin Bet. Over the years he worked from time to time, whenever he was called back, within the context of his home unit, Sayeret Matkal. Until he retired from the security services in 1992, he left the Sayeret seven times, but kept returning to it.

Gino: “I was the first professional undercover soldier in Sayeret Matkal. From the time I was drafted into the IDF in 1965, and for over 27 years, I would come and go to Sayeret Matkal – in the reserves, in the special standing army and so on. When I came to the unit, I was the first frenk (a derogatory term for a Jew of Middle Eastern or North African origin) in a sea of blond men and all kinds of kibbutzniks, and loads of pale Ashkenazim. I got to Sayeret Matkal by mistake, because they told me that there I wouldn’t have to walk, because they traveled in Jeeps and I hate to walk. When they accepted me, they asked me: What’s the difference between a frenk and a roll of film? They answered that film can be developed. So it took them almost 30 years to ‘develop’ me.”

During those years Gino worked closely with Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of Likud leader Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who was killed during the IDF’s Operation Entebbe (“If Yoni were alive, he would have been worthy of being prime minister. We lost a great guy, and you can only imagine what a head for operations he had, and what a good friend he was, and his IQ is 14 stories higher than Bibi’s”). And he worked with former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, too. “Do you know Avi Dichter?” he asks. “Nu, what makes him such a man’s man? Who accompanied him for years on secret missions beyond the lines, as his partner? Gino. Me. Yossi Gino.”

“There were dozens of times when I wanted to die, which almost happened, but I got my undercover talents from Dad and from Grandpa, and from a great deal of practice and learning and repetition, every chapter, every minute, every second of the mission. I returned, I went out and I entered what I now call the great hell. Everyone has his own nightmares. My nightmare is to see the bullet come at you at a range of half a meter. That happened to me in Egypt during the War of Attrition, and luckily I finished off the shooter in a moment. Because you’re on the intelligence side as an undercover soldier, and the less noise you make, the better.”

“I killed only when the situation on the ground really required it. I laid mines, I blew things up, but only when it was really essential. By nature I’m a person who hates blood on my hands. But my first killing took place in an operation to catch terrorists in the Arab village of Samua, on the eve of the Six-Day War. A terrorist came out in my direction, and at a distance of five meters I shot at him. He exploded like a bag of water … That was the first killing in my life. Actually, all of us here are affected by a very specific type of shell shock, at some level or other. Afterward it was easier to shoot to kill.”

Yossi speaks about his undercover work: “It means learning the cover story thoroughly. If I’m 58 years old now and I tell you that I come from the city of Nazareth, and let’s say I’m really from Jenin – they will expect me, at my age and with my status, to be familiar with every hamula (extended family) in Nazareth, and to know what the members of each family do. These people are involved with garages, those with installing shutters, others are in the fruit-and-vegetable business, or the cattle or sheep trade. And you have to know, perfectly, all the types of sheep that are raised in the Middle East, all their varieties. I have to know how to identify, even from a distance of 500 meters, whether this is a Baladi ewe, or a merino, or some other type. Otherwise they don’t believe you.

“… Listen to a story about a policeman who caught me in a traffic jam on the outskirts of a certain Arab city, quite a few years ago. He wanted to see papers. But then you already know what to do and in the most spontaneous way, without putting your finger down your throat, God forbid, you throw up on his shoes and immediately apologize, and slowly become friendly with him and tell him about your wife in such and such a village. That no matter how much trouble she causes you, you love her. And then the policeman cleans his shoes with a rag that I found on the side of the road, and I make him die laughing. You have to know how to laugh at the moments of greatest fear. Mainly I have a bunch of jokes characteristic of every single Arab country, in any Arab dialect you want.”

“Sometimes I entered alone, sometimes with a partner. You penetrate an enemy country, once it was Egypt during the War of Attrition, for example, and you have to move around on foot or sometimes with a vehicle, sometimes in simple peasant’s clothing, sometimes as a wealthy local Arab, sitting and driving in a huge, terrific American car, sometimes in civilian clothing. And you have an assignment to carry out, and you know that it’s like walking on the razor’s edge. And you walk into the great darkness. And that’s already a very specific type of orgasm. Believe me, I loved that orgasm each time anew. And you’re in big trouble if you speak Arabic in a dialect that is not local, God forbid, and you are in big trouble if you don’t know how much a kilo of tomatoes costs in the marketplace of, let’s say, Damascus or Baghdad or Cairo.”

Yossi speaks about fear: “It’s like cradling and embracing the fear from below, from where it emerges in your growling stomach. But I’m only a human being; of course I was scared. If you control fear well, it saves you from all kinds of tragic situations. When you already enter the hostile territory, you’re afraid for the boys of the Sayeret, for whom it’s the second or third time. And more than once we brought back dead from there, because someone panicked. There were also operational mistakes over the years. People didn’t arrive at the meeting place, or they waited and fled from the place in fear. There are a number of people in the Sayeret who deserved a beating for that, but I’m very merciful. I made a vow that I wouldn’t raise my hand against Jews.”

Yossi speaks about one of his operations: “On the eve of the Lebanon War in 1982, for example, several senior members of the Israel Air Force came to our unit, among them some brigadier generals and a large number of senior pilots. They told us that the Syrians had a new anti-aircraft missile, which was indecipherable. It was the battery of Russian SA-6 missiles, which at the time were considered the terror of the air force pilots. They said that we could lose the entire air force if we didn’t do something. I remember that I saw brigadier generals turn white as chalk.

At the time, the Syrians had several such missile batteries deployed, so we planned an operation and we did what we did, and one fine day they lost a whole missile, including its transport tracks and electronic systems. The thief lifted one Russian missile at night. Half a year later, during the Lebanon War, the air force finished them off, all those missile batteries, in an hour and a half of total destruction and with marvelous operational precision.”

Source:  Undercoverstory – Haaretz

Yossi Gino (3rd from right) in Kurdistan

Sayeret Matkal: Yossi Gino (standing 2nd form left) next to Ehud Barak (3rd from left)