Duvdevan (Hebrew: דובדבן. Literally – cherry, or a cherry tree) is a Special Forces unit within the Israeli Defense Forces created in the mid-1980’s. Duvdevan are particularly noted for conducting undercover operations against Palestinian militants in urban areas within the West Bank. During these operations Duvdevan soldiers typically drive modified civilian vehicles and wear Arab civilian clothes as a disguise.
Recruitment to Duvdevan is highly desirable among pre-recruit youths in Israel. As is common with other Israeli elite units, the selection process is arduous, an average of 99 out of 100 applicants fail the selection process. Any soldier who has had a family member hurt or killed in a militant attack is automatically disqualified.
Training involves the use of disguise and the ability to pass for short periods of time as Palestinians, in both dress, mannerisms and speaking Arabic. It is practiced in a mock Palestinian village constructed of plywood. Some members have been known to dress as women to get close to their targets, a tactic once used by former Israeli PM Ehud Barak during his service in Sayaret Matkal, another Israeli special forces unit, in a raid on Beirut. Barak authorized the creation of Duvdevan in 1987, when he was commander of the IDF central command.
Although extremely successful, Duvdevan operations sometimes result in ambushes and gun battles rather than arrests. According to one Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, at least 160 Palestinians have died in undercover operations such as those run by Duvdevan. There have also been errors resulting in friendly fire deaths. One of the first and most notorious friendly-fire incidents occurred on July 10, 1992, in the village of Barta’a in the West Bank. A Duvdevan team, attempting to capture a Hamas squad meeting in a local mosque, accidentally killed one of its own, 19-year-old Sgt. Eli Isha, when he was mistaken for an armed Arab teenager. The commander of the operation was court-martialed after the incident in a closed-door proceeding, and was stripped of his command. Other unit officers were disciplined as well.
But perhaps the worst friendly fire incident occurred on the night of August 27, 2000, when three Duvdevan soldiers made a fatal mistake in Atzira Shamali, near Nablus/Shechem. The Duvdevan undercover squad had operated in the village for weeks in the hope of capturing Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, a 28-year-old Hamas commander wanted for helping to plan a series of suicide bombings in Jerusalem. Residents in the area sensed something unusual was going on, and informed Hanoud, who went onto his roof and opened fire on approaching Dunvedan soldiers. Three of them, dressed as locals, departed from their plan, gained access to a nearby building, climbed to the roof and opened fire in return. They were misidentified as Hamas men by Duvdedan snipers and shot dead by their own side.
Although the idea of undercover units remains unpalatable in some quarters of Israeli society, their use is seen as more precise and proportionate than targeting Hamas leaders with laser guided bombs or anti-tank missiles, causing less harm to the surrounding population, to say nothing of the intelligence information that comes from live prisoners as opposed to those subjected to targeted killings.