Security and Defense: Understanding the enemy

In an era when the smallest piece of intel can change history, IDF recruits at the MI’s Language School help preserve the army’s qualitative edge.

hassan nasrallah 311 (photo credit: AP)
hassan nasrallah 311
(photo credit: AP)
The projector flickers as an image of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears on the white screen at the front of the room. The faces of the young men and women sitting at computer consoles lining the walls grow tense as Ahmadinejad breaks into another one of his virulent anti-Israel speeches. The clicking begins immediately as the computer operators turn to their screens and begin translating the speech into Hebrew.
The young faces belong to new IDF recruits who are in the middle of one of the most prestigious and secretive courses Military Intelligence has to offer: Language School.
Located at MI’s main training base just north of Tel Aviv, the Language School was established in 1970 to teach a select few Arabic. Over the years, as Iran developed into a strategic threat, particularly due to its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the school began teaching Farsi as well.
Since its establishment, thousands of soldiers have been trained at the school. All are later stationed in a wide variety of positions throughout MI’s many branches, but mostly in Unit 8200, the largest unit in the IDF, which is responsible for collecting signal intelligence and code decryption.
The Jerusalem Post was given exclusive access to the school.
In an era when the smallest piece of intelligence can change the course of history, these soldiers play a key role in preserving the qualitative edge for which the IDF has become renowned throughout the Middle East.
WHEN THE State of Israel was established, many of the new immigrants came from Middle Eastern countries and were fluent in Arabic. As a result, MI never really had a problem in recruiting fluent Arabic speakers who could listen to Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians.
More recently, though, the numbers have naturally dwindled, and soldiers being drafted this year are third-, if not fourth-generation Israeli. Even if their grandparents or parents were born in an Arab country, the chances that they speak Arabic are slim. At the same time, the number of high school students studying Arabic has also dwindled dramatically. This led MI to decide in 2000 to establish a special course for soldiers who do not speak a word of the language. Five years ago, as the Iranian threat intensified, another course was established to teach Farsi.
Called “nons,” these soldiers are non-speakers of Arabic or Farsi when they walk through the gates. Some 20 weeks later, they not only speak, read and write the language, but, as some told the Post, they can even dream in it.
“The soldiers here live and breathe the language they are taught throughout the course,” says Lt.-Col. L., commander of the Language School. “Within 20 weeks, we bring them to a level that they are capable of translating an Arabic or Farsi newspaper, as well as listening to and translating a radio show.”
A veil of secrecy surrounds the content of the course. What can be told is that it is unique and developed by MI officers.
“The system is gradual, structured and logical, with hands-on guidance and tutoring,” explains Master Sergeant A., one of the Arabic instructors. “In the US military, it takes a year to study Arabic. Here it takes just a number of weeks.”
The soldiers who are accepted into the course come from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like D., were drafted into the IDF just several weeks ago. D. says that before that, he was never interested in studying Arabic.
“Language wasn’t my thing,” he says. But when he received a summons from MI for a day of tests, he refused to miss out. “MI has an aura of prestige to it that I just couldn’t pass up.”
D. passed the tests, which found him to be gifted with the ability to “absorb” new languages quickly, as MI calls it.
Here, too, MI is careful not to reveal too much about the selection process.
“When testing people without a background in the language, we look for those who have the ability to study languages and have high cognitive scores,” explains Lt.-Col. M., the officer in charge of placement in MI.
A. has a different background from D. He was actually born in Teheran and moved here when he was two. His parents spoke to him in Farsi, but he never learned how to read or write. Nevertheless, he is a hot commodity within the intelligence community.
“I wanted to serve in a combat unit, but realized that I would make a greater contribution if I joined MI, since there are far fewer people who can do the job that I can do,” he says.
“The students read newspapers in the language,” explains Lt.-Col. L. “The sports classes are even taught in the appropriate language.”
There are tests every week, and a focus is put on content that would be important for the intelligence community.
Toward the end of the course, the soldiers are assigned their “zira,” Hebrew for “arena,” a reference to the region they will be covering. The students then undergo a short crash course in the nuances of Arabic in each of the countries to perfect the accent and style.
The soldiers who are trained at the school are responsible for listening to and translating what Israel’s enemies say or write. Their work then makes its way up the chain of command, often landing on the desk of the prime minister and impacting national security policy.
One of the few known examples of what Unit 8200 does was providedduring the 1967 Six Day War, when the unit intercepted a phone callEgyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser made to Jordan’s King Hussein.Nasser claimed that the Egyptian air force, which had already beenmostly destroyed in the IDF’s preemptive strike, was bombing Israeliairfields. He also urged Hussein to declare that American and Britishplanes were behind the attacks on their airfields.
Fearing that Nasser was trying to draw the Soviets into the war byaccusing the US of involvement, defense minister Moshe Dayan decided ina rare move to broadcast the intercepted phone call. The move worked.It embarrassed Nasser and Hussein, and more importantly stopped theRussians from coming to Egypt’s assistance and joining the war.
“The material that these soldiers sift through is extremely sensitiveand classified,” says Lt.-Col. G., who is responsible for placement ofthe Language School’s graduates. “That is why we need the best of thebest.”