The interesting life of Izzat Nafsu

Despite his seven-year false imprisonment for alleged espionage, and even though he was tortured by the Shin Bet, the Circassian ex-IDF officer still considers Israel a good place to live.

The Nafsu family today (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
The Nafsu family today
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
Izzat Nafsu’s son, Kujan, is getting ready to tie the knot.
“Preparing for my son’s wedding has brought out my emotional and caring side,” Nafsu admits. “I still can’t believe that my son is getting married. Whoever thought I’d be the father of a groom. After sitting all those years in prison for nothing, it’s wonderful to watch my children achieve greatness. My life is good. When I was in prison, never in my wildest dream did I think my life would eventually work out so well.”
Some 30 years ago, in May 1987, Izzat Nafsu, an IDF officer, was released from prison after the Supreme Court acquitted him of serious crimes, including espionage and treason. Nafsu claimed that he was innocent and that he had given his confession under duress following torture by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) interrogators.
He sat in prison for seven and a half years before his appeal was approved and he was finally released.
Nafsu’s case caused a public storm and completely shook up the Shin Bet. Following the case, an official investigative committee was formed to examine the methods used by the Shin Bet and to establish future regulations. Years later, the Shin Bet Law was passed, which outlined investigation guidelines.
Nafsu, a member of the Israeli Circassian community, never told his children anything about his experiences in prison.
The only details they knew about his difficult days in prison were from newspaper clippings they found at home. For Kujan, a chemical engineer, this was enough information to sway him not to enlist in the IDF when the time came.
“When I was young, everyone in Kafr Kama enlisted in the army,” Nafsu recalls. “After I was imprisoned, only about half of the boys here decided to enlist in the IDF. People here would say to me, ‘You joined the army and served in Lebanon, and in the end they threw you in jail. Why should we enlist?’ “I never told young men not to enlist because of what happened to me. When someone would come to me asking for my opinion, I would always tell them, ‘You need to decide for yourself.’ If you want to take my case into consideration, that’s your decision, not mine. I never badmouthed the army, but apparently what happened to me affected their decision and fewer Circassian boys enlisted in the IDF. My son went along with his friends and didn’t enlist in the end. I never commented on his decision.”
Nafsu also never told his parents about the time he spent in prison.
“They never asked, but even if they had, I wouldn’t have told them anything,” he says. “They took it really hard. My father died of cardiac arrest at a relatively young age, but not because of what happened to me. All the men in my family have died around that age.”
Nafsu’s mother died eight years ago after seeing him rebuild his life.
Nafsu, 64, released all of his pentup frustration during lectures he gave during the first two years after he was released from prison.
“I let my feelings flow freely. I would come home mentally exhausted, but wake up like a new person. Giving these lectures gave me strength and helped me rehabilitate my life. Talking about all the hard times I experienced has helped in my recovery. At first, I thought I could deal with everything on my own and I refused to see a psychologist.
That’s why I didn’t want to write a book, even though I was offered the opportunity to write one. I knew that once I started writing about it, everything would come out in the end and I would lose myself in the whirlwind.
“I just wanted to get on with my life. That wasn’t so difficult because I came home to a very sympathetic community in my Circassian village, and also among the Israeli public. No one asked me hard questions. People came to my home from all over the country – from Beersheba and Jerusalem – just to shake my hand. It’s hard to describe how warm people were. In Tel Aviv, people would come up to me and ask me how I felt and tell me that they loved me."
"This wouldn’t happen nowadays. Israeli society has moved much more to the Right; I would say it’s even become a bit radical. The Supreme Court would still have acquitted me today, but the public would have been far less sympathetic to me.”
Nafsu’s wife, Siham Shukan, divorced him soon after he began serving his prison term. About a year after he was released from prison, he got remarried, to Natasha, the daughter of neighbors, and they have four children.
“Every birth filled me with such joy,” Nafsu says. “I think about where I used to be and where I am now, and I just can’t believe how lucky I am to be a father.”
About four months after he was released from prison, he began working in a pipe factory at Kibbutz Sha’ar Hagolan and he still works there.
“Despite everything that has happened to me, I can honestly say that I enjoy life,” he says. “My life has meaning, and it’s certainly not boring. I love my work, and I’ve enjoyed watching my children grow up and become successful and happy. We’re all healthy, I get to spend time tilling my garden, chopping wood for my fireplace, watching sports on TV, riding my bike, traveling abroad.
“Last year, we went on vacation to Turkey. We even rode in a taxi with a Circassian driver. When he realized we were Israeli, he asked me if I’d ever heard of Izzat Nafsu, an Israeli Circassian who’d been wrongfully imprisoned. When I told him that it was me, he got so excited I was worried he was going to fall out of the taxi.”
THERE ARE only two small photographs in Nafsu’s living room. One is of him with his mother when he was released, and the other is of him surrounded by friends who were rejoicing when he was released from prison. Nafsu considers himself a mellow, rational person and he only gets excited when he remembers the good old days when he was serving in the IDF. In his position as an intelligence officer in the Liaison Unit with Lebanon, he was responsible for communicating with individuals in southern Lebanon and for ties with local informants.
He’d only been out of the army for a month in January 1980 when his life turned upside down.
“An officer came to my house at 6 a.m. and told me that I needed to return to my unit for a day or two,” he recalls. “I went along with him happily and when we arrived in Tiberias, he got out of the car as if he needed to make a phone call. Then Shin Bet agents jumped inside and drove me to a hotel in Haifa, where my investigation took place."
“I was in shock – I had no idea what they wanted from me. The next day, they took me to the Kishon Detention Center. When I failed to return home, my family began searching for me all around the country. They thought for sure I’d been kidnapped. Three days later, the police arrived at my home with a search warrant. Only then did they realize that I was under arrest.”
The investigators were relying on intelligence they had received in connection with an activity that Nafsu had carried out in Lebanon. He had met with someone who said he was connected with terrorist organizations and could provide information about the operations of those organizations. Two months later Nafsu met with the same individual, who this time introduced himself as a senior Fatah commander and demanded that Nafsu pass on to him confidential information about the IDF operations – otherwise he would show embarrassing pictures of Nafsu to his commanders in IDF intelligence.
Nafsu refused and continued on his way, but didn’t report the meetings to his superiors.
“After I finished my army service, I received a visit from Lebanese Phalangists – real thugs who wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in your skull,” he recalls. “Before they got back in their car to drive back to Lebanon, one of them approached me and asked me if I wanted him to take care of the Lebanese guy who had snitched on me. When he said the words “take care,” he slid his finger across his neck. All I had to do was nod my head a tiny bit and a man would have lost his life that night, but I asked him not to do anything. I wasn’t interested in getting involved.”
In the military court, Nafsu claimed that during the investigation he was subjected to a number of acts of violence, including shaking, hair pulling, kicking, slapping, insults, cold showers and sleep deprivation. The Shin Bet denied all of this. In the end, he confessed that he had committed the acts they were attributing to him.
“Even now, it’s hard for me to understand how they reached the conclusion that I had committed this crime,” he says.
“I was the most loyal person to the State of Israel. Lebanon was a lawless place – there was smuggling, drugs, money, and all sorts of evil, and the IDF had no way of dealing with all of it. We were like demigods there, but I didn’t let this power go to my head, and I certainly didn’t try to make money out of the situation. I easily could have engaged in smuggling drugs, electrical appliances or cigarettes, but it didn’t even occur to me. I was straight as an arrow.
“Every month I received a large amount of money with which I would pay the Phalangists their salaries. I could have done whatever I wanted with that money – no one was checking up on me. And there was always money left over, such as a soldier who’d died. I could have just pocketed the cash, but instead I returned it to my commander. I never took a cent for myself.”
NAFSU REMEMBERS vividly the moment when he was finally told what he was being charged with. “When they told me I was being charged with betraying my country, I was in complete shock. I, who had refused even to smuggle one packet of cigarettes? They were also apparently questioning a number of people who knew me, but not telling them my name. One of my soldiers, a boy from Kibbutz Shomrat, was requested by the interrogator to rank everyone according to how loyal he thought they were to Israel and he didn’t even put my name on the list. When the interrogator asked him why he didn’t write my name down, the soldier said because Izzat was above everyone, that he was so loyal to his country that he didn’t even belong on such a list.”
The first few months in prison were the hardest.
“I was hoping that the investigators would realize what the truth was, but I saw that it wasn’t happening,” Nafsu recalls. “I understood why people in jail committed suicide or lost their sanity. Thankfully, I was strong and didn’t break down.”
The trial began in 1981. The charges were treason, espionage and aiding and abetting the enemy. Nafsu was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison, expulsion from the IDF, and the revocation of his rank of lieutenant. In addition to all this, shortly after he was incarcerated, his wife, Siham, filed for divorce.
“This was very difficult for me,” Nafsu recalls. “We hadn’t known each other very long before we got married, and I was arrested just one month after our wedding. One of the hardest things about being in prison is feeling alone and that you’ll be forgotten. How do you keep in touch with someone who’s at the start of an 18-year sentence? Then my wife tells me, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I thought to myself, ‘She’s leaving me, and now I’m going to be forgotten and left here all by myself.’ I don’t think I would have given up on her – marriage is supposed to be for better or for worse. If my wife couldn’t have children, for example, I wouldn’t have divorced her. My sister could never have children, and her husband didn’t leave her. I didn’t cheat on my wife or hurt her. It was just bad luck what happened to us. After I was released, some people tried to get us back together, but I wasn’t interested. She hadn’t passed the test.
What if we’d gotten back together and then I got sick? Would she have left me again?” After Nafsu was released from prison, his ex-wife, who was a nursing student at the time, claimed that she was a victim of the incident just as much as he was. “He was released, but I remained imprisoned,” she claimed. She sued the state, demanding compensation for the destruction of her marriage. In 1991 she received NIS 200,000. Later on, she remarried and had children and severed all communication with Nafsu.
When he began his prison term, he prepared himself psychologically for the long stay behind bars, but he also never stopped fighting to reveal the truth about his case.
“During the first two years, I almost never had any visitors,” he recalls. “I spent most of my time reading. By the way, since I got out of jail, I almost never read anymore.” During all that time, he never gave up hope that the court would accept his version of events.
“I knew that I needed to convince two out of the three judges on the panel to believe me and not the state. I didn’t focus on anything else but this.” But his appeal to the military court of appeals was rejected in 1986.
A series of events led to the dramatic change in Nafsu’s fate. The first was an amendment to the military jurisdiction law, which allowed prisoners who were convicted of a crime in a military court to appeal to the Supreme Court. The second was that a Shin Bet operative whose conscience was bothering him decided to come forward and admit that he’d lied in court when he said that Nafsu hadn’t been beaten during his interrogation.
IDF advocate-general Amnon Straschnov then informed the Supreme Court that after an in-depth investigation carried out by the Shin Bet, it was determined that Nafsu was telling the truth.
“During my interrogation, the interrogator Yossi Ginosar hadn’t identified himself by his real name – he’d called himself Mansour,” Nafsu says. “After the Bus 300 affair broke, I saw his picture in the newspaper. That’s when I understood that Ginosar had been the one who’d interrogated me. We added his actions from the Bus 300 affair to our appeal to strengthen my case.”
What Nafsu was referring to was Ginosar’s actions that were reported in the Zorea Commission report, which investigated the 1984 Bus 300 affair in which Shin Bet operatives executed two Palestinian bus hijackers after the incident had ended and the hijackers had already been taken into custody. A Shin Bet agent had leaked testimonies from the commission hearings in an effort to conceal the fact that his operatives were the ones responsible for the execution.
In a contract between the state and Nafsu, which was validated by the Supreme Court on May 24, 1987, the military court ruling on his case was annulled.
Nafsu only admitted to meeting with a man in southern Lebanon who had asked him for information about IDF activities. Since Nafsu had not reported this encounter, he was sentenced to two years in prison for endangering national security, for which he was released since he’d already served seven and a half years. His rank was reduced to sergeant, and he was released that very same day.
IT TOOK Nafsu time to recover from being incarcerated for so many years. At first, he spent all his time dealing with issues regarding his case. He appealed the decision taken by attorney-general Yosef Harish to close the investigation against the two Shin Bet agents who’d interrogated Nafsu, but the appeal was denied. He sued the State and received what would currently be valued at NIS 1.5 million.
“No amount of money can compensate for what I went through,” he says, “but at least my family was able to pay back the loans they took out to cover my legal costs. We used the balance to build our house.”
He received offers from activists in Meretz and Mapam to go into politics.
They said he could take advantage of his fame to help their party garner more votes, but he was not interested. “I’m not a politician. I don’t have the right personality for politics.”
Throughout my interview with him, Nafsu reiterates that he does not hold a grudge against the State of Israel.
“After losing more than seven years of my life, I thought that what I needed to do to feel normal again was integrate into society and make up for lost time. I knew I couldn’t focus on revenge. Some people tried to turn my story into a modern-day Dreyfus Affair, claiming that the State of Israel was targeting the Circassian community, but I knew that this was just an isolated incident and that I shouldn’t take it personally.
“The interrogators had told me that since I was a Circassian Muslim, it was logical for me to betray my country. Maybe this also swayed the military’s judge’s decision, and that’s why they believed the Shin Bet agents and not me, but I don’t like to think about it that way.”
Nafsu felt so connected to his surroundings that he never even considered the option of leaving Israel and going to live elsewhere.
“There are about six million Circassians living around the world,” Nafsu says.
“They live in Turkey, our homeland of the Caucasus, the US and Germany, but only here in Israel do we teach our children our native language. Children in Kafr Kama speak Circassian, and it’s such a wonderful place for Circassians to live. Why would I want to leave?” His smile turns into a frown when I mention the name Ginosar. He has never forgiven the Shin Bet operative who was the most dominant figure during his interrogation. When he was released from prison, he said in an interview that Ginosar was known for his devilish smile. Nafsu described how he was made to lie on the floor naked and humiliated while Ginosar stepped on him with his shoes.
“He seemed like the devil to me. He led the interrogation from the start and remained in charge until it came to an end 40 days later. I could see in his eyes that he despised me, that he thought I was a nobody.”
Looking back, though, Nafsu doesn’t think his prison experience significantly changed the course of his life.
“I would most likely still be married to my first wife and probably work in a job similar to the one I have today. I had just begun finding my way when I was arrested.
I had looked into joining the Border Police, I’d interviewed for a factory position in Petah Tikva and I’d even thought of possibly working in a bank.
“Since those days, I’ve come to understand how much strength I possess. If I was able to survive the torture and all those years in prison, apparently I’m a pretty strong person. I feel good about myself and know what I’m capable of achieving.
“However, the State of Israel has unfortunately not learned any lessons from my case.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner. Originally published in Ma’ariv.