Daniel Ben-David grew up in what appeared to be a regular Jewish-Israeli family, albeit perhaps more secretive than most. They marked the High Holidays, celebrated weddings, bar mitzvahs and births, and lived typical Israeli lives.
But as an adult, Ben-David discovered that his roots weren’t Jewish or Israeli at all, but Palestinian-Egyptian. His family was forced to flee Egypt to the Jewish state after having spied on their home country for about seven years.
It sounds like a story out of a spy novel, but it is the reality for Ben-David, whose journey of discovery of his family history is at the center of a new Yes documentary, “The Spy Family.”
The film follows the story of the Shahin family: a Palestinian father, his Egyptian wife, and their three children who all served as agents for Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War.
Ben-David is the son of Yossi Ben-David, formerly Nabil Shahin, one of the three children. He grew up knowing his secretive father had come from Egypt, but little else.
“We grew up in a Jewish Israeli family in every way. We would do the official holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot,” Daniel told Channel 12 news, in a report on the documentary aired Saturday. “The family was secretive. This is what they did all their life. It was very difficult to uncover this.”
Ibrahim Shahin, Nabil’s father and Ben-David’s grandfather, was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian whose family fled to Egypt following the 1948 establishment of Israel. There he met Inshirah, an Egyptian native, who became his wife. The couple had three children and were working in the city of el-Arish, in the Sinai Peninsula, when it was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War. Their three sons –Nabil (Ben-David’s father), Muhammad, and Adel — were in Cairo at the time.
At the same time, Micah Kobi was serving in Unit 504 of the Israel Defense Forces’ Intelligence Branch, which employs foreign agents for Israel. He came to el-Arish in search of agents, and began conducting interviews with the hundreds of Egyptians who remained in the occupied city.
There, he came upon Ibrahim Shahin.
“I see a person who smiles a huge smile,” Kobi told Channel 12. He asked Shahin if he would be willing to work for Israel. “He told me: I will help you with anything you want, I love Israel.”
Shahin and his wife were able to bring their children from Cairo, and all five undertook a training program at a secret apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. Shahin’s desire to include his children in the plot was controversial.
“I personally was against the need for children. I thought that children could complicate the network,” Kobi said.
But the decision was made. After completing their preparations, the family went back to Egypt, where the parents began forging connections with top officials, including security figures. At Unit 504, they were given the codename “The Sinyori Network.”
The agent who handled the spies, identified only as “Abu Yaakov” due to the classified nature of his position, said one of the biggest security errors was bringing the children into the matter.
“Children are children. They chatter, they speak, they do things, they tell friends,” he said.
“It was a very fateful decision. They took a really big risk,” Daniel Ben-David said in the Channel 12 report.
Yossi — he prefers his Jewish name over Nabil — told Channel 12 that his father Ibrahim would give him missions to photograph various sites, including military bases and facilities. He was 13 or 15 at the time, he said.
“It was difficult, there wasn’t enough money, but when my father got to know the Jews, things became better,” he recalled of his childhood in Egypt.
“Nabil, we work with friends,” Yossi recalled his father telling him. “I asked what friends? He told me: Our friends in Israel.”
Yossi said he loved and supported his father but didn’t truly understand the weight of the family’s activities.
“I would take a picture of a military base, and sometimes planes. This camera did a lot,” he said, holding up the device he has kept to this day.
Kobi lauded the Shahin family as “some of the best, most prominent agents Unit 504 ever had.”
“They let us know about training, they let us know about drills — by the air force, and navy,” he said.
“They even gave us information that Russian families were leaving Egypt — this was a warning about the Yom Kippur War,” he said, in reference to the departure of Soviet diplomats in the lead-up to the war.
For seven years, the Shahins passed along information to Israel, including photographs of military sites and secret messages delivered in Morse code and invisible ink. Much of the information they provided remains classified.
In 1974, the family was caught.
Yossi recalled being on his porch in Cairo and watching his father being dragged by a group of men into a car. He said he immediately disposed of the spy materials they had at home.
Ibrahim and Inshirah were tried and sentenced to death, while their three children were sent to prison for five years.
In an interview following the capture, Inshira told an Egyptian journalist: “I am regretful. I have deep regret, I really want to make up for what I did. I worry about the future of my children. Where will they go? What will they do?”
In prison, Yossi said he had an empty room that was “completely dark,” and was beaten in prison.
After the 1979 Camp David Accords, which forged peace between Israel and Egypt, Inshirah was granted a presidential amnesty, but Ibrahim’s execution by hanging was carried out.
She fled with her three children to Israel and settled in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, where they converted to Judaism, and changed their name to Ben-David.
Inshirah changed her name to Dina, while her children became Yossi, Haim, and Rafi.
The case was only cleared for publication in Israel in 1989 when the family had already settled in the country.
Yossi is the only surviving member of his family and did not open up about his experiences to his son until recently. His mother, Dina, passed away in 2021. His brothers were also long gone.
“I grew up with the secret. My dad raised me, and I didn’t like to talk or explain about it. I didn’t want to remember this whole story,” he said.
Daniel, Yossi’s son, told Channel 12 that his grandparents took a “fateful, risky decision” for their family.
But he rebuffed a question about any identity crisis. “I am Israeli and Jewish and nothing will change that.”
“I am right-wing and will stay right-wing,” he added when asked how he reconciles his Palestinian-Muslim background with the current reality.
Daniel said that the case has not been given enough recognition, and should be remembered like the story of Eli Cohen, arguably the most famous Israeli spy who, while undercover in Damascus, provided crucial information for four years until his capture and execution in 1965.
“My grandfather gave his life. This story needs to be remembered like that of Eli Cohen’s.”
Kobi said promoting such a narrative was not possible.
“With all sorrow, there is a huge difference between Eli Cohen’s story and this one. The attitude toward a spy of Jewish origin will always be different from that of a spy of a different religion,” he said.
Yossi told Channel 12 that someone once told him his ancestors must have been Jewish “because this is inexplicable.”
“I love being Jewish, the whole family is Jewish,” said Yossi, now 68.