Riki Eyal stands in front of the door of her home in Arad (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
Johanna Chisholm / The Times of Israel
Interview'I was so naive back then, it was almost criminal'

The spy who never loved me: A mother of 7 says her marriage was a Shin Bet cover

Despite 15 years of lies, abuse and poverty, Riki Eyal mainly blames not her ex-husband, but the security service that recruited him to gather intelligence on her settler community

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Johanna Chisholm / The Times of Israel

In the fall of 1986, Riki Eyal and her soon-to-be husband were enjoying a romantic date on the Tel Aviv beach when the latter posed an odd question. 

“If you knew someone was a Shin Bet informant, would you marry him?” asked Amit (not his real name). He was referring specifically to assets recruited by the security service’s so-called Jewish Division to gather intelligence on Israeli ultra-nationalists.

“Of course I would not,” Eyal responded honestly, wondering if her fiancé was testing her loyalty to the cause of far-right activists, many of whom were being targeted by the Shin Bet in their settlement of Kiryat Arba.

The conversation quickly changed topics. It would be many years before she ever thought about the question again.

“Unfortunately, my answer had been worthless,” Eyal, 52, reflected in a recent interview with The Times of Israel from her home in the southern town of Arad. “By then, the Shin Bet had already recruited him, and he was working as their informant.”

Riki Eyal stands in front of the door of her home in Arad, January, 2019  (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

Four years later Amit, whose real name is barred from publication, revealed his side job as a Shin Bet asset to his wife, and promised to quit the agency. In reality, though, he did not leave and continued receiving secret payments for his work from the Shin Bet — funds he never shared with his family.

In 2001, Eyal separated from Amit, and they later divorced. But during their roughly 15 years together, she endured regular abuse in various forms and raised seven children in utter poverty, she said.

Her story is an astounding saga of suffering and of subterfuge, the latter being something the Shin Bet would doubtless justify as essential to the larger interests of the state in its tackling of Jewish terror. But for Eyal, that “greater good” translated to the blighting of her life and the life of her family.

Did the intelligence agency specifically order informants to marry locals in communities such as Kiryat Arba in order to gather intelligence? The Shin Bet says it did not. But was the security service aware of the destruction of families caused by the deceit of agents like Amit? Eyal asserts that the answer is unequivocally yes.

Eyal first shared her story in 2004, but it is only now beginning to gain prominence following a documentary by the Kan public broadcaster screened last month. After interviewing Eyal, The Times of Israel reached out to Amit in an effort to hear his side. While he did not deny having worked as an informant, he hung up the phone before additional questions could be asked.

Eyal, who now drives a taxi as she tries to repay the debts left by Amit, had little good to say about the “misery” that was her marriage,  but still made very clear that her blame extends well beyond her ex-husband — to the very top of the security service that had recruited him during his military service.

“I’m not interested in the guard at the gate. I want the commanding officer,” she said firmly. “My ex-husband was just a pawn in all this. They directed the whole thing and were fully aware of our situation at home.”

According to Eyal, the agency targeted Kiryat Arba, a hardcore ideological settlement adjacent to Hebron, and at the very least knew that its informants were marrying residents without revealing to their spouses that they were working for the Shin Bet. When she tried to divorce Amit after establishing the truth about his covert work, the Shin Bet put the couple through “phony” marriage counseling where she was pressured to keep the relationship going.

Policemen arrest an Orthodox settler suspected of inciting violence after holding up a poster of right-wing extremist Meir Kahane, in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba on March 3, 2007. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

In 2004, she sued the Shin Bet for damages, eventually managing to secure a small sum — “peanuts in relation to what my children and I went through. They had a well-oiled machine of lawyers and we were forced to settle.”

Roughly a decade has passed since the agreement was reached, and Eyal is still speaking out against the Shin Bet, an organization widely regarded by Israelis as one of the security pillars of the state. “They ruined my life. The emotional and financial damages follow me to this day,” she said. “What I won’t let them do, however, is silence me.”

To Eyal, there is no question that the Shin Bet benefited immensely from Amit’s complete integration into the Kiryat Arba settlement, where she had moved just months before meeting him.

“I lived a lie,” Eyal added. “I wasn’t just married to a man I didn’t know, but he brought with him — into my home — an organization that exploited me in the most cynical of ways.”

What’s more, Eyal claims her story is far from unique and that there are “dozens” of other women who, unknown to them, were and are married to men who work to gather intelligence on neighbors, friends, even family.

The security service, along with former agents who spoke in its defense, said in response to Eyal’s complaints that she had married Amit, not the Shin Bet, and that she is misdirecting her blame for what she went through. Moreover, they argued, Eyal’s case was an exception, a very different story from that experienced by most families in which a spouse is employed by the intelligence agency.

My ex-husband was just a pawn in this all. They directed the whole thing.

The agency invested considerable resources combating Jewish terror in Kiryat Arba, which served as somewhat of a hub for the Jewish Underground during the early 1980s. The group was exposed in 1986 after the Shin Bet intercepted an attempt by the group’s members to firebomb five Arab buses in East Jerusalem. Fifteen members of the group, which numbered 29 in all, were convicted and served prison terms. One of the leaders of the fundamentalist group was Moshe Livni, a resident of Kiryat Arba. In 1984, security forces raided the town and found a cache of military weapons and explosives that the Jewish Underground had intended to use to blow up the Dome of the Rock. A decade later, Baruch Goldstein, a physician and Kiryat Arba resident, would massacre 29 Palestinians at prayer in nearby Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs.

Riki Eyal (L) during her marriage to Amit (not his real name) in February 1987. (Courtesy)

Targeted from the beginning?

Eyal met Amit shortly after her arrival in Kiryat Arba at the beginning of 1986. She was 19 and he was three years older. She was in love with another young man at the time, but he had ended the relationship after three years.

“I was heartbroken when I got to Kiryat Arba and I’m sure Amit knew this. He maybe even took advantage of it,” Eyal speculated.

She spoke in a consistently defensive tone, and her thin brown eyebrows would frequently scrunch beneath her slightly parted bangs as she remembered specific details of her past. Her blue wool sweater blended in with the living room couch where we sat.

Eyal related a conversation she had a few years ago with that first boyfriend, who wondered aloud whether the two of them had been targeted by Amit. While Eyal refused to disclose the boyfriend’s identity, she said he had been one of three teenagers recruited by far-right activist Yoel Lerner for an operation to blow up the Dome of the Rock. Lerner was arrested and sent to prison, while the three minors he enlisted were given a slap on the wrist and sent home without punishment.

Eyal herself had grown up across the street from Lerner in the Old City of Jerusalem and would regularly spend time with his family. She was also involved for a brief period in the Hashmonaim youth movement, which was influenced by the ideology of Meir Kahane. The far-right rabbi’s Kach party was banned in Israel under anti-terrorism laws in the 1980s.

However, Eyal utterly rejected the notion that she had been radicalized, explaining that her connection to ultra-nationalists stemmed from her chasing after a boy she loved.

Yoel Lerner, 63, reads at his house in Jerusalem’s Old City, September. 7, 2004. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Though she was suffering from the rejection of her first love, she admitted to having been enamored by Amit, who did not look like the other boys arriving in the settlement to study at the nearby yeshiva.

“He had long curly hair, an earring and a very mature aura to him,” Eyal said.

As she puts it, Amit pursued this “still reeling teenage girl” and the two got engaged just three months after meeting — not uncommon for couples in the religious community where they lived.

The couple married in February 1987, though Eyal’s own mother did not attend the wedding. “She did not approve of him at all. She thought something was off but was unable to pinpoint it,” her daughter recalled.

‘Don’t ask questions’

Eyal said that at the time, all she had wanted was to be able to build a home and start a family “like everyone else.”

Nine months after her wedding, she gave birth to her first child. Her second followed a year later.

And yet, as the family grew, what she recalled most prominently was “a feeling of utter loneliness.”

According to Eyal, Amit was almost never at home. “He’d disappear for hours upon hours, sometimes days at a time, without saying where he was.”

When she began asking questions, Amit would give her vague answers about being busy at work. “But no money was coming in!” Eyal lamented.

It didn’t take long before innocent queries about his whereabouts began to deeply aggravate Amit, and soon the only answer she’d be able to get out of him was a firm: “Don’t ask questions.”

While there was much about her husband that she did not know, she understood that he was hanging out in the more “hardcore” circles of Kiryat Arba.

Riki Eyal pictured around 1993. (Courtesy)

“I know he befriended youth activists that were later arrested. I know he left home and when he returned in the morning there would be some report on the radio about the burning of an Arab’s field in Halhoul,” Eyal said, referring to a Palestinian village adjacent to Hebron.

The ‘reveal’

As they neared three years of marriage, Amit came home one day and told his wife that they had a meeting to attend in Jerusalem.

Waiting for them when they arrived at a hotel room were two men, who Eyal later understood were Amit’s Shin Bet handlers.

They greeted Eyal warmly and immediately began heaping praise on her husband. “‘He’s protecting our people. He’s making sure they’re not getting into trouble,'” she quoted them as having told her over and over.

According to Eyal, the words “Shin Bet” were never uttered during the meeting. What the handlers did tell the couple was that they were prohibited from having money in their bank account; otherwise their neighbors would be suspicious.

An armed Israeli settler holds a child in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, March 3, 1994, as they wait for a bus to take them to Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Eyal Warshawsky)

This was at the height of the First Intifada, and, while trying to stop Palestinian terrorism against Israeli targets, the Shin Bet was also working with dozens of Jewish informants throughout the West Bank to gather intelligence on possible retribution attacks by Jews against Palestinians.

“Then, there was an intense atmosphere of distrust in Kiryat Arba. Everyone suspected a neighbor of having been a Shin Bet informant,” recalled Naftali Werzberger, a former resident of the settlement and lawyer who went on to represent Eyal in her suit against the intelligence agency.

At the time, Kiryat Arba had roughly 3,000 residents, both secular and religious; but the latter group dominated the urban city and included radical nationalist activists wanted by the Shin Bet for terrorizing Palestinians in response to deadly terror attacks targeting Israelis. In one such attack, in 1980, six yeshiva students were shot dead while returning to Kiryat Arba from Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site.

Werzberger said that a number of senior community members were aware, with considerable certainty, of Amit’s work as an informant. “But these were still rumors and we didn’t know what was going on behind closed doors. It wasn’t anyone’s place to insert themselves in between the couple.”

Eyal said she left the meeting in Jerusalem deeply disturbed, but still not fully comprehending the significance and ramifications of who the men were and what they were asking of her.

At this point, the young mother was struggling to feed their children, relying heavily on packages of basic goods that neighbors would periodically leave at their door.

Shortly after having her third child in 1990, her mental state began to spiral downward. “I had nobody to talk to about what I was going through. What could I do? Show up at a friend’s home and tell her that I think my husband is a Shin Bet informant?”

Riki Eyal around 1990. (Courtesy)

The loneliness led to an attempt at taking her own life. “I put a gun in my mouth, but every time I tried to pull the trigger I’d hear my daughter begin to wail in the next room,” Eyal recalled.

As she related the darker points of her marriage, her voice lowered and she began to sway back and forth, her hands gripped her knees tightly. The intensity of the memories appeared to prevent her from even leaning back on the couch for most of the three-hour long interview.

Eyal asked her husband for a divorce. Amit initially agreed, but returned home the next day and told his wife that they instead would be attending marriage counseling.

Dvir Kariv, who served as an agent in the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division from 1994 to 2012, confirmed that the security service funds marriage counseling for its informants when necessary, but asserted that the counselors work independently of the agency. “It’s in the agency’s interest for there to be a healthy relationship,” he explained.

Eyal rejected this narrative. “They were interested in keeping the marriage going, not in my well-being.”

The young mother was by now expecting their fourth child. The marriage counselor told her that a pregnancy was simply not the time to discuss matters as serious as divorce.

‘Do you want me to leave the Shin Bet?’

Toward the end of 1990, Amit approached Eyal with a proposal to move the family to the southern West Bank settlement of Susya, where he would serve as a security guard for the archaeological site on the outskirts of the community.

Eyal initially refused, not wanting to live on an isolated hilltop away from the rest of the settlement.

Riki Eyal at her home in Arad, January, 2019 (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

“‘Do you want me to leave the Shin Bet,'” she quoted Amit having sharply firing back. This was the first time her husband had ever uttered the words to her.

Hopeful that the move would provide an opportunity to turn their lives around, Eyal quickly responded “yes.”

The family did move to Susya — but not, as she had thought, because he was quitting the Shin Bet. “What I only learned recently was that the reason he had wanted to leave Kiryat Arba was that his cover was blown,” Eyal explained. “But at the time, he told me he was leaving the Shin Bet, so I believed him.”

Over the next three years, the family bounced around settlements in the southern West Bank due to their financial situation.

While Eyal tried various forms of birth control — including pills and implants — and even had a failed abortion, she could not stop getting pregnant. “After my second child, every pregnancy I had was while on one or multiple forms of birth control.”

When she gave birth to her fourth child, Eyal said, she begged the nurses to take him away. “The poor thing! What was I going to do with him? We were living in a tiny caravan and it was the middle of a freezing winter.”

“But the doctors and my husband said everything would be okay. Of course it would not be okay.”

There was an intense atmosphere of suspicion in Kiryat Arba at the time. Everyone suspected a neighbor of having been a Shin Bet informant

She shared another harrowing memory of the day one of her young daughters approached her, hungry, asking for a piece of fruit. “I had to look her in the eye and say that I didn’t have anything to give her. It’s a feeling I’ll never be able to forget.”

During this period, Eyal said she would regularly receive phone calls from Amit’s handler checking in on him. She thought it was odd that the agent was still in touch with his asset even though the latter was no longer working at the agency, but would relay the messages to her husband nonetheless.

“I was so naive back then, it was almost criminal,” she reflected. “At the same time, I cannot and will not judge the person I was then.”

“I was growing up and raising kids at the same time. My entire life was diapers, bottles, pacifiers, not sleeping at night, breastfeeding and daycare. There was no time to think about (Shin Bet) informants and conspiracies,” she said rapidly.

A Palestinian woman and her children look for food and metal in the garbage of the settlement of Kiryat Arba on July 15, 1996. (Nati Shohat Flash90)

In 1993 Eyal and her husband moved their five children to Nehusha, a small religious community in central Israel. Before they arrived, the town’s admissions committee reached out to Eyal with some concerns regarding her husband’s past.

“I innocently assured them that he had only been employed by the agency for a few years but that he had left it a while before.”

The family was accepted into the community.

A year later, an ultra-nationalist activist named Yehoyada Kahalani hid out at their home for several days, without any explanation from Amit, who had brought him over.

Shortly after Kahalani left, Eyal heard on the news that he and his brother had been arrested for the attempted murder of a Palestinian man outside Jerusalem.

Eyal started putting the pieces together, gradually working toward the realization that her husband was still involved with the Shin Bet, but said the thought still hadn’t solidified in her head.

Wheels fall off entirely

In 2001, after the couple had their seventh child, what was left of the marriage fell apart.

“Amit’s aggression turned violent against both me and the children,” Eyal said. “I was a battered woman. Not in the sense that he would hit me every day, but the abuse was in all forms — physical, emotional and financial.”

In one instance, Amit got so angry while he was driving that he sped their car toward a deserted cliff-side in the West Bank, got out of the vehicle as it teetered on the edge, and left his wife and young daughter sitting inside.

“I was so naive back then, it was almost criminal. At the same time, I cannot and will not judge the person I was then.

“I shared this story with a legal adviser at the Yad Sarah NGO, asking her if it was considered violence on Amit’s part. She looked at me in shock and shouted, ‘You’re asking me about violence? What you’re describing is attempted murder!'” Eyal admitted that she hadn’t been able to comprehend the degree of abuse her family was enduring.

Not long after, the then 34-year-old mother of seven decided she would test once and for all whether the problems of her marriage had anything to do with her. “It was a Thursday evening and I decided I’d clean the home until it was absolutely spotless. I got the kids bathed and ready for bed early.”

After Amit arrived with a couple of friends, he began slowly scanning the house to make sure nothing was out of place. When his glance reached Eyal, he noticed that she was holding their youngest child in her arms.

“Why is he awake? You are to lie him down this instant!” she recalled him shouting in front of their friends.

At this point, Eyal said she finally understood that no matter what she did, Amit would continue the abuse.

Suspected price tag vandalism at a mosque near Ramallah in the West Bank in June (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Suspected price tag vandalism at a mosque near Ramallah in the West Bank in June (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“Before he went to bed that night, I looked him in the eye and calmly said: ‘Check when you wake up in the morning that you’re still alive, because I’m not so sure that will be the case.'”

“He looked at me in shock and asked if I was threatening him. When I said ‘yes,’ he responded that he would call the police.”

“Finally! Call the police, so I can tell them what you’re doing here every night!” Eyal retorted.

Apparently comprehending that his wife was not bluffing, Amit got up and left the house for good.

Going after the commanding officer

During the ensuing divorce proceedings, Eyal learned that her ex-husband had received at least NIS 250,000 ($68,779) from the Shin Bet over the years. This discovery marked the first time, she said, that she understood definitely Amit had never left the Shin Bet.

“I still can’t comprehend how a man could allow his own children to grow up without any bread to eat,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

Since the divorce and the lawsuit against the Shin Bet, Eyal said, she has worked to ensure that her children — now adults — can support themselves. Now 52 and living in Arad, she works long hours as a taxi driver.

“Because of the massive debt my ex-husband left me, I can’t be the grandmother I’d like to be. I’m always working and have no time to babysit,” she sighed.

I was growing up and raising kids at the same time. My entire life was diapers, bottles, pacifiers, not sleeping at night, breastfeeding and daycare. There was no time to think about (Shin Bet) informants and conspiracies.

With the help of a local charity, Eyal was able to take a course and gained certification as an inspirational coach. “I’d like to be able to give talks to young women about female empowerment, but I just don’t have any time in between work,” she said.

‘Also a victim’

Still, Eyal places responsibility for her dismal married life largely on the agency that recruited Amit, rather than on her ex-husband.

“It’s possible that he was also a victim in this all,” she said, adding that the pressures of maintaining a cover on a daily basis can drive a person insane.

“I do not deny that he ruined my life. That’s a fact. But if you’re asking me who was more responsible, I say it was absolutely the Shin Bet. They sent him,” she asserted.

Former Shin Bet agent Dvir Kariv. (Courtesy)

During her suit against the agency, Eyal recalled the presiding judge asking her why she didn’t realize that all informants working for the Shin Bet are “like that” — apparently suggesting that assets are known for having troubled home lives.

“If that’s the case, who do you think makes sure to specifically recruit the ones that are ‘like that,’?” she countered, using the judge’s own words.

Interviewed in the Kan TV documentary last month, former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri asserted that the intelligence agency “does not get involved in the personal matters of their informants or tell them to lie to their spouses.

Eyal rejected the notion out of hand. “They were the ones that sent us to that phony marriage counselor. That wasn’t considered getting involved?” she asked rhetorically.

Moreover, former Jewish Division head Menachem Landau told Kan that half of the informants he recruited were married to wives who were at least initially unaware of their husbands’ work with the agency.

Kariv, the former Jewish Division agent, flatly rejected the claim that the Shin Bet instructs its informants to marry and have children in the communities they are infiltrating in order to more successfully integrate.

Kariv pointed out that Amit has been divorced twice since leaving Riki Eyal and that he apparently decided on his own not to share the money he received from the agency with his family. “It seems like he was the one who caused the marriage to fall apart, not the Shin Bet. The agency is not responsible for getting her pregnant seven times. That is the doing of the man, whom she chose to be with.”

The former intelligence official insisted, indeed, that the Shin Bet has a vested interest in the marital health of its informants. “When their home lives are in good condition, they are able to work more effectively,” Kariv argued.

“In the vast majority of cases, the marriage of the informant is even strengthened when his wife is told about what he does, because she realizes he is contributing to national security,” he added.

Eyal laughed out loud upon hearing Kariv’s explanation. “What kind of woman would be happy to find out that she’s been lied to for years? The basis for every healthy relationship is honesty and trust. They knew very well of my situation at home and the degree to which those elements were absent.”

File: Alleged young Jewish extremist is escorted by police in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court where he was brought on suspicion of burning a house in Sinjil, a village in the West Bank, November 2013. (Flash90)

But Kariv maintained that during his three decades of service in the Shin Bet, he was familiar with only “one or two examples where [the fact that a spouse was an informant] damaged a marriage, as opposed to dozens of examples where it actually strengthened the relationship.”

Unfortunately for the Shin Bet — as with any intelligence agency — its successes are more difficult to publicize. Both Kariv and the security service declined to provide examples of former Jewish Division informants who are still happily married to their spouses.

Not the only one

While she was certain that there are “dozens more,” Eyal said she knows of at least six other woman who divorced their husbands after learning they were Shin Bet assets. One of them is H., who married a man named Avishai Raviv in 1990, also in Kiryat Arba.

Raviv had been recruited two years before by the Shin Bet to monitor the activities of right-wing extremists.

After the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Raviv was accused of having known of killer Yigal Amir’s plans to murder the premier and of failing to inform the Shin Bet in advance. Raviv was tried and found not guilty.

In its ruling, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court said “it would not be an exaggeration to say that in the eight years of his operation as an informant, the defendant lived in a ‘world of lies.’ He was perpetually under cover. He lied to those around him, to his parents, to his wife at the time and even to the Shin Bet.”

Avishai Raviv, a Shin Bet security service informant, whose mission was to monitor the activities of right-wing extremists. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

According to Hebrew media reports from the time, H. suffered greatly during her marriage as she quickly learned that Raviv was a completely different person from the man she thought she had married. He was not religious and did not want to have children.

H. divorced him after three years. But it was only during Raviv’s trial that she learned definitely of his Shin Bet affiliation.

Over two decades have passed, but H. still refuses to speak publicly about the experience.

Her choice of silence appears to be the norm among women who unknowingly married Jewish Division informants.

The Times of Israel managed to reach two other women who divorced their husbands after learning of their Shin Bet work. Both refused to speak on the record and one of them said she feared retribution from the intelligence agency if she came forward.

“I understand why they’re scared, but I simply will not let them take my voice as well,” Eyal said.

Riki Eyal at her home in Arad, January, 2019 (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

Responding to Eyal’s story, the Shin Bet released a statement claiming that “the presentation of a single case that took place three decades ago, and its presentation as a trend, is slander against the Shin Bet security service, and helps, even if not intentionally, those who have recently attempted to delegitimize the counterterrorism activities against Jewish terror groups.”

The security service was apparently referring to criticism from settler leaders and right-wing MKs who have accused the agency of torturing Jewish terror suspects — most recently in the case of the teens suspected of involvement in the October murder of Aisha Rabi, a 47-year-old Palestinian mother of eight, who was killed by a rock hurled at the car in which she was traveling.

“The Shin Bet will continue to act determinedly and responsibly against anyone involved in terror activity, and will do so using the tools at its disposal under the law,” the intelligence agency’s statement concluded.

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