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Top intel officers fired, jailed for sending Palestinian agent on tehina errand

In strange case, two commanders of IDF human intelligence unit harshly punished for ordering unnecessary missions to provide sesame paste to general

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi awards the commander of Unit 504 with an official commendation in March 2018. For security reasons, the commander's identity is classified. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi awards the commander of Unit 504 with an official commendation in March 2018. For security reasons, the commander's identity is classified. (Israel Defense Forces)

In a bizarre and highly irregular case, senior officers in an elite intelligence unit were harshly punished on Friday for ordering unnecessary missions by a Palestinian agent and later lying about it, the Israel Defense Forces said. The operations: buying tubs of tehina in the West Bank.

One lieutenant colonel was removed from his position and another was sentenced to 28 days in prison for ordering the missions. Other senior officers involved in the affair received official censure, but no other punishments.

Earlier this month, the Channel 12 investigatory news program Uvda interviewed an officer from Military Intelligences’ Unit 504, responsible for cultivating and operating human assets in enemy countries, who revealed that on at least two occasions he had been ordered by his commanders to use one of his spies to purchase jars of the sesame seed paste as a gift for the IDF’s chief intelligence officer.

The commanders who ordered the tehina mission also initially lied about the matter, saying they had asked the officer to have his agent purchase the tehina while carrying out other operations. This was found to have been false, and the investigation concluded that the agent was sent for that purpose alone.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at a conference in memory of former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on December 25, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi had ordered the probe. The findings of the investigation were presented to Kohavi this week, leading to his decision to punish those involved.

“The chief of staff determined that he viewed the incidents with the utmost severity, that they represented a gross violation of the IDF’s ethical and professional code. The chief of staff stressed that operational activities, which are at the heart of the IDF’s operation, should be considered sacred, and that they should be carried out only for essential security needs,” the military said in a statement.

Four officers in Unit 504 were censured to varying degrees for their role in the unnecessary operations, as was IDF Chief Intelligence Officer Brig. Gen. Yuval Shimoni, whom the probe found had not ordered the mission but had not done enough to prevent it.

A lieutenant colonel in the unit was removed from his position and will be forced to leave the IDF “as he initiated bringing the containers of tehina on two occasions as a present to the senior officer. In addition, the officer provided partial and misleading information during an investigation of the incident,” the IDF said.

The other lieutenant colonel, who actually ordered the operation, was sentenced to 28 days in prison as he knew the mission was “not for the unit’s operational needs,” the military said.

The head of Unit 504, a colonel, received official censure in his records despite not being directly involved in the matter.

A major who took part in the mission also received official censure for “being negligent in checking the purpose and need [of the operation],” the IDF said.

Shimoni, who received the tehina, was found not to have been involved in ordering the operation or even knowing that a mission had been undertaken specifically to purchase the sesame paste, but was nevertheless formally rebuked for “not checking how it was brought to him and not taking steps to prevent activities such as these,” the military said.

The IDF noted that Shimoni had also provided the funding for the operation.

In its statement, the military stressed that the affair should not cast a pall over Unit 504’s ordinarily exemplary record.

“This was a severe and extraordinary event, which does not negate the quality of the unit, which routinely carries out the most complicated operations with great success, receiving many honors, and which has earned several medals of commendation,” the IDF said.

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