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Under the Cover of Might

Photography by Orit Pnini

Shir Peled on the trials of being first, being in combat & being yourself

Picture a bustling bakery in Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon. In one corner is a man: a target under surveillance. In another is a young woman. You wouldn’t notice her for more than a moment — until another man looks at her and shouts, “She’s a thief! Catch her! Call the police!”

The woman, in fact, is not a thief; she is the undercover fighter monitoring the target. But exposed and unable to explain her concealed gun to police, she makes a run for it, disappearing into the labyrinth of city streets.

It sounds like the opening sequence of an action movie, but it was all part of Shir Peled’s training as part of the Mista’arvim, a counter-terrorism unit within the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). This is how she described her first “confidence drill,” before she had the skills to make up a convincing story on the fly.

As a 19-year-old fresh out of her arts-centric high school, Peled was one of the first women to serve in combat with the IDF.
“In the IDF, there were no combat roles for women,” she said. “They practically said, ‘You’re a woman; you can’t be a combat soldier.’ But I was stubborn.”

Her determination to serve in a combat role was partially inspired by her father, who commanded another undercover, counter-terrorist unit when Peled was about 10.

“Although my father never encouraged me to follow his footsteps, his world was an inspiration to me,” she said. “Growing up with my dad was like growing up in an action movie. I think I loved it since I was a kid, but it was scary.”
Throughout high school, Peled was interested in drama and costume design. She especially loved getting into character and the creativity that came with being on stage. But as a teenager in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, her life couldn’t be totally separated from violence.

“My senior year of high school, I went home on a bus every day, and when I was walking toward the end of the bus looking for a seat, a suicide bomber exploded right behind the bus I was on,” she said. “From that moment, my life actually changed — and my point of view. Since the army was the next stop for me, I decided to look for a meaningful role, and for me, it was combat because of my background.”

In 2002, combat roles for women were scarce — essentially, nonexistent. So, Peled approached the Border Police, who seemed to have the most options. Her loved ones were less than thrilled.

“People around me — friends at school and my family — told me that it was not for me, that I’m too gentle to do it, that I won’t last two days in basic training,” she said. “With all of that, I guess I wanted to prove that I could do it.”

Sure enough, four months into basic training — a lot more than two days, Peled noted — the unit commander pulled her aside for tryouts for a role as an undercover fighter. At the height of the Second Intifada, IDF undercover forces needed to deflect suspicion as much as possible. Women, they thought, were more likely to be assumed harmless.

Along with the top 20 women identified as candidates, Peled competed for a role as an undercover fighter, which is different from an undercover agent. Agents, she explained, hold one character for a long time; they typically have a deeper cover story, which they maintain for an extended period as they gather intel. Undercover fighters — her role — typically have shallower cover stories since their purpose is to blend into backgrounds without being noticed.

“The tryouts were difficult mentally, physically — they wanted to see that we have the right qualities to be in the unit,” she said.
Besides stubbornness, she joked, one of the most important qualities is resilience. The unit commander needed to see that even when she faced a stressful situation, she could adapt and act. Her background in acting didn’t hurt either.

Eventually, Peled was one of three women selected for the position — and that meant a complete cutoff from everyone and everything she had known.

“They wanted to keep it a secret because it was an experiment,” she explained. “From that day, we were secluded from the rest of the world. We didn’t know anyone in the unit; we didn’t sleep in any base, and we knew only two trainers, our trainers, and the unit commander.”

Her physical training included Krav Maga and a lot of gun practice (since it is much trickier to conceal and pull a gun out of a costume than you might expect). But the most difficult part, Peled said, was the mental rigor required in assuming a persona that cannot draw attention for any reason.

“The combat training was tough physically, but this was a lot more challenging, especially mentally, because when I go in the field as an undercover fighter, I need to blend in so well that no one approaches me,” she said.

She was so good at blending in, in fact, that she never had to learn a word of Arabic. It was more about understanding the culture and communicating with body language, she explained.

“From that moment, I can say, I was rewired. My life completely changed.”

***

Being one of the first women to serve in combat came with more than the standard risk to a soldier. As Peled said, one of the key qualities for a successful undercover fighter is loyalty; but it’s hard to develop that bond with a team that doesn’t reciprocate your trust.

“It took time inside the unit, actually, because the male fighters didn’t accept us because we were women,” she said.
As one of the pioneers of an experimental, secretive unit, Peled had to prove herself again and again, and, in some cases, it was hard to parse the strategy from the prejudice. For example, her commander instructed the women to maintain their undercover identities no matter the circumstances, while male fighters were allowed to draw their weapons and expose themselves as needed. On the one hand, the whole point of the undercover women was to garner the power of surprise. On the other, Peled didn’t believe that her male counterparts trusted her to act when it came down to it.

“For a long time, I was considered a tactical method and not a fighter, even though I was trained exactly like the men and did exactly the same thing,” she said. “So I wasn’t allowed to draw my gun and expose myself in the field no matter what.”
Peled’s battle, she pointed out, was ever-present, whether she was out in the field or at her base. As a 19-year-old, she struggled to find ways to connect to her male peers.

“For a long time, I wanted to be a part of the unit, of the men — I wanted to be a part of it so bad — because it becomes your life. But I wasn’t a part of it, I was aside from it,” she said. “At some point, I started to say to myself, ‘How could I belong? How could I be one of them?’”

Part of her solution was to take on stereotypically masculine qualities; she started to wear baggy clothes, to speak and walk in ways that she thought made her seem more like the men in her unit.

“If the system, if the perception, can’t be flexible to me and can’t accept me as a woman, I have to be a man,” she said. “I had to blend in the field and cover myself with costumes and characters and masks, but I also had to do it inside the unit.”

Finally, a turning point came. Peled was on a mission in the West Bank to capture four targets gathering at a restaurant. She was undercover with a male partner, and their cover story was husband and wife.

“The day of the operation, our mission was to secure a road that led to the restaurant,” she said. They were also supposed to gather intel, and when the mission was over, the plan was to vanish into an escape vehicle, unnoticed.

The targets were armed, and it was a complex mission; there were helicopters on call once everything was underway. Initially, everything as going as planned. The undercover team captured the four targets, and helicopters covered the sky. Peled and her partner had a clear view, but they were in a crowded area, and the mission was beginning to catch people’s attention.

“Suddenly, one of our main targets escaped from the forces and started running in our direction with a loaded gun,” she said. At that point, Peled and her partner were the last undercover fighters who had not yet revealed their identities.

“The second he got close, my partner shoved him, and they started fighting on the ground,” she said. “I see that his gun is almost pointing to my partner, and I just draw my gun and aimed it to his head.”

Peled, dressed as a Muslim woman, had managed to blend in so well that the target completely dismissed her.

“Everything stopped. The radio just stopped. The whole village was quiet suddenly, and I’ve never seen somebody so shocked,” she said. “He didn’t understand why a religious Arab woman was holding a gun to his head, so he just dropped his gun, and two soldiers came and arrested him. And I just covered my face and got into a vehicle.”

From that point on, Peled said, there was a shift.

“After that operation, I could see that the perception and the way my commander and my male counterparts looked at me started changing,” she said. They started assigning her on more operations, and they began to reciprocate her trust.

***

Fast-forward 10 years, and Peled is a fashion stylist and mother watching TV. After her service ended, she pushed her memories down, committed to maintaining the secrecy of her role in the army. All that was left was a box of photos in her closet. Then, she saw “Fauda.”

“I was surprised because I saw the character Nurit in ‘Fauda’ and just started to get crazy flashbacks,” she said. “I wasn’t even in my living room at that point — I was back in the village; I was back as who I used to be. And for years, I worked so hard to not think about it and not talk about it.”

Peled now knows that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition caused by witnessing or participating in a traumatic event. Symptoms often include flashbacks and severe anxiety.

“It took me a while to put it together,” she said. “I realized that nobody talks about it.”

This is especially true for female veterans, even though women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men (10% compared to 4%), according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2019 (note: the difference is partially ascribed to the rates of reported sexual assault and abuse in the U.S., which are much higher for women).

For Peled, one of the first women to serve in a combat role with the IDF, there weren’t many others to talk to. So, she sought them out, creating the Combat Sisterhood Facebook group.

“It’s really a safe place for women to talk about it and share their experiences,” she said.

Meanwhile, she wondered how “Fauda” creators Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff (both IDF veterans) had discovered the secret team of undercover women, evident from the character Nurit in the three-season series. She happened to run into Issacharoff at a conference in Tel Aviv.

“I said, ‘Ok, I have to go talk to him. It’s not an accident that I see him now,’” she said. She approached Issacharoff, introduced herself, and showed him a photo of her in one of her undercover costumes. He was stunned, but it got them talking. He, apparently, had not realized there actually were female undercover fighters.

“I asked how they could know about us because we were secret,” she said. “So, apparently, they just made her up.”

Overall, Peled was surprised by the accuracy of the show, which was inspired by the creators’ own service.

“‘Fauda,’ in general, is very authentic, but it’s still a show with a Hollywood touch,” she said. “Even the way [Nurit] holds her gun — it’s authentic.”

Seeing “Fauda” helped Peled realize that she, too, had an important story to tell, so she began giving lectures and public speeches about her experience, including an appearance on Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) Live. The discouragement from her family and friends prior to her combat days made her think about the other young women who needed to hear a success story from the other side. First of all, she advises, you have to know and believe in what you want.

“Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing until you’re starting to do it!” she urged. “The less you let people reflect their fear on you, the better.”

Once you have started your secret endeavor, she said, then it is time to bring one special person into your confidence.

“Pick or choose or find one person who will encourage you,” Peled said. “For me, the first time, when I decided to go to combat, and the second time, that I decided to share my story two and a half years ago, it was my father who did this for me. He was my one person that was there for me.”

Even though she has finally fulfilled her dream of being on stage, it was daunting for Peled to shift from being a character in the background to being her honest self in the spotlight. It’s an ongoing process of getting comfortable with herself, she said, and that can be another struggle for women trying to be the first to do something.

“Be the best coach for yourself,” she said. “You have to do very uncomfortable jobs, especially with yourself, to be able to get there.”
The past 13 years have helped reintroduce Peled to herself, both in the process of motherhood — she has an “amazing” seven-year-old son — and in her return to dressing up, which she has made into a career. Among other things, she is a stylist, a connoisseur of grunge and classic rock and a dancer (at home, when no one but her son is watching). Above all, she gets to be herself.

“It’s really about choosing to be who you want to be and being authentic,” she said.

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