New Man in Charge of Israel’s Domestic Security — Who’s the New Shin Bet Chief?

[This item is based on an article originally written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and the best seller Every Spy a Prince, for The Jerusalem Post.]

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Nadav Argaman on Thursday as the next head of the Shin Bet (the Israel Security Agency).

“Nadav Argaman has a rich track record of commanding and operative experience in the Shin Bet,” Netanyahu said. “I am certain that under his leadership the Shin Bet will continue to strengthen its operational and technological domains and continue to ensure Israel’s security.”

Nadav Argaman (courtesy Israel Security Agency)

Nadav Argaman (courtesy Israel Security Agency)

Argaman, 55, will become the 13th head of the internal security service, succeeding the outgoing Yoram Cohen (not to be confused with Yossi Cohen, who took the job of Mossad director just last month).

Argaman served in Shin Bet for 33 years and is a product of the agency’s operations department, which increasingly — in recent years — depends on signals intelligence (SIGINT): the use of intercepted communications for operations.

A native of a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, he joined the agency in 1983, after serving as an officer in the IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.

At Shin Bet, he rose through the ranks of the operations unit until he became chief of operations in 2003, a position he held for four years.  In 2007, he became the organization’s representative in the United States — so he surely knows a lot about America and how to cooperate with the FBI.

Afterward, he was appointed deputy head of the Shin Bet, and three years later, in September 2014, he was loaned to the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. (He is likely to have been involved in counterintelligence programs aimed at preventing foreign spies from closely examining Israel’s nuclear potential.)

Outgoing chief Cohen welcomed the prime minister’s decision, saying, “I’m convinced that Nadav’s wealth and range of experience gathered during his years of service in the security services, combined with his personal and professional abilities, will enable him to lead the organization successfully in the face of present and future challenges.”

President Reuven Rivlin congratulated Argaman on his appointment Thursday evening and said he is “standing behind him, right from this very moment.”

“You’re the right man in the right place,” Rivlin continued. “I am confident that your years of experience and your professional capabilities will allow Israeli citizens to continue to live life as normal as possible in these difficult times.”

Argaman has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Haifa, a master’s degree in political science and another master’s degree in security and strategy from the same university, from which he graduated summa cum laude.

His appointment indicates the sea change the agency has been undergoing in the recent years.  Since the 1967 Six Day War, the Shin Bet has occupied itself primarily with the struggle against Palestinian terrorism.  Accordingly, the three chiefs over the past 16 years have emerged from the field of operations aimed at combating that threat to Israeli security.

While Shin Bet has learned to utilize more electronically intercepted communications, the agency has still remained focused on human intelligence – running agents on the ground.

Argaman has to fine tune the Shin Bet for the current wave of Palestinian terrorism – which is characterized by young “lone wolf” kind of perpetrators, with no organizational affiliation or signature. This makes the mission to collect information about their plans almost impossible.

During his term in the next five years, the Palestinian Authority may disintegrate or at least stop its cooperation in the security field with Shin Bet and the IDF.  Such a decision may lead the West Bank to complete chaos and anarchy and force the Shin Bet to become an even more repressive security service.

No less challenging is the danger that more Israeli Arabs will join Islamic State. In all these challenges, Argaman’s Shin Bet will have to walk the tightrope of balancing between Israel’s security needs and its democratic values.

Shin Bet also devotes time, energy, and planted agents to detect and undermine Jewish terrorism — including actual cells plotting attacks against Palestinians in order to intimidate them, or in the name of “revenge.”

February 14, 2016

Israeli Suspects in Arson Murder of Arab Family Complain Interrogators are Torturing Them — Oh, Really?

[This article is based on the “Intelligence File” column by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars,  in The Jerusalem Post newspaper and website.]

What a roller-coaster ride Israel’s right wing is having.

Interrogation methods used by Shin Bet, the domestic security agency, for decades against Palestinian suspects are now being used on Jewish detainees.

Shin Bet's logo: Hebrew words mean "The Defender That Won't Be Seen"

Shin Bet’s logo: Hebrew words mean “The Defender That Won’t Be Seen”

The Jews, young men who have not been publicly named, are suspected of murdering three members of a Palestinian family, the Dawabshas, by setting fire to their house in the West Bank village of Duma this past July.  The case has attracted worldwide attention, especially as it seemed for months that Israel was not doing everything possible to catch the murderers of an Arab family.

The Landau Commission, 28 years ago, gave Shin Bet a green light to exert “physical pressure” when questioning terrorism suspects.  The Landau report strongly criticized the Shin Bet’s habit of lying in court about interrogations, but the report did not tell the agency to be kind and gentle.

These use of harsh methods on Palestinian detainees prompted strong, sincere condemnation by left-wing Israelis and human rights campaigners in Israel and abroad.  There were court cases and public campaigns against Shin Bet.

Israel’s right-wing activists supported Shin Bet and its methods.  They accused the Left  of treason, and even of collaborating with terrorists.

Now the Shin Bet is using exactly the same methods against right-wing suspects in terrorist acts, notably the arson murder in Duma.

The Jewish terrorist group’s supporters include those seen worldwide in a video, last week, as some at a wedding celebrated the murder of the Dawabshas.  A photo of the family was repeatedly stabbed, as part of a noisy dance.

The group and its supporters are not typical Orthodox Jews.  They are young Israeli anarchists who despise any parental or educational authority, aspire to replace the State of Israel with a Jewish theocracy and, above all, hate Arabs.

They are a small, marginalized, and isolated group within the settler movement – probably consisting of 200 people. These violent men are identified with what was known a few years ago as “hilltop youth,” establishing their own encampments in the West Bank. They are a direct product, a natural outgrowth, of the tolerance shown them by generations of mainstream leaders and top rabbis among the settlers.

Their leader is considered to be Meir Ettinger, a grandson of the notorious racist Rabbi Meir Kahane who was gunned down in New York City 25 years ago by a Palestinian Islamist. Ettinger is under administrative detention.

Another suspect who was recently released from jail is a grandson of a member of the Jewish terrorist underground which in the 1980s bombed Palestinian mayors and planned to bomb the mosques on Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount) and a Palestinian school.

Now their lawyers, who are partially financed by donations from right-wing American Jews and American evangelists, raise hell against Shin Bet and claim that their clients were tortured by interrogators.

The lawyers organized demonstrations in Jerusalem, including near the home of Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen. Cohen, perhaps ironically, wears a kippa and studied at National Religious Party schools that are now mostly represented by the Bayit Yehudi (Israel Home) party led by government minister Naftali Bennett.

Uri Ariel, a cabinet minister in that party, even went an extra mile by calling for abolition of the Shin Bet unit known to the public as the “Jewish Department,” so called to distinguish it from other departments responsible for Israeli Arabs and the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.

By the way, this department is in charge of counterterrorism and other acts of subversion against the state by Israeli Jews, regardless of their political affiliation.

In their desperation or wish to impress the general public and mobilize it, the activists of the hilltop youth staged a mock performance in front of the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv, simulating an alleged Shin Bet interrogation. Their complaints are a perfect example of a double standard. One could ask them why they filed no complaints when Palestinians were being roughed up by Shin Bet.

In recent days Shin Bet reported that “progress” is being made in the Duma murder investigation, without revealing any further details. Courts have issued gag orders regarding the case.

These orders create a ridiculous situation. The main suspect’s name and other details, including that he has dual Israeli-American citizenship, have been published in the social media.  New York-based Forward interviewed his grandmother. Thus the gag orders deprive the Israeli media and public of their right to know the facts.

It is clear that the lawyers’ public contentions that their clients were tortured are a balloon test and prologue to the defense strategy they are going to use in the courts, once indictments are submitted. The lawyers and the supporters said that their clients were deprived of sleep, tied to the walls, forced to sit on very small and uncomfortable stools and were shouted at.

Shin Bet on Thursday issued a statement denying that torture was used in the Duma murder investigation, saying that all claims in this regard against the organization and its employees are “lies and slander.”

In its statement, Shin Bet emphasized that there is no truth in arguments that suspects were subjected to sexual abuses, beatings or electrified. It also stated that the suspects in Jewish terrorism are motivated by “an extreme and anti-Zionist ideology” with the aim to “topple the regime in Israel.”

December 28, 2015

Jonathan Pollard’s Release by the U.S. — Pain and Controversies of Spy Mission Revived

[This post is based on Yossi Melman‘s article in The Jerusalem Post on the release of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American arrested in Washington in 1985 — caught spying for Israel.  Pollard, as we have written in Every Spy a Prince and our current book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, was sentenced to life in prison — but the Obama Administration has decided to let him go, after years of requests by Israel’s somewhat apologetic government.]

On Friday (November 20) the American who notoriously spied for Israel in Washington — Jonathan Pollard — is being released from a federal penitentiary in Butner, North Carolina.

The White House has never said this is President Barack Obama doing Israel a favor.  His release is explained by the Federal Bureau of Prisons as a mandatory parole.  As a spokesperson wrote to JTA this past July:

“Under the laws in place at that time (and which are currently applicable to Pollard), a person with a life sentence is presumptively eligible for mandatory parole after 30 years unless the Parole Commission ‘determines that he has seriously or frequently violated institution rules or that there is a reasonable probability that he will commit any Federal, State, or local crime.’ Pollard is eligible for mandatory parole in November 2015.”

Jonathan Jay Pollard, circa 1984

Jonathan Jay Pollard, circa 1984

However, Pollard will not enjoy full freedom. His liberty is restricted.  It is understood that he agrees not to talk publicly about his espionage activities or about his work as a US Navy intelligence analyst before he was arrested. He is also barred from leaving the U.S. for a period of five years.

So his dream of moving to Israel — “making aliyah” — will have to wait.

(Some pro-Pollard campaigners said they were hopeful of a quick deal in which Pollard will give up his U.S. citizenship, and he would be permitted to make aliyah immediately.)

As of now, there is no guarantee that after five years he will be allowed to leave the United States. That depends on his behavior.

This is the reason his lawyers asked him not to repeat past mistakes by making public declarations. They clearly want him to lower his profile.

It seems that this time Pollard understands the rules of the new game and obeys them. Via the Public Committee for Releasing Pollard, which has campaigned for his release, he has asked to be allowed to remain invisible — living, it is understood, in New York with his second wife, Esther — so that he can rehabilitate his life.

It is regrettable that the policy of keeping a low profile and anonymity did not guide Pollard, the Public Committee, and Israeli politicians who visited him in his jail cell — loudly demanding that he be released, and some implicitly celebrating his actions as heroic — from the outset.

Had that policy been followed, Pollard’s situation would probably have been better. The Israeli right-wingers who embraced Pollard did him great harm.

Poster by campaigners for Pollard's freedom

Poster by campaigners for Pollard’s freedom

This is also the opinion of Rafi Eitan — the legendary Israeli spy (and later politician) who was the head of the disbanded Science Liaison Bureau (an intelligence-gathering unit generally known by its Hebrew acronym, Lakam), which recruited Pollard in 1984 and ran him for a year and a half until he was exposed and arrested.

“The visits, the public campaign and the Israeli behavior in general only caused him great damage,” Eitan told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the expected release of Pollard.

Still the question of who gave the order to run Pollard has remained a mystery. Lakam was founded in 1957 as a secret unit in the Defense Ministry to physically defend the construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona and to guard the nuclear secrets. It later became the acquisition and procurement arm for clandestine purchases of materials such as uranium and equipment for the reactor and the entire Israeli nuclear program.

Eventually, Lakam was expanded and became Israel’s scientific, technological espionage agency. Its attachés under diplomatic cover and its emissaries around the world collected and stole data, technology, know-how and materials for Israel’s military-defense industrial complex.

Eitan, whose escapades included the kidnapping of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, was appointed in 1981 by then-defense minister Ariel Sharon to be the head of Lakam — replacing its tight-lipped founder, the wily Binyamin Blumberg (Vered).

It should be borne in mind that this was not truly Israeli intelligence recruiting Pollard. The American Jew, born in 1954, volunteered to be recruited. He was a “walk-in.”

Since his childhood days, Pollard was fascinated by spy stories. When at age 16, in 1970, he studied at a summer camp at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, he asked around how best he could volunteer to be a secret agent for Israel.

At his high school in Indiana and at the universities he attended, Pollard boasted that he was “a colonel in the Israel army.”  On other occasions he astonished his colleagues when he said he was “cultivated” by the Mossad to be a spy in the U.S. government.

Pollard tried to join the CIA but was rejected — apparently based on the Agency’s personality tests. Unfortunately for the U.S., the CIA likely did not share this information with other securityagencies. Hence, Pollard found a job at a counter-terrorism center in Maryland run by U.S. Navy intelligence.

One evening in early 1984, while attending a party in New York City, he met Steven Stern, a Jewish-American businessman, and confided in him about his readiness to help his beloved State of Israel.

A few weeks later Stern introduced Pollard to Col. Aviem Sella, an Israel Air Force pilot who three years earlier participated in the attack that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. Sella was on a year’s sabbatical to study for a master’s degree at Columbia University and was considered a brilliant officer who had the qualities that could qualify him to be the future commander of the air force.

It was customary, in that era, for Israeli military personnel and civilian scientists on study leaves to be in contact with Lakam representatives.

Sella reported to his Lakam contact and air force superiors about Pollard — and the Americans’ intriguing readiness to supply Israel with information. Rafi Eitan requested that Sella maintain contact with Pollard for the time being, until a case officer could be assigned.

Because of his involvement, Sella’s career was ruined when Pollard was arrested in November 1985. The U.S. put pressure on Israel to cancel Sella’s promotion to brigadier-general, and the veteran pilot was forced to retire from the military.

Federal prosecutors also demanded to question Sella. Israel refused, and since then Sella has been blacklisted by the U.S. He fears that if he travels there, he may be arrested and indicted.

Eitan approved the operation to run Pollard, who was invited to Paris to meet with Eitan, Sella and his future handler, Yossi Yagur, the Lakam attaché at the Israeli Consulate-General in New York.

Pollard traveled to Paris with his fiancée (and future first wife) Anne Henderson. Pollard did not ask for money, but Eitan insisted and massaged his ego with an annual salary offer of $20,000 over a 10-year period. Eitan also showed Pollard an Israeli passport under the name of Danny Cohen that would be given to him upon the completion of his mission.

Sella encouraged Pollard to buy Henderson a diamond ring at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer.  That served not only as the engagement ring for his future bride. It also represented the “engagement” between Pollard and Israel.

Pollard felt that he was in heaven. His dream had come true. For Israeli intelligence, Pollard was a “gold mine” because of his unrestricted access to the databases of most of the agencies of the US intelligence community.

Pollard did not ask for financial reward, but Eitan insisted on paying him.  Pollard provided Israel with hundreds of thousands of precious documents about Arab armies, the PLO, the chemical and biological programs of Libya, Iraq and Syria, and Pakistan’s nuclear program. Pollard also handed over photos taken by US spy satellites, three years before Israel put its first satellite in orbit.

Pollard’s Motives

Pollard had volunteered to work for Israel for at least three reasons. First, because of the thrill and excitement he got from undercover work, as he was infected by what might be called “spy disease.” The second, very major, reason was his love for Israel — and he may well have denied in his own mind that he was betraying and harming his own country America.

Third, Jonathan and Anne were greedy and wanted extra cash to support a high-spending lifestyle which (according to prosecutors) included illegal drugs.

Their greed eventually led to their downfall. According to U.S. intelligence claims which were not proven, the Pollards realized that it was easy to steal documents so they decided to collect documents that were unrelated to the Israeli espionage operations. The accusation is that the Pollards planned to sell secrets to other countries, such as Australia, South Africa, and Taiwan.

November 19, 2015

Israel’s New Police Commissioner: Sign of the Times? He’s From the Secret World of Shin Bet


TEL AVIV — The expected appointment of Shin Bet deputy director Roni Alsheich as the commissioner of the national police is another step in the changes that Israeli society and its elites are undergoing.

Like his boss at the domestic intelligence agency, Yoram Cohen, Alsheich wears a kippa (a yarmulke), and until three years ago he lived in a settlement in the West Bank. He since moved to a city near Tel Aviv.

Both Cohen and Alsheich are products of the national-religious community, which is mostly represented by the right-wing Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party. Another product of this community, National Security Council head Yossi Cohen, will most probably soon be nominated to lead the Mossad. Yossi Cohen, however, stopped wearing the skullcap of religious Jews long ago.

Thus Israel’s three leading security agencies will be commanded by men from the same background. Left-wingers and liberals are worried about the trend. They are in denial about the changes taking place in Israeli society.

One strong trend is the readiness of young graduates of the national-religious education system and youth movements to volunteer for public service in the security organizations – the IDF, Shin Bet and, though to a lesser degree, in the Mossad and police.

In this respect, they are pioneers exactly as the sons of the kibbutz movement were when the Labor Party and its left-wing partners ruled Israel for its first 20 years.

Those who know Yoram Cohen or Alsheich, including their secular colleagues in the agency, know very well that there is no need to be worried about Orthodox, religious control of national security decisions.

Like Shin Bet director Cohen, Alsheich sees himself as a public servant and the state’s laws as superior to religious ones. Under his command the police will show no political bias, nor will they turn a blind eye to criminality by politicians. That’s exactly how Alsheich has done it while serving in the Shin Bet.

On the contrary, one of the reasons for his decision to leave his settlement and move to the city was the harassment he had suffered from extreme-right neighbors, who thought he did not show enough sympathy in his work to their cause.

Alsheich began his service in the Shin Bet at the bottom and climbed to the top. He was recruited in 1988 to be a young case officer in charge of running Palestinian agents. He speaks good Arabic and was head of the Jerusalem and South districts before appointed as Number 2 in the organization.

He is a typical product of the Shin Bet organizational culture, its professionalism, education, and values. He will bring these values with him to the police.

Indeed, the police need a strong shake-up after sex scandals, failed investigations, and byzantine political machinations that besmirched their image in recent years.

There is of course the question of whether it is appropriate in a democratic state to appoint a senior official who comes from what in some countries is termed the “secret police” to lead a civilian police force. But this question aside, there are many important differences between the two bodies.

The Shin Bet is able to attract higher quality manpower than the police. The Shin Bet is a smaller agency with a few thousand employees, while the police have some 35,000. Thus the Shin Bet can react quicker with more flexibility than the police.

The Shin Bet also has much better technology at its disposal. It can conduct secret investigations; and when it feels that they could lead to the exposure of sources and methods of operation, it can refrain from presenting the cases before the court and settle for administrative detention.

The Shin Bet is a much more prestigious agency in Israeli society and is protected by a special law and censorship.

The police have to be much more transparent and produce evidence admissible in a court of law. They have a bad image and have been hampered by leaks.

In short, the police are a massive bureaucratic machine like a big and slow merchant ship. In comparison, the Shin Bet is a fast, agile missile boat.

As a professional case officer, Alsheich knows how to be charming, gentle, and nice; but at the same time manipulative and impossible to manipulate. His main mission will be to install Shin Bet organizational procedures into the Israel Police and to eradicate the culture of lies, cover-ups, and violence that spread like an epidemic in recent years among its rank and file and reached its top.

September 30, 2015

Simmering Crises Surround Israel: U.N. in New York is One Battleground Among Many

In the weeks following Congress’s refusal to block the Iran nuclear deal, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to reshuffle his deck of diplomatic cards.

Among other aspects of the current game plan are these:

–Netanyahu will give his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday, Oct. 1, two days after the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s speech.  Abbas has promised a “bombshell,” which probably has something to do with declaring an independent State of Palestine even without agreed borders or sovereignty.  But, frankly, no one knows if anything significant will be said by either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader.

–Russia has begun a military buildup in Syria.  Netanyahu, alarmed that Russian and Israeli forces could somehow get into an unintended conflict in Syrian airspace, made a lightning-quick one-day visit to President Vladimir Putin.  Israeli military and intelligence chiefs went along on the trip, and one result was an arrangement to prevent collisions or hostile encounters.

Netanyahu Faces Several Potential Bombshells (photo: at UN in September 2012)

Netanyahu Faces Several Potential Bombshells (photo: at UN in September 2012)

Israel reiterated that its interests in Syria center mostly on preventing the transfer of “advanced weapons systems” to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Yet when it was reported that Russia might be giving Syria’s army some tanks — and perhaps those could be passed on to Hezbollah — Israeli tacticians said they were unconcerned: Tanks are easily seen and hit; and it seems unlikely Hezbollah will deploy them.

–Israel needs a new national police chief, and the leading candidate for the job now is a man known publicly as “R” (the Hebrew letter reysh) — a reminder that identifying employees of Shin Bet (the domestic security agency also known as Shabak) continues to be illegal under Israel’s rickety, leaking censorship regulations.  “R” is Shin Bet’s deputy director, and it is somewhat interesting that he was considered to be the likely successor to the current director — Yoram Cohen.  It is legal to name the heads of the intelligence and security agencies.

–In Gaza, the Hamas leadership claims several of its senior radicals vanished while traveling through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.  Hamas says it has concluded that they are now held secretly in Israeli prisons; adding that Egyptian military commandos snatched the men and handed them to Israel; or Israeli special forces swooped into the Sinai and grabbed them.  No comment from Israel, but it certainly could be true.

–On November 9 at the White House, President Barack Obama will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  It is obvious that they will have to kiss and make up — to a degree — after their sharp, public disagreements over the nuclear deal with Iran.

Obama’s Democratic Party is concerned that the Republicans are making huge progress in winning votes among Americans who care deeply about Israel: whether Jewish, or not.  Obama also wants to decrease the chance that Israel will stage a military strike on Iran — which he would see as dangerous destabilization.  So he is expected to offer significant security and military aid to Israel.  We wait to see how Netanyahu handles the offer and the vital Israel-U.S. relationship.

(A self-serving reminder of our book chronicling the history of that from 1948 to 1994: Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.)

September 27, 2015

Massacre in a Jerusalem Synagogue — ‘Palestinian Leader Didn’t Order It’

The head of Shin Bet (the domestic security services also known as ISA, Israel Security Agency) — Yoram Cohen — has declared that Palestinians who have murderously attacked Israelis in recent months were not sent or authorized by any Palestinian organizations.

From Shin Bet's Website

From Shin Bet’s Website

Cohen was briefing the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of Israel’s parliament, the K’nesset, hours after two Palestinian cousins invaded a synagogue in West Jerusalem — using a meat cleaver and a gun to kill four rabbis (three of them who were U.S.-Israeli dual citizens) and a police officer.

Cohen said the two attackers did not train and are not known to have planned their assault.

When terrorists have no training camp and don’t visibly practice, it is of course very difficult for counter-terrorism forces — such as the ubiquitious and ever-watching Shin Bet — to detect a terrorist attack in the making.

Cohen’s analysis, based on Israeli intelligence’s best available information about the recent upsurge in Palestinian violence against Jews, is generally considered a significant disagreement with his boss — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The prime minister has repeatedly charged that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), has been inciting violence — by spreading the impression that Israeli authorities plan a Jewish takeover of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Naftali Bennett, a rightwing cabinet minister who doesn’t believe it would be safe to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank, also blames Mahmoud Abbas for the upsurge in bloodshed.  So does Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, the defense minister who suggests Palestinians would be satisfied with some form of autonomy — but without independence and sovereignty.

In fact though Cohen told parliamentarians that Abbas does not favor violence — and has no reason to want a third intifada (uprising) — the Shin Bet chief also declared that Abbas’s statements about Jews trying to take over all of Jerusalem had incited attacks by Palestinians.

The security agency director also cast some blame on right-wing Jews. Cohen said there is a highly negative effect — igniting dangerous tension — when Jews act on their claims to the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuaryby marching onto the area surrounding the famous golden- and silver-domed mosques that crown the holy city.

<Lone Wolves are Very Hard to Detect>

All in all, when terrorist attacks are carried out by individuals with no organizational affiliation — Shin Bet is now calling that “popular terror” — and the attackers don’t have jail records (so they are not on surveillance lists), it is very difficult for counter-terrorism agencies to gather information about them and prevent their murderous actions.

November 18, 2014

The Gaza War and Israeli Intelligence Agencies — Competing Claims, and a Clash of Egos

[This article was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the new, updated history of Israeli intelligence and security agencies, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.]

It was a silly and unnecessary battle about ego, credit and public relations that has now ended with a face-saving clarification by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which practically has to be read as an apology to the Israel Defense Forces and Aman (the IDF’s military intelligence agency).

Shin Bet's logo: Hebrew words mean "The Defender That Won't Be Seen"

Shin Bet’s logo: Hebrew words mean “The Defender That Won’t Be Seen”

Trying to mend an unprecedented rift with the army and restore close cooperation, Shin Bet admitted that it did not provide an early warning that Hamas had planned to initiate an all-out war with Israel last summer, which became known as Operation Protective Edge.

The clash began already during the first days of the war, when the head of Shin Bet, Yoram Cohen, said during a cabinet meeting that his agency had issued a warning of a pending war. Ministers responded angrily, telling him that they did not recall such a warning.

Yoram Cohen, Shin Bet chief (official photo, found at

Yoram Cohen, Shin Bet chief (official photo, found at

Actually, the exchange should have served as a warning for Cohen himself and Shin Bet to restrain themselves in their search for glory and credit. But they didn’t stop there. After the war, Shin Bet continued its PR campaign by leaking the same claim off the record and briefing journalists who published it.

Despite being furious, the IDF at least publicly swallowed its pride. But this week it could no longer tolerate what it has perceived as systematic and deliberate efforts by Shin Bet not only to grab the credit — but also to defame the army.

< Defamation of the Army’s Character>

The trigger that got on the IDF’s nerves was the prestigious, highly rated TV program — Uvda (“Fact”) — on Channel 2, which aired the whole story, not just the facts and information. The program interviewed two very senior Shin Bet officials – one of whom is a candidate to replace Cohen when his term ends in two years.

IDF photo of Chief of Staff, Gen. Benny Gantz

IDF photo of Chief of Staff, Gen. Benny Gantz

This was an unprecedented act. Never before had Shin Bet officials on active duty gone public on television, even if their faces were blurred and names not given, as the law requires. No doubt the two appeared on the show with the authorization, blessing and encouragement of Cohen.

Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz could no longer remain silent. He exploded, along with the previous chief of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. The three interpreted the ongoing saga as a direct assault on them for not preparing the army for the war.

Going out of his way, Gantz wrote a letter to his boss, Ya’alon, and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is responsible for the Shin Bet. The letter, not surprisingly, reached the media. In his letter Gantz complained that Shin Bet did not provide any warning of Hamas’s plans for a July war.

“Never, not in any meeting headed by me, was the issue of the possible war or [terrorist] operation presented, let alone [any] discussion at the beginning of 2014 on the matter of a coming war,” the letter stated.

For Gantz, the security service had crossed a red line by cooperating with a “television show, which glorified the organization while tarnishing the political echelon.” This, the military chief of staff declared, was “a moral and ethical breach.”

Netanyahu called a special meeting on Wednesday night with Ya’alon, Gantz and Cohen. He called Cohen and Gantz to order, reprimanded them and demanded in the name of “national responsibility for security” that they stop quarreling and “continue to fully cooperate for the safety of the citizens of Israel.”

<Was There Warning of a War with Hamas — or Not?>

The truth is that, already in January, Shin Bet had gleaned information mainly from its impressive SIGINT (electronic intelligence) capabilities pointing to the start of “preparations and training by Hamas of a possible conflict with Israel.”

But, as Shin Bet admitted in its statement, “It was only at the end of April that Shin Bet issued a warning of Hamas’s intentions to conduct a large terrorist attack that could lead to a conflict.”

Most probably Hamas planned to launch an attack through one of its tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel.

It is worth mentioning that, in the field of intelligence, an early warning of a war has a very clear meaning. It has to contain precise information, answering questions as when, where, and how. The Shin Bet information in the months leading to the war didn’t have this.

It goes without saying that, being a terrorist organization and not a regular army, Hamas was not in a position to launch a war against Israel; it could only plot a series of big and even coordinated terrorist or semi-military attacks.

All experts agree that the recent war in Gaza was the result of undesired escalation by both sides, which got out of control. It was not premeditated.

There are two main victims of this battle – the public trust in its security chiefs and Yoram Cohen. Cohen is emerging from the incident battered and less sophisticated than had been thought about him.

The Shin Bet chief is now viewed by the prime minister, defense minister and cabinet as a man who cares more about his image than the truth. He is less respected by his subordinates for dragging the agency into an unwanted rift with its military peers.

November 14, 2014

After the Scandal Dust Clears, Unit 8200 Will Probably Return to Israel’s Usual Eavesdropping

Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, wrote an analysis of the latest spy scandal in Israel: the protest by reservists in Unit 8200 (specializing in electronic or signals intelligence) who say they can no longer stand eavesdropping on Palestinians — because, they claim, a lot of the information they glean from phone calls and other conversations is unfairly used against innocent Palestinians.

The entire analysis by Melman appears on the website of the weekly newspaper Forward, whicih is published in New York.

Here is an excerpt:

Yossi Melman

Yossi Melman

In their letter, the mutineers stated that they would not carry out their assigned duties because doing so involves, among other things, listening in on the phone calls of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, including many who are uninvolved in violence, to gather information on their health, infidelities, sexual orientations, financial problems, sex habits and other private matters. As the mutineers noted, those nuggets of intelligence are then used to pressure and blackmail the targets, to force them to act as agents and collaborators for the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service.

The forty-three letter signers also complain that information gleaned from Sigint, or signals intelligence, that they provide sometimes results in the killing of innocent Palestinians during military strikes based on that information.

Their protest shocked Israeli society and generated condemnation from across the Jewish political spectrum, including the mainstream dovish opposition.

“I’m not saying that there are no mistakes. It is certainly possible that there were,” Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog wrote on his official Facebook page. “But there are ways to complain and to ensure that such claims are examined and discussed.” Herzog is himself a former major in Unit 8200.

But even angrier were thousands of reservists and veterans of the intelligence unit. …

[Yet] despite the current storm, after the dust settles down Unit 8200 will continue with its traditional duties as Israel’s intelligence shield and a hotbed of technology.

[For the full article, CLICK HERE] : .

September 17, 2014

Unit 8200 Eavesdroppers Don’t Want to Do their Duty? “I Would Court-Martial Them”

Reacting to the protest letter by 43 sergeants and officers in Unit 8200 — the part of Military Intelligence that intercepts telephone conversations and “signals” of all kinds — here is what a former commander of the unit told Yossi Melman:

“If I was still the unit’s commander, I would terminate their [the protesters’] service, court-martialed them, and ask for severe punishment,” Brigadier General Hanan Gefen told Melman [co-author of Spies Against Armageddon].

“They used confidential information [in their protest letter shown to journalists], which they are privy to during their service, to promote their political agenda.”

The IDF Spokesman had this comment — as the official Army response:  “Unit 8200 has been working since its establishment on gathering intelligence that enables the army and the security services to fulfill their missions and helps defend Israel’s citizens on a daily basis.”

September 12, 2014

Israel Threatens to Roll Back into Gaza — But Doesn’t Want To

Two of the agencies we’ve chronicled in our books (Every Spy a Prince and the newly updated Spies Against Armageddon) are at the forefront of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge”, aimed at punishing the radical Palestinians of Hamas in the Gaza Strip: Aman, the military intelligence agency, is pinpointing dozens (and perhaps hundreds) of targets; and the domestic security agency Shin Bet has been tracking the movements of Hamas chiefs — so that they and their homes and offices can be bombed from the air.

Is Israel planning for a war?  The cabinet in Jerusalem today (Tuesday) approved the mobilization of up to 40,000 reserve troops.  The Israel Defense Forces say they’re ready for anything the prime minister and defense minister may decide.  But rolling tanks into Gaza is not what the Israelis would truly like to do.  

Yossi Melman wrote this analysis for The Jerusalem Report, which is privately published in English in Israel.

This is one of my hardest writing tasks – composing an analysis of the volatile situation between Israel and Gaza on Monday and waiting to see whether the column is at all relevant when it is published on Wednesday.

With each rocket launched against southern Israel and each retaliatory strike by the Israel Air Force, the vicious circle of violence escalates by the hour, making a new war more likely than ever. Yet, one fact is clear; neither Israel nor the Islamist movement of Hamas want a new round.

It is also evident that, so far, an extended military campaign – not to mention a prolonged war – in Gaza has been prevented temporarily. The blood-boiling, inflammatory rhetoric, populism, and nationalistic fervor of some right-wing ministers (Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beytenu led the charge demanding harsh retaliation against Hamas) has cooled.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (backed by moderate cabinet ministers such as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid) and, more importantly, the Chief of General Staff of the IDF Lt.-General Benny Gantz (backed by the heads of the intelligence community) restrained the warmongers.

It is not a given that military commanders exercise caution since they are only too aware of the price exacted by war. But senior figures in Israel’s defense establishment have not always exercised restraint. Israel’s history is rife with examples of trigger-happy generals, all too keen for battle, trying (and sometimes succeeding) to push the political echelon into war or military adventurism.

It happened in 1955 during Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Gaza, which led to a military escalation, strategic changes in the Middle East (in the shape of the Czech-Egyptian weapons deal) and subsequently Israel’s venture into Sinai, known as the Suez Campaign. Another example was in mid-May 1967, in the waiting period before the Six Day War, when most of the senior general staff demanded that the government launch a preventive attack against the Egyptian army concentrated in the Sinai Peninsula. Their activities were dubbed “the rebellion of the generals.”

Then came 1991 and the first Gulf War. It was prime minister Yitzhak Shamir who put a stop to the demand by some senior military figures (led at the time by then deputy chief of staff Major-General Ehud Barak) to intervene in the war in Iraq in retaliation for the firing of Scud missiles at Israel.

The moderation, restraint and coolheadedness being demonstrated by Netanyahu and Ya’alon in the current crisis in the wake of the abduction and murder of three teenaged yeshiva students in June and the Palestinian riots in the West Bank in early July that have spread to some Israeli-Arab towns and villages deserves appreciation and should not be taken for granted.

This is a government elected and supported by right-wing constituents. And, although the right demands blood, the leadership has managed to resist it. It know very well that the situation is sensitive and explosive and could lead to an extensive confrontation with Hamas and the deterioration of relations with Egypt. They are not interested  in seeing a war erupt on their watch with unforeseeable inconceivable consequences.

They also have a full understanding that this is not a crisis that can be solved with a simple “wham bam, thank you ma’am.” It is clear to all that, this time, Israel can’t rely on a new version of its latest Gaza operations (Cast Lead in 2009-10 and Pillar of Defense in 2012), which led to a limited Israeli ground incursion and quick finale to the battles.

If Israel embarks on another war in Gaza, it will need (as already proposed by Liberman) to reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip. “This situation will continue for a long time,” former Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Avi Dichter tells The Jerusalem Report. “I support this process, but it requires preparation, enlistment of reservists, and a constant military presence in the territory for at least year. You don’t do that off the cuff.”

Like Hezbollah, and perhaps also under Iran’s influence, Hamas – a disciplined, organized and hierarchical organization whose armed echelon answers to the political leadership – has become in recent years a viable military force. It is divided into brigades (north and south) and specialized units (rocket launchers) and contains a military command of brigade, battalion and company commanders. Above them sits a general staff of collective command that replaced the military arm led by Ahmed Jabari who was assassinated by Israel at the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense. The most prominent among this command are Marwan Issa and Mohammed Deif.

One of Hamas’s central goals since Operation Pillar of Defense and the cease-fire with Israel has been increasing its arsenal of rockets. In recent years, since Egypt began cracking down on the smuggling tunnels running from the Strip into Sinai, the influx of rockets has reduced and Hamas has gone in missile production so that Gaza now has its own small-scale military industry.

“Their capabilities in this field have become quite impressive,” a senior security source familiar with the subject tells The Report. “With the help of local experts and external consultants they are succeeding in improving their rockets and increasing their arsenal. Israel estimates that Gaza now has some 10,000 rockets, including a few dozen – if not more – capable of reaching Tel Aviv and further north.

The significance of a large-scale military campaign is simple –active occupation of the Gaza Strip, at least for the duration of the operation. Occupation of Gaza would force Israel once again to assume full responsibility in the territory; to feed the million and a half Palestinians living there; and take on the administration of daily life there. A war in Gaza also could complicate ties with Egypt, with whom Israel has enjoyed a recent period of security cooperation in the mutual struggle against jihadist terror in Sinai (and Gaza).

However, despite the calls of certain political groups and ministers, as well as among a large sector of the Israeli population and media, for blood and revenge, the  government and defense establishment are doing all to prevent such an outcome.

Hamas  also has no interest in escalation and confrontation, according to the assessment of research analysts in Military Intelligence (Aman) and Shin Bet as expressed in the last four security cabinet sessions held on the matter in early July. “It is clear to us that Hamas does not want escalation,” a senior defense official told The Report following the cabinet deliberations. “It absolutely does not want that.”

The Hamas leadership, which went underground in early July fearing Israel would resume its policy of targeted assassinations (as hinted at by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi), knows that another military confrontation would end in defeat — and the likely collapse of the Hamas regime.

Hamas’s current political and financial situation is very bad. Egypt, under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sees Hamas as the sister organization of its own sworn enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. An Egyptian court recently declared Hamas a terrorist organization. Despite various reports in the media, both in the Arab world and in Israel, Egypt is not trying to restrain Israel or intervene to prevent escalation. The security coordination is focused mostly on Sinai.

About two years ago, when the civil war in Syria was reaching its climax, Hamas’s ties with its key benefactor, Iran, were cut off and the latter ceased transferring funds. Hamas’s recent efforts to reconcile with Iran have been futile so far. Qatar’s plans to transfer funds to Hamas also failed due to the opposition voiced by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Arab world is focused on its own troubles, and the Palestinian issue has dropped from its agenda.

Moreover, Hamas is having difficulty in imposing its authority on the renegade Salafist groups in Gaza. There already are 17 of them, including supporters of the black-uniformed terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syrian(ISIS).

Since the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in June, 150 rockets and dozens of mortar shells have been launched at southern Israel. These rockets are being fired by rogue Salafist organizations that do not answer to Hamas. Even the Islamic Jihad, which is still sponsored by Iran, has avoided launching rockets.

The security cabinet’s policy, as formulated in early July, is that Israel will try to avoid escalation with Hamas in Gaza, but would respond with great force to any attacks on its territory. The Israel Defense Forces will continue to prepare for every possibility – including widespread aerial strikes and a ground incursion if the attacks from Gaza continue.

In that scenario, if unfortunately a war breaks out, Israel’s main focus will be a vigorous effort to destroy the stockpiles of rockets and missiles, the workshops where they are being produced and the warehouses where they are being stored. The thousands of Hamas military personnel would also be targeted.

In other words, the ball is in Gaza’s court.

Meanwhile, the cabinet also decided to continue the IDF and Shin Bet operation in the West Bank against the Hamas infrastructure there. This will target not only militant-terrorist operations, but also civilian activities  which Hamas uses as a cover for covert-terrorist goals.

Israel began its operation in the West Bank immediately after it learned of the abductions of the Israeli teens in mid-June. The mission was three-fold: collecting intelligence information to find the teens or their bodies; arresting the perpetrators (a manhunt still underway); and wiping out the Hamas presence in the West Bank.

According to defense establishment assessments, the Hamas efforts to carry out terrorist attacks, in general and to abduct Israelis, in particular, are initiated and directed by four elements – the West Bank leadership; Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails; the Hamas leadership in Gaza; and the Hamas commands in Qatar and Turkey under the leadership of Salah Saruri, who served time in administrative detention in Israel and was released in 2012.

Israel’s intelligence assessment is that Hamas has succeeded in increasing its capabilities in the West Bank, partly thanks to the Islamist movement’s reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, which began a few months ago and led to the formation of a national unity government (whose future in the wake of the kidnapping is currently unclear).

According to data compiled by the Shin Bet, 187 serious terrorist attempts (bombs, shootings and abductions) were thwarted in the West Bank over the course of 2013. Of these, 84 were planned by Hamas, including 28 attempts to abduct Israelis to be used to negotiate for prisoner releases. So far in 2014, Israel has foiled 96 terror attempts, about half of which were planned by Hamas.

During the course of the open-ended operation against Hamas in the West Bank some 500 people have been arrested so far, most of them members or supporters of Hamas. A few dozen are former prisoners released in the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal  when Israel released 1,027 Palestinian terrorists and criminals in exchange for one soldier.

In the west Bank campaign, Israel has put a special focus on the “dawa”, the Hamas civilian social and welfare activities. As part of those efforts, Israel has shut down sports clubs, student organizations, community centers, cultural centers, and other civil institutions used by Hamas to tighten its hold on the West Bank and to wine over residents in order to gain political support.

In addition, bank accounts have been frozen and about 1.5 million shekels ($400,000) have been confiscated. It’s fairly clear that the PA and President Mahmoud Abbas are shedding no tears over Israel’s activities.

But at the end of the day, Israel’s actions – the punishment for the kidnap-murders, the desire to make Hamas pay a price for its deeds and deter further attacks – are mere tactics. Even those who support an extended operation or all-out war know that Hamas, an organization with roots, ideology and wide public support, won’t easily be extracted from the hearts of Palestinians.

Israel’s strategic problem is that although there is wide agreement among the military and political echelons to operate with as great a force as possible in the West Bank, there is no parallel action to foster compromises that would be necessary to advance a serious peace process with the PA.

As such, Israel is likely to find itself up against a new challenge and a new enemy – jihadists like ISIS and al-Qaida, who will find their way to fill the void created by a weak Palestinian Authority and a worn-down and beaten Hamas.


July 8, 2014

Murder, Anger, and Tension between Israelis and Palestinians — A Security Analysis

As was feared when America’s mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinians fell apart in April, tensions have risen dramatically — and  innocent people have died.

The three Israeli teenagers who vanished in the West Bank were found dead; and immediately after that a Palestinian teenager was abducted and murdered in Jerusalem by young, extreme right-wing Jews who thought revenge against a child was a good idea.  Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, announced the arrest of six Jews on Sunday.

The murder of a Palestinian, of course, led to rioting and a new round of hatred.

The only silver lining on these dark clouds: words of sympathy exchanged between the bereaved Palestinian family and at least one of the Israeli families who lost their sons.

A pugnacious message from Israel's army spokesman

A pugnacious message from Israel’s army spokesman

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government blaming Hamas for the murder of the three young Israelis, pressure on the Palestinian Authority has increased — apparently also from the United States government — to get the P.A. to cancel its recent unity agreement with Hamas.

Meantime, someone in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip has been launching dozens of rockets into Israel.  The Israeli military intelligence agency, Aman, believed — as of this past weekend —  that it was not Hamas firing the rockets.  Hamas was, in fact, engaged in secret discussions to arrange a ceasefire.

This time, Israeli sources were blaming “Al-Qaeda,” meaning radicals in Gaza who see themselves as aligned with the late Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist group.  They may well feel inspired by the Islamic State radicals: the Sunni Muslim fighters who’ve made advances in both Syria and Iraq.

Needless to say, they are as anti-American as they are anti-Israeli.  The United States should want them to be defeated — preferably humiliated and annihilated.

Israel is looking for an opportunity to do that.  The rocket-firing gangs in Gaza act as though they want to be invaded by Israel.

But it’s obvious, also, that the possibility of an Egypt-mediated ceasefire between Gaza (meaning basically Hamas) and Israel is a very tempting thing … at such a volatile and dangerous time.

July 7, 2014

One of the Grand Old Men of Israeli Espionage & Security has Died — Like Zelig, Involved in Almost Everything — Felled by Scandal

In reporting on the death at age 86 of Avraham Shalom (who as a Shin Bet operative used the last name Ben-Dor and other names), The New York Times cites some of our remarks about him – in our 1990 best seller, Every Spy a Prince.

This excerpt from Spies Against Armageddon (the updated edition published March 1 of this year) tells how the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir – himself a former undercover officer of the Mossad  — kept in touch with his Shin Bet (domestic security agency) chief Avraham Shalom, in what became a serious scandal.

Facing an election to win his own term in the summer of 1984, Shamir sought to portray himself as totally firm on security issues. His party hinted that Shimon Peres, the Labor leader, was soft on Palestinian terrorism.

Shamir was interrupted by a phone call from Avraham Shalom. He was the Shin Bet director who had been involved in the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 and the mysterious visit to a uranium facility in Pennsylvania [by Israeli intelligence men] and later would run damage control with the Americans after Jonathan Pollard was caught spying in 1985.

The prime minister thought he knew the most likely subject of Shalom’s call. Shin Bet was on the verge of cracking a case so sensitive that it could have led to a war with the entire Arab world. In this instance, the terrorists being pursued were Jewish settlers who started a murder campaign against Palestinian politicians in the West Bank and plotted to blow up the major mosques in Jerusalem. Muslims worldwide would be outraged if that plot were to  be carried out.

This phone call, however, was not about the Jewish terrorists. Because Shamir had authorized Shin Bet to plant informers among the settlers, the plotters would be arrested—but sometime later.

[from Shin Bet website]

[from Shin Bet website]

Shalom, on this night, was reporting that an Israeli bus on line number 300, from Tel Aviv heading south, had been hijacked. The fear was that the hijackers would take the Israeli passengers into occupied Gaza and then cross into Sinai, which in 1982 had returned to Egyptian control.

Shamir was also informed that orders were given to the military to stop the bus. [The army’s] Sayeret Matkal’s hostage-rescue commandos and a Shin Bet operations team were rushing to the scene. The prime minister felt a certain sense of relief, believing that the security forces could handle this.

Soldiers at a roadblock managed to shoot out the tires of the bus and brought it to a halt in the Gaza Strip, less than six miles from the Egyptian border.

Shalom himself arrived on the scene. He was a field and operations man, not a paper-pushing bureaucrat, but he had limited experience in Palestinian issues—unlike Avraham Ahituv, the Shin Bet director he replaced in 1981.

Watching the motionless Bus 300 on the road near Gaza, Shalom knew that the army and police had units specially trained to storm all types of hijacked vehicles and rescue hostages. Shin Bet’s job would be to interrogate the four Arab attackers and discover their accomplices, sources of arms, and paymasters.

The Sayeret Matkal soldiers, who had practiced the technique hundreds of times, smashed windows and were inside the bus in seconds. They opened fire immediately, killing two of the terrorists and wounding the other two. The three dozen hostages were free, except for one woman who was killed in her seat.

When Israelis woke up the next morning, they heard good news: that all four bus hijackers were killed.

“But that can’t be,” said Alex Libak, a newspaper photographer who had witnessed the shootout and vividly remembered the charred bodies of two hijackers—the bus had caught fire in the gunfight—but had also seen soldiers and men in civilian clothes pummeling two wounded terrorists with fists and rifle butts.

His newspaper violated military censorship by publishing his photo of two hijackers being led away. This challenged the official version and would create an avalanche of revelations that would expose decades of misbehavior by Shin Bet. Until that week, Shin Bet had been almost invisible: an organization that Israelis never discussed.

Puzzled by the photograph, Defense Minister Moshe Arens decided to take two steps: to use old, rarely used emergency laws to shut down that particular newspaper for four days; but also to set up an inquiry commission to look into what happened that night.

Punishing the newspaper added to the credibility of its story, and indeed the commission concluded that two of the terrorists had been alive when the battle was over. Now the question was: Who killed them?

Testimony by Shin Bet men pointed blame at the IDF’s General Yitzhak Mordechai, who had been beating the two detainees during a brief “field interrogation.”  Shin Bet provided multiple, corroborating witnesses who blamed Mordechai.

It eventually emerged that this was a deception campaign directed by the agency director, Shalom. He and his close associates approached the task as thoroughly as they might have planned an assassination, but here it was a character assassination of Mordechai.

This put the decorated general in a Kafkaesque position. He knew that he did not kill the hijackers, but he faced a court martial where no one seemed to believe him—and his entire career could be ruined.

Luckily for the general, a later inquiry commission found that the two terrorists had been very badly wounded during the firefight, and that was why they died. Mordechai was found not guilty.

Around the same time, the deputy director and two other senior Shin Bet men actually turned against their boss, Shalom. At first, they had thought that the agency would get away with yet another in a long string of cover-ups. But now, they were extremely disturbed by a web of lies they felt was damaging Shin Bet.

They knew that since the Six-Day War [of 1967], under two previous directors, Shin Bet had been torturing Palestinians and systematically lying to courts. The three men were part of the system. Yet now, after years of being accomplices to abuses, they were outraged by the thought of ruining an honorable general’s career.

And they concluded that lies and cover-ups were poisonous for Shin Bet.

Their goal was not public exposure, as they did not particularly want citizens to know the truth about the agency that was tasked with keeping them safe. The three rebels believed, however, that a professional organization should be telling the truth to itself.

One of them went to see Shalom, who strangely insisted that the meeting not be at Shin Bet headquarters—but at Tel Aviv’s main municipal garbage dump. In a scene torn out of an old-fashioned crime novel or movie, the agency director admitted that he had given the order to his operatives to “finish off” the bus hijackers. Shalom added, however, that he was obeying instructions from Prime Minister Shamir.

The three rebels, not satisfied by the private confession, all went to see Shalom and demanded his resignation. They argued that he was ruining Shin Bet with all his cover-ups. The director refused to step down, believing that one of the three was plotting to grab his job. Shalom suspended them, and they were ostracized within the organization.

Before long, staff meetings were convened and—in the style of the Soviet KGB—the order of the day was to denounce the three renegades. According to the officially sponsored smear, they were plotting a putsch against Shalom. Rumors then spread that they were involved in drug smuggling from Lebanon.

Undeterred, they decided to go to the new prime minister, Shimon Peres. Because of Israel’s Byzantine political system, after a near tie in the July 1984 election, Peres and Shamir had reached a unique agreement: a “rotation” coalition. Shamir was now the foreign minister, and the plan was for them to swap jobs in 1986.

Although Peres met with the three Shin Bet officials—who were practically breaking a blood pledge of absolute silence, not unlike the Costa Nostra’s omerta—the prime minister did nothing. He refused to be dragged into the Shin Bet’s squabble, however serious it was. He felt that the bus hijacking scandal began on Shamir’s watch, not his.

This entire dispute was played out in secret, with heavy censorship of the press preventing any morsel from reaching the public. In any event, only a small minority of Israelis would care about the deaths of two Palestinian terrorists.

Despite the realization that Israel, from top to bottom, preferred to bury this entire affair, the trio were practically obsessed with not giving up.

Later dubbed “the three musketeers,” these long-time Shin Bet men felt like victims of their own agency. They were wiretapped and under surveillance.

For their own protection, they recited everything they knew into tape recorders and hid the recordings for safekeeping, to be found if they met untimely ends.

They used their old tradecraft to avoid detection and went, in the middle of the night, to see Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir and his chief prosecutor, Dorit Beinish. Zamir and Beinish were shocked, hardly believing what they were hearing, and they decided to launch yet another investigation—a full two years after the bus hijacking.

Now, Prime Minister Peres had to pay attention, and he joined forces with Shamir.

When Zamir concluded that there was a basis for a criminal investigation and passed the case file to the police, Peres and Shamir responded by firing the attorney general. This was truly a coverup in the style of Nixon during Watergate.

The police kept doing their duty, however, and declared that Shalom and 11 others in Shin Bet should be indicted. It turned out that the head of the operations department, Ehud Yatom—the brother of a future Mossad director— had taken the two wounded hijackers away from the scene on that day in Gaza. Along with subordinates, Yatom headed in a vehicle toward a Shin Bet interrogation center, but on the way he took the two Palestinians out of the van and killed them with stones, sticks, and his own bare hands.

“I smashed their skulls, and I’m proud of everything I’ve done,” Yatom told a reporter years later. “On the way, I received an order from Avraham Shalom to kill the men, so I killed them.”

Yatom said his hands were “clean and moral,” adding, “I am one of the few who came away from the affair with a healthy soul.”

Peres and Shamir arranged one more extra-legal trick. They had installed an attorney general more to their liking, and they arranged for him to visit the president of Israel, Chaim Herzog. Herzog’s was primarily a ceremonial job, but, as in many countries, the president had the power of pardon. Herzog agreed to issue pardons to all 12 Shin Bet men who were under investigation— even before they were indicted, tried, or convicted. It was probably relevant that Herzog had been director of Aman: an old hand at black operations.

Most of the dirty dozen left Shin Bet, but not in disgrace. Shalom started a new career as an international security consultant, going back to his old last name, Bendor, for a small measure of anonymity. Yatom tried hard to become the principal of a high school, but the community raised a ruckus that a man who smashed skulls should be an educator. Yatom did go on to be elected a member of Knesset for the Likud Party.


June 20, 2014

A Country on Edge: Israel Worries Deeply About 3 Kidnapped Young Men

Missing since June 12th, three young Israelis — ages 19, 16, and 16, one of them a dual citizen of the United States and Israel — are at the center of the hopes, prayers, and worries of the entire country.

The following is adapted from Yossi Melman’s article in The Jerusalem Post of June 17th.

While the IDF (Israel’s army) continues with house-to-house and cave-to-cave searches, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) keeps collecting pieces of intelligence information and already nearly 200 Hamas activists and political leaders have been arrested. But the security establishment is challenged on a new front: to repel and deny the irresponsible spreading of rumors and hoaxes.

Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sha'er and Naftali FrankelIt began Friday with the fabricated message, supposedly by an IDF spokesman, claiming that the three kidnapped yeshiva students were rescued in a “heroic operation.” It continued Monday with another false message that the three were murdered within the first minutes of the abduction.

These two rumors, products of sick minds, were denied by the IDF spokesman who called upon the public to “stop spreading rumors.” It is highly doubtful whether such a call will be heard. The internet and social media are already on unstoppable, uncontrollable automated pilot. “When this kidnapping affair hopefully reaches its happy ending,” I was told by security officials, “we will have to deal with this phenomenon.”

The prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff have called upon the public to show restraint and patience, the question on the mind of every Israeli is, “When will it be over?” It could happen at any moment, but it also could take days or longer.

Security officials also told me that “with every day that passes we have better intelligence and a better understanding.” But it can also be said that with every day that passes, worry for the lives of the kidnapped boys increases.

The sources also comment that “this case is not comparable to Gilad Shalit”: the case of the Israeli soldier kidnapped in 2006 by Hamas, held in Gaza, and eventually released in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians terrorists including murderers sentenced to life imprisonment.

They mean to say that, unlike during the Shalit crisis when Shin Bet had no intelligence regarding his whereabouts, thus precluding a viable military rescue operation, this time the intelligence is much better. Yet the agency — supported by military intelligence — does not seem to have the needed information to determine whether the three students are alive, where they are being held, who their kidnappers are, and who is sheltering them with their captives. It’s not an easy task.

It’s like solving a puzzle by adding one piece to another.

Shin Bet, using both human and technological intelligence, is the single most important element in this affair. Its operation involves three intelligence circles, with the hope that in the end, all of the circles will close.

One of the circles focuses on information obtained from Palestinian agents and collaborators operated by Shin Bet.

The second depends on investigating and interrogating Hamas activists who have been arrested since the kidnapping.  Here one must differentiate between arrests of those in the operational echelon – in which the detainee may be able to supply intelligence information – with arrests of those in Hamas’s political echelon in the West Bank. The purpose of the latter arrests is triple: punishment, deterrence, and to satisfy the Israeli public.

Israel’s security cabinet has voted to harshen the treatment of Hamas Palestinians who are in Israeli custody, in order to put pressure on Hamas. Israel is also using collective punishment against Hebron residents. They are prevented from traveling abroad, and 20,000 Palestinians workers and traders from the region are forbidden to enter Israel.

In conclusion, a word about the unfair jab the media have taken at the police. What would it have helped if the commissioner of the Israel Police had cut short his trip to a conference in New York City to rush home? The police are a marginal element in the investigation of this tragic incident. And as infuriating as it is that initial information about this kidnapping was delayed nearly eight hours due to police negligence — as a cellphone call from one of the kidnapped youngsters was dismissed as a phony phone call — one must remember that the kidnappers had no knowledge of that fact at the time. It had no impact on what they were doing.

They had no idea that they had eight extra hours before an Israeli search would commence.  The attackers acted on the assumption that they must disappear within a few minutes or, at most, a couple of hours.  And they did.

June 18, 2014

Three Young Israelis Missing — Palestinians Trying to Hold All of Israel Hostage?

[This article by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, was written for the website of the 24-hour privately owned TV news service from Israel, .]

As time goes by, the chances of finding the three missing Israeli yeshiva students — who were probably kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank on Thursday — grow slim. The efforts to trace them are now focusing on intelligence reports. Israel’s Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the military’s intelligence agency (Aman) are utilizing all possible means to find the missing students, including human resources and agents as well as through the interception of communications.

There are five possible scenarios for the fate of the Israelis and where they might be. Incidentally Israeli officials are also at dark

  1. They are alive.
  2. They are dead and buried.
  3. If they are alive, they may have been smuggled to a safe shelter in Gaza or even better (from the kidnappers’ perspective) to the Sinai Peninsula.
  4. They are in a safe house in the West Bank.
  5. They are somewhere else in the West Bank.

Never before in the bloody history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were three Israelis kidnapped in a single terrorist attack. So far, all indicators point to a well-planned and professionally-executed operation. The kidnappers likely persuaded or forced the students who were hitchhiking to get into their car. This scenario is quite probable as past precedents have shown that previous kidnappers posed as Israelis, and these abductors probably spoke fluent Hebrew with no accent and wore typical Israeli clothes (maybe even typical of orthodox Jews).

An unknown Salafist organization from Hebron took responsibility for the operation. But the announcement may well be just a decoy, a kind of disinformation created in order to conceal the true identity of those who are behind the attack. Therefore, it should be regarded with suspicion. The burnt car that was discovered in the vicinity could also just be a distraction.

For now, the prime suspects are Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who have both in recent years attempted to launch kidnapping operations, which were all thankfully foiled. But the timing of this incident is bad for Hamas. Just a few weeks ago the militant group joined a national unity government led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Claiming responsibility for the kidnapping would greatly embarrass Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

Eventually, those who truly initiated and carried out the kidnappings will step out into the open by publishing a statement taking responsibility for the crime and presenting their demands.

Israeli security sources are confident that the operation is aimed at bargaining with Israel to release Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails. For the past 30 years, kidnapping soldiers and civilians has proven to be the most effective tool for Palestinians. Subsequent Israeli governments promised to never surrender to terrorism and caved in time after time, releasing thousands of terrorists in the process (many of them who had been serving life sentences for murder).

Will There Again Be a Campaign to Do a Deal to Free Israeli Hostages?
<Will There Again Be a Campaign to Do a Deal to Free Israeli Hostages?>

Three years ago Israel was forced to free more than 1000 terrorists in exchange for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped near Gaza by Hamas. As a result of the public outcry that ensued regarding the heavy price paid by Israel, the government set up a special committee to come up with recommendations for similar scenarios in the future. In the end, the committee recommended that Israel draw “red lines” so as to minimize the cost of prisoner swaps: Israeli bodies would be exchanged for Palestinian bodies and not living terrorists, for each soldier kidnapped Israel would release just a handful of terrorists and not dozens.

But Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet never adopted the recommendations out of fear that its negotiating power and maneuvering space would be limited in the future.

It seems that the moment of truth has arrived. If the kidnapped students are alive and currently being held by terrorists and if a military rescue operation is not viable, Netanyahu will have to make a tough decision under pressure from families and the public to once again release hundreds of terrorists.

June 14, 2014

Pope’s Trip to Israel Went Smoothly — Shin Bet Blocked Rightwing Jewish Extremists

[The following opinion article is by Yossi Melman, analyst for and co-author of SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON and other books.]

It took the important visit to the Holy Land by Pope Francis to prod Israel’s security agency – Shin Bet – into taking strong action against rightwing Jewish extremists.

Pope Francis (r) smiled with Netanyahu, then flew home to the Vatican

Pope Francis (r) smiled with Netanyahu, then flew home to the Vatican (Israel Government Press Office photo)

Fearing that the extreme Right — which already has burned and damaged Christian churches and monasteries — would try to disrupt the Pope’s visit with violence, police and Shin Bet took preventive measures.  Days before the Pope arrived on Sunday, dozens of suspects were detained and moved to remote locations — far from their homes.

These “administrative measures” are controversial, of course, in a democracy.  But they are based on emergency laws dating back nearly 80 years to the days when the British ruled Palestine.

It would be better for a free country not to use these powers at all — or abolish them — but if they are used they should be used equitably. However, in the 47 years since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza (in the Six-Day War), these draconian measures have been mainly used by the Israeli authorities against Palestinians linked allegedly with terrorism in the captured territories.  Not against Jews.

This is despite the fact that, in the past 5 years, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of incidents in which Jewish radicals have resorted to violence — mainly against Palestinians in the West Bank and their property. On occasion the targets have been Arab citizens of Israel, and sometimes mosques and churches have been attacked.

According to police and Shin Bet data, 20 mosques and Christian sites have been desecrated since 2010 – either with obscene and hate graffiti or, worse, by setting them on fire.

True, this is less lethal — “softer” — than Palestinian acts of terror.  Arab attackers have killed Jews in recent years, some of them settlers but some simply visiting friends and relatives.

The right-wing Jewish gangs have not murdered anyone — one has to be cautious and add, “so far” — in the past few years.  The victims have “only” been beaten and injured. Cars and houses have been set on fire and olive trees cut and uprooted.  

The weapons of choice for the Jewish terrorists are not “so far” firearms and bombs — but stones, clubs and Molotov cocktails.

Yet, Jewish terrorism undermines Israel’s foundations as a democracy and portrays it instead as a lawless state.

It gives the impression that Israeli justice and law enforcement agencies use what English writer George Orwell termed “double speak” (in his prescient novel, 1984).  One set of methods and laws is used to counter Palestinian terrorism, and a very different set is deployed against Jewish terror.

One law applies to Israel in its pre-June 1967 borders and another to the military-administered West Bank which is known to most of the world as occupied.

No less worrying, double speak and double standards distort Jewish values and tarnish the image of Israel among enlightened nations.

 The Shin Bet unit which is tasked with countering Jewish rightwing radicals knows who are the spiritual leaders – the rabbis- who sanction the acts of violence, who are the commanders who issue the orders, and who are the foot soldiers who carry them out.

Yet, the failure to stop the violence lies not only on the doorsteps of the Shin Bet. It is a comprehensive one, a failure of the entire system. The blame has to be shared also by the police, the military, the attorney general, the state prosecutors, the Ministry of Justice and the courts.

In short, it is a colossal failure on the part of successive Israeli governments, which for years turned a blind eye or simply tolerated various degrees of political violence and hate crimes used by Jewish settlers against Palestinians.

This lax attitude is clearly illustrated by the way in which the Israeli media and the authorities demonstrate verbal flexibility when it comes to naming the perpetrators. Instead of labeling them as what they are – terrorists – journalists and politicians have adopted the label “price tag” for their intolerable and despicable acts of violence.

This stems from the rightwingers’ claim that they are extracting a “price” for every hostile act by Palestinians.  In the Bible, this was the principle of “eye for an eye” justice.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has many dimensions – national, political, territorial, cultural and religious. In the worst case scenarios drawn by Israeli analysts, the most feared and dangerous one is that the religious aspect will take over and dominate the conflict.

A religious war, after all, might draw the billions of Muslims around the globe into fighting against Israel. And if such a scenario is not frightening enough, the acts of Jewish terrorists targeting Christian holy places have the potential of infuriating Christians, especially the Evangelist congregations in the U.S. which are considered among Israel’s most fervent supporters.

The perception and approach of the authorities, the media, and the public at large here in Israel must change. Indeed, in recent weeks one can sense a change of mind and heart by the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Minister of Police and Domestic Security who are promising that they are now more determined than ever to “uproot” the phenomenon.  Let’s optimistically say: Better late than never.

May 26, 2014

Unknowing Arab Wives of Israeli Spies Had to Choose: Stay with the Spies?

This item, reprinted from the website of a synagogue in Ontario (Canada), may resonate with viewers of the Hebrew-language TV series from Israel, “Prisoners of War” (Hatufim) — the original basis for the Showtime hit series “Homeland.”

Slight spoiler alert: One Israeli spy has planted himself in an Arab family in an enemy country and seems, for a long time, to be an anti-Israel terrorist. What do his family and neighbors do, once they find out?

That’s TV…now the mention of a surprising long-term operation by Israeli intelligence:

Jewish Spies and Arab Wives

Jewish Spies In movies and TV, intelligence operations are often portrayed as glamorously dangerous human chess matches with a series of sexual entanglements and ingenious double crosses. The operatives are master manipulators, forming intimate relationships they must cast off at mission’s end.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover just how closely these storylines reflect reality.

A new book by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, Spies Against Armaggedon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, tells the history of Israel’s intelligence establishment, whose main (known) arms are the Shin Bet (domestic intelligence), the Mossad (foreign intelligence), and Aman (military intelligence).

One of the book’s most vividly described operations launched in 1952. A Shin Bet unit of Iraqi Jews infiltrated Arab villages to monitor the population as a potential “fifth column” that might join with Israel’s enemies in case of war. The spies lived in these villages and most of them married local women and had children. As time passed, the intelligence provided by the men “proved to be almost worthless,” according to Melman and Raviv, but the emotional toll suffered by agents and their families was profound.

The unit was disbanded in 1959, and the spies’ wives, who faced particular hardship, were given the choice of being relocated to an Arab country or resettling with their husbands in Jewish communities in Israel. Almost all chose to stay with their husbands. Decades later, the project’s commander is still haunted by the social and psychological trauma the operation had on the children of these marriages.

The Secrets of Arab Men

Secrets of Arab MenSayed Kashua has made a career out of being an anomaly: A Hebrew-speaking Muslim Israeli Arab. As a writer, he pens a weekly column for Ha’aretz, a major Israeli newspaper, and he writes the hilarious sitcom Arab Labor for Israeli TV.

His new novel, Second Person Singular, is about being Arab in a majority-Jewish country, and it’s also about being a man, and a husband, and a father. In the set-up, an Arab lawyer from Jerusalem–we never learn his name–finds a love letter inside a secondhand book, written in his wife’s handwriting. It’s addressed to someone named Yonatan–a Jewish name. Consumed with jealousy, the lawyer attempts to track down the letter’s original recipient, a quest which takes him across the country–ending in a poor Arab village, just like the one where he grew up.

Most of the book takes place inside the lawyer’s head, but it’s about very real conflicts–with the lawyer’s wife, who was the first woman he ever dated (and whom he still doesn’t know very well), and with Israeli Jews, whose upward mobility he identifies with, but whose social and sexual mores threaten him.

Second Person Singular is a startling novel about a culture in Israel that’s all but invisible. As the lawyer becomes consumed by tracking down Yonatan, the pressure builds to a crescendo in his head–showing us the very real insanity caused by clashes of both relationships and cultures.

January 14, 2014

Ex-Security Chief in Israel Fears Peace Talks Could Lead to Palestinian Uprising

Yuval Diskin, Shin Bet chief 2005-2011

Yuval Diskin, Shin Bet chief 2005-2011

The web-only Times of Israel reports that Yuval Diskin — one of the former heads of the Shin Bet security chief who were featured in the documentary film “The Gatekeepers” — has voiced some worried thoughts about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that continue in unusual secrecy.

He says a major unintended consequence could be a “Palestinian Spring”: big protests and an uprising that Israel’s military and politicians might find very difficult to contain.

Quoting the Times of Israel on Oct. 21:

“All of the conditions exist in our situation for the Palestinian masses to rise up,” Yuval Diskin told a conference at the Finance Ministry’s Budget Division. “In the West Bank, the intense tension and frustration is worsening among the Palestinians, who feel that their land is being stolen from them, that the state they strive for is getting further away, and the economy is no longer something that they can take comfort in.”

Diskin also called for Israel’s neighbors to be given an active role in the negotiations with the Palestinians. “We must bring in Egypt and Jordan to the early stages of the negotiation process. Their entrance into this story will give [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas legitimacy to make critical decisions.”

Diskin struck a pessimistic note about Israelis’ confidence in the prospects of peace with the
Palestinians. “It is also clear,” he said, that there was no chance of the Israeli public demanding a push for the peace process, “at least according to the political picture that emerges at the moment.”

October 22, 2013

No Surprise, but Fascinating Details: Shin Bet Discloses It Arrested a Belgian Citizen as a Spy for Iran — Scouting Out Terror Locations?

The veil of censorship has just been lifted on the arrest of a Belgian citizen — a man of Iranian origin — who was allegedly spying in Israel for the Qods (Jerusalem) Force, the most violent and internationally aggressive division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Ali Mansouri, Iranian spy in Tel Aviv (according to Shin Bet, which provided this photo to the Jerusalem Post and other media)

The suspect’s real name is said to be Ali Mansouri, but Israel’s domestic security agency — Shin Bet — says the 55-year-old carried identity papers that said he was Alex Mans, a citizen of Belgium.

His handlers in Iran, according to Shin Bet, tasked him with setting up a business in Israel. He was arrested, apparently, on September 6 and has Israeli lawyers (public defenders) representing him. (They contend that the story is more complicated than the authorities are describing.)

According to The Jerusalem Post, authorities say that he previously visited Israel last summer and in January of this year.  The Jerusalem Post adds:

Born in Iran in 1958, Mansouri lived in the Islamic Republic  until 1980, before moving to Turkey, where he stayed until 1997. It was then that he entered the world of business, and received a visa that allowed him to reside in Belgium.
A decade later, in 2006, Mansouri received Belgian citizenship, and changed his name to Alex Mans to cover up his Iranian identity, the investigation revealed.
One of Mansouri’s photos of US Embassy in Tel Aviv (credit: Jerusalem Post)
In 2007, he returned to Iran, from where he tried to broaden his business activities in the three countries he knew best, Iran, Belgium, and Turkey.
He continued to travel between the three states, married an Iranian woman (a second marriage), and allegedly drew the attention of Iranian intelligence recruiters due to his international business background.
Mansouri specialized in selling windows and roofing solutions to stores and restaurants, and attempted to sign supply contracts with potential customers in Tel Aviv. He presented himself as a Belgian businessman, and could refer others to websites and Facebook accounts that documented his business activities.
In 2012, the Qods Force asked him to work for them in Israel, the Shin Bet said.

Mansouri/Mans is alleged to have taken photographs of strategic locations that would interest Iranian terrorism planners, including the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv.

September 29, 2013

Another ‘Prisoner X’ in a High-Security Prison: Lawyer Hints This Israeli Spy’s Crime ‘Amazing’

Based first on court filings by the family of Australia-born Ben Zygier, the so-called Prisoner X who hanged himself in a high-security Israeli prison cell in December 2010, the newspaper Yediot Ahronot is reporting that another prisoner is being held in similar conditions — including, apparently, a court-ordered ban on naming him or her.

Yediot Ahronot front page (9 July): “An Additional Secret Prisoner X in Ayalon Prison”

The initial newspaper report did not say the inmate, behind bars in a cell quite close to Zygier, was also a Mossad intelligence officer. Zygier did work for the Mossad, but he violated the espionage agency’s code of behavior — and allegedly violated Israeli law, although he ended his own life before any trial took place.

Ben Zygier (from Australia’s ABC)

Judging by the pattern of previous prisoners held anonymously by Israel — including, for instance, the nuclear technician Mordecai Vanunu who gave photographs he took inside the Dimona reactor to a British newspaper — the trial of Zygier would have taken place “behind closed doors”: meaning no news reporters would have been present, and publishing anything about the case would have been banned by judges and by the military censor.

Government authorities claim that the defendant’s rights are still fully respected — including the right to be represented by a lawyer. The attorneys who work on such cases have security clearance, a process usually handled by the Shin Bet domestic security agency.

One of those lawyers, Avigdor Feldman, said on Tuesday that the second anonymous prisoner had also worked for Israel’s security services. Feldman, for some reason, used some tantalizing words in a radio interview (reported by The Forward).

When asked how the second detainee’s alleged crimes compared with those of Zygier, Feldman said: “Without getting into details? Much more grave. Much more sensational. Much more amazing. Much more riveting.”

Rather than teasing us with highly incomplete information, those in the know might consider a serious discussion of treason within Israel’s security services. Was there an epidemic of disloyalty in the Mossad? One or two cases per decade are, perhaps, to be expected. Yet with intelligence officers arrested secretly, and then held without their names being uttered, who is able to weigh exactly what is going on?

As an extra detail of the Zygier tragedy, the Yediot report also said that hi’s Israeli wife visited him in the high-security prison and told him that she had decided to end their marriage. Sources had suggested that a few months ago, as a possible contributing factor to Zygier’s depression.

July 9, 2013

Israeli Intelligence Top-Notch – But Not at Handling Press, Scandal, Gag Orders


On a sunny, humid afternoon in June 2010, I sat on the plaintiff’s bench in Judge Hila Gerstel’s court in Petach Tikva, a town about eight miles east of this bustling city.

yossi melman, israel spy, spies against armageddon

Yossi Melman

Opposite my lawyer and me were representatives and legal advisors of Israel’s security establishment.  My goal, on behalf of the newspaper I then worked for, Haaretz, was to persuade Judge Gerstel to lift a gag order.

We lost the case. Judge Gerstel refused to consider even a compromise – to allow us to reprint news items published abroad about a mysterious Prisoner X. Because of the judicial gag, the episode was not included in the book which I later co-authored.

Twenty months later, I wonder what would have happened had the judge given her consent?  Would that have prevented Ben Zygier from committing suicide?  He was the Australian who moved to Israel and, as Ben Alon, reportedly worked for the Mossad until he did something that enraged the Israeli foreign espionage agency.  Perhaps a glimmer of media attention would have offered some hope to a man in solitary confinement whose very existence was a state secret.

The 6 Former Shin Bet Chiefs (from Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated film “The Gatekeepers”)

He was arrested in February 2010, almost certainly by officers of Shin Bet – the domestic security agency spotlighted now in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers.”  Zygier/Alon was interrogated, was represented by four lawyers, appeared before judges, was visited by his wife and other family members, and was eventually indicted.  In December 2010 he was found dead in his high-security cell, originally constructed to house Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. Authorities decreed that the prisoner somehow hanged himself. Every move and stage of this case was conducted in secrecy.

We still don’t know the nature of his alleged crime. Did he betray fellow Mossad operatives – known as “combatants” — and compromise ongoing operations? Was he recruited by a foreign agency, perhaps an Arab entity or other enemy of Israel?  Or, as Australian media now suggest, did he spill the beans to a basically friendly security service such as ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization?

Senior Israeli government officials, including current and former heads of the intelligence community, are saying: “Trust us.  We don’t make any of our citizens simply disappear.  The civil rights of suspects and prisoners are respected.  But telling you anything about them would do severe harm to the security of the Jewish State.”

Yet the secrecy culture is clearly exaggerated and habitual, tarnishing my country’s image as a society based on freedom – boasting proudly that it is the only true democracy in the Middle East.

The deafening silence of the authorities about Zygier and his death for nearly two years, until they were forced by an Australian TV documentary to open the information portal slightly, made Israel look like a dark nation whose citizens can simply vanish from the face of the earth, as happens under tyrannical regimes. And we are not one of those.

In 2006, Amos Manor, who headed Shin Bet for 11 years beginning in 1953, told me that since the War of Independence in 1948, no Israeli prisoner suspected of security offenses had been executed in Israel. None, he said, had even been detained for long without trial.

Yet since the 1950’s Israel did operate an X Files system. When members of the Mossad or other security agencies and institutions were suspected of betraying Israel, they were typically held in solitary confinement under assumed names and isolated from the outside world. The media were banned from reporting about the arrests, word of which generally leaked to journalists in this small and intimately talkative land.

The prisoners’ interrogators threatened them that if they failed to follow these guidelines, they would be deprived of various rights, such as family visits.

The last known case of this disturbing practice was that of Professor Marcus Klingberg, the deputy scientific director of the top-secret Israel Institute for Biological Research. He was arrested in 1983 and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. He had to play along with using a false name in prison and was known to his jailers as Greenberg.

Gossip about some of these cases naturally reached foreign correspondents, and the result was that readers around the world knew about some occurrences in Israel – often drawn in harshly negative tones – even while gag orders prevented Israelis from reading or hearing reports that were freely available abroad.

The age of the internet has made a mockery of the practice, as Israelis can click and read foreign websites.  Yet judges and security agencies here cling to the old days when they thought they could control everything.

The ties that bind the intelligence community, the defense establishment, and law-enforcement authorities including the courts are too tight and too cozy.  Espionage agencies that are rated among the world’s finest show only a Neanderthal knowledge of how information reaches the public in a high-tech era.

The Mossad and its sophisticated combatants display daring and courage behind enemy lines, and they know how to gather information.  In the pre- and post-internet age, they have been very good at waging psychological warfare involving the dissemination of disinformation and rumors.

Yet the Mossad is less capable of handling crises involving the mass media. Attempting to conceal facts only serves to stimulate interest and draw even more attention. By treating every bit of information as a national secret, the Mossad and the other state security institutions have caused the number of secrets to multiply. And trying to protect all of these secrets has made it difficult for any secret to remain intact, including ones that really deserve to be.

Here is one example to prove the point. Victor Ostrovsky, a Mossad cadet who was ousted, wrote a book aggrandizing his own role and supposedly revealing Mossad secrets. He should never have been recruited by the secretive agency in the first place, since he had been a known swindler who was caught in a fraud scam. The Israeli government foolishly tried to block publication of Ostrovsky’s book in the United States, which naturally resulted in its becoming a global best seller in 1990.

The Mossad’s handling of the Zygier/Alon affair is reminiscent of what was said about French royalists more than two centuries ago: They forget nothing, yet they learn nothing.

As effective as Israel’s covert combatants have been, their chiefs repeatedly display a we-know-best attitude that crosses the border into harmful arrogance.  The Mossad’s shiny image has been tarnished by this episode – with the agency seen to be desperately scurrying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted, perhaps because there are other embarrassing steeds and stories still tightly held.

Damage may also have been to ongoing operations. Iran and other enemies of Israel surely now are double- and triple-checking any contacts they had with Australian-accented men who resemble the published photographs of Zygier/Alon.


February 24, 2013

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