Analysis: Counterintelligence dimensions of the Gilboa prison break in Israel

Gilboa Prison break

EARLIER IN SEPTEMBER, FIVE members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and one member of Fatah escaped from the Gilboa Prison in Israel, by digging a tunnel under the prison walls. The escape was a dramatic surprise and caused wonder in the Israeli defense establishment, since the Gilboa Prison is one of the most secure prisons in the country. The Israeli police, together with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli Security Service (ISA), immediately began an intense pursuit. About five days later, four of the six men were arrested inside Israel’s borders, after they asked for assistance from Israeli Arabs, who reported them to the Police. The remaining two were arrested a week later in the city of Jenin in the Occupied Territories.

The initial investigation revealed serious misconduct in the Israel Prison Service. Following these findings, the Israeli government decided to establish a state inquiry commission headed by a judge, in order to investigate the prison break and the conduct of the Prison Service. There are already indicators showing a lack of intelligence before and after the prison break.

The Israel Prison Service has a large intelligence unit, whose main purpose is to prevent 6,500 Palestinian prisoners from escaping. In the nine months during which the tunnel was excavated, the Israel Prison Service’s intelligence unit had no information about this activity. Throughout that time, there were various indications that suspicious activity was taking place in the prison, such as blockages of the prison’s sewer pipe with sand. Also, after the six prisoners got out of the prison walls, a system of cameras and sensors did give various signals, but these failed to get the attention of the guards. Serious endemic problems have been found in the intelligence unit, which include its senior director. This individual was allegedly appointed despite having no experience in intelligence and having taken no courses on the subject. Additionally, it is alleged that he does not speak Arabic and is not acquainted with Palestinian culture and outlook.

The second intelligence issue relates to intelligence collection after the prison break. Although some of the most advanced collection tools and significant search resources were used to locate the fugitives, the information that eventually led to their capture came from human intelligence (HUMINT) —namely Israeli Arab citizens, whom the escapees met by chance and asked for help. These Israeli Arabs have demonstrated, contrary to the opinion of right-wing political elements in Israel, their loyalty to the state. Two of the fugitives managed to cross the security fence between Israel and the Occupied Territories and reached the city of Jenin. It then took only a short time for them to be caught, as the ISA has a highly efficient HUMINT system there. Additionally, the two escapees made serious errors, such as when one of them called his father on a cell phone.

Although all six fugitives were captured, they are now considered heroes on the Palestinian street, not just among Islamic Jihad and Hamas supporters.

Dr. Avner Barnea is research fellow at the National Security Studies Center of the University of Haifa in Israel. He served as a senior officer in the Israel Security Agency (ISA).

Author: Avner Barnea | Date: 24 September 2021 | Permalink

Analysis: The mysterious case of IDF ‘Officer X’ who died in an Israeli prison

Aviv Kochavi

The State of Israel has been in turmoil for several weeks, after it became known that an outstanding officer in one of the elite technological units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Intelligence Division (Israel Military Intelligence, or IMI) was found dead while in custody in a military prison. He had been serving an eight-month sentence on suspicion of causing serious security damage to a critical intelligence technological system. The IDF’s chief of staff, Major General Aviv Kochavi (pictured), said in relation to the case: “The officer from the IMI committed very serious offenses. He committed them on purpose, for reasons I cannot describe. He almost [revealed] a big secret and we stopped it in the [last] minute”.

After the officer’s death, it was revealed by the IDF that his arrest was not a case of treason, or espionage and that he acted for personal, rather than for ideological, nationalistic or financial motives. Following public pressure about IDF’s handling of the matter and the unclear circumstances of the officer’s death, the IDF has provided some more details.

Officer X, who, according to an American website was named Tomer Aiges, was a 25-year-old captain with three honorary awards by the IMI. He had graduated from high school while simultaneously receiving a BSc in computer sciences at the age of 18. Before enlisting in the IDF, he worked in several hi-tech companies in Israel. People who worked with him there testified that he was a young man with extraordinary technical abilities, which is why he was recruited to the technology unit of the IMI.

There are two main issues of concern among the Israeli public. One is how the officer was held in custody for a long time without being brought to trial, even though a serious indictment —the details of which are not known— was filed against him, and when no one except his parents knew about it. To the young man’s acquaintances it seemed that he had mysteriously disappeared. What is more, much of his page on Facebook was deleted and no further updates appeared following his arrest. It was reported that during his arrest, there was a process of criminal mediation, in which the State of Israel sought to sentence him to ten years in prison.

The second problematic issue concerns the circumstances of his death. There are many questions about to how he could have died when his detention cell was under non-stop surveillance by closed-circuit cameras. Further questions remain as to why the investigation into the circumstances of his death has yet to be completed. There have been demands by Israeli former intelligence officers to hand over the investigation to a civilian inquiry committee headed by a Supreme Court judge, as there is grave concern that the IDF could be hiding information that could demonstrate it was negligent in protecting the officer’s life.

The publication of additional details about this case is subject to a strict ban by the Israeli military censorship —it should be noted that Israel is the only Western country that exercises security censorship. The Israeli public is eagerly awaiting the publication of further details about the circumstances of the death of the intelligence officer, Officer X.

Dr. Avner Barnea is research fellow at the National Security Studies Center of the University of Haifa in Israel. He served as a senior officer in the Israel Security Agency (ISA).

Author: Avner Barnea | Date: 18 June 2021 | Permalink

Operation Guardian of the Walls: Israel’s double intelligence failure

Lod Israel

For several days now, a war has been going on between the State of Israel and the Hamas organization that controls the Gaza Strip. The confrontation began after unrest broke out among Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, who raised allegations of Israeli damage to the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In firing missiles at Israel, Hamas tries to portray itself as protecting the sanctuaries of Islam in Jerusalem. In doing so, it seeks to strengthen its political position in Judea and Samaria against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which is leading the Palestinian Authority. Since then, Israel has been using airstrikes against targets in Gaza, while Hamas has been firing hundreds of missiles at Israel daily. Israel is desperately trying to undermine Hamas’ military and operational capabilities, including armaments factories, while also eliminating senior commanders of the organization.

Hamas’ missile attacks managed to surprise Israel. Israeli intelligence (the Israeli Military Intelligence, known as IMI, and the Israeli Security Agency, ISA) previously estimated that Hamas’ goal was to maintain the status quo, and was not ready to initiate attacks against Israel. Not only did Israeli intelligence err in assessing Hamas’ intentions, but Hamas Q Quotesurprised observers with its range of weapons, such as long-range missiles with a reach that is in excess of 150 miles. This constitutes a strategic surprise for Israel. So far (May 13, 2021), Hamas has fired about 1,500 missiles at Israel, most of which have been intercepted by Israel’s air defense system called the Iron Dome.

At the same time, extensive riots broke out within Israel between Palestinian Israeli Arabs and Israeli far-right groups. The attacks have spread throughout the country, and the Israeli police appear unable to control them. The ISA is responsible for monitoring terrorism-related developments in the area of political subversion, including assessing the intentions of Israeli Arabs and the level of threat posed by these intentions. It appears that the ISA, was completely surprised by recent developments. The spontaneous mobilization of Israeli Arabs stems from fears that Israel intends to harm the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is also a form of identification with their brethren in the Gaza Strip. At present, the government of Israel has not managed to restrain the mobilization of the Israeli Arabs.

In conclusion, Israeli intelligence demonstrates two blind spots. One concerns Hamas’ intentions and offensive capabilities. The other concerns misreading the intentions and degree of threat to public order in Israel by Israeli Arabs. This is why the military clash between Israel and Hamas, as well as the riots by Israeli Arabs, have not yet ended.

Dr. Avner Barnea is research fellow at the National Security Studies Center of the University of Haifa in Israel. He served as a senior officer in the Israel Security Agency (ISA).

Author: Avner Barnea | Date: 14 May 2021 | Permalink

Opinion: Israel Security Agency should tackle organized crime in the Arab sector

Israeli policeLAST MONTH I WROTE an article on Ynet, Israel’s most popular news website, calling on the Israel Security Agency (ISA) to prevent organized crime in the Arab sector in Israel, which has reached a level that the police cannot deal with. The article caused a broad public debate in Israel, as it marked the first time that the ISA was urged to take responsibility outside its security jurisdiction. It elicited public support, as well as opposition against perceived further invasion of privacy and granting additional powers to the ISA.

Crime in the Arab sector in Israel —especially murders— has reached record highs and is rising year after year. In 2020, over 100 people were killed in the Arab sector. There are many allegations that the police are failing to stop this murky wave of crime. The police are at a loss. The opening of more police stations in the Arab sector and increases in the forces allocated to the Arab sector have not made an impact on this gloomy picture.

The most serious crime in the Arab sector, especially organized crime, requires making out-of-the-box, inventive decisions. The Israel Police is not succeeding in this for several reasons: it has no quality intelligence; there is public distrust in the police that prevents citizens from cooperating with it; the police are perceived as an unreliable body that cannot maintain the confidentiality of sources; and mainly because the police is not an intelligence-oriented organization. The issue of crime in this sector, much of which is organized, requires advanced intelligence capabilities and only the ISA knows how to deal with organizations and individuals operating in secret. This is because the ISA has gained vast experience in covering the Arab sector in Israel for counterintelligence reasons. Read more of this post

Opinion: Mishandled analysis of 1982 Tyre attack had implications for US, France

1983 Beirut barracks bombings

BETWEEN 1982 AND 1983, 450 defense personnel and civilians from Israel, the United States and France were killed in Lebanon as a result of four consecutive terrorist attacks conducted by Hezbollah. For years, questions have been raised whether these attacks could have been prevented.

In 2000, a senior Israel Security Agency (ISA) official wrote a report on the huge explosion in the Israeli compound in Tyre, Lebanon, in 1982. Based on the available intelligence, he reached a firm conclusion: it was a suicide bombing by a Shiite terrorist inside a booby-trapped vehicle, and not a gas balloon explosion, as was officially claimed. Requests to publish the new report with the recent conclusions were denied by ISA senior officials, for reasons that remain unknown. This prompted questions and strong doubts among counterterrorism experts and the Israeli the public, about whether the initial report from 1982 was actually a serious mistake of judgement, or even a cover-up.

Twenty years later, in November 2020, an investigative article was published in Israel by Ronen Bergman, which shed light on new details indicating a high probability that the attack in Tyre was a Hezbollah terrorist attack and not a result of an explosion of gas balloons. The article stated that in 1982 Israeli authorities, especially the ISA, were not ready to admit that their intelligence missed the attack and did not stop it in time. As a result, lessons were not learned regarding the immediate need to strengthen the security of foreign compounds in Lebanon against possible threats from Hezbollah. In 1983 Hezbollah used the same modus operandi of car bombs to attack US and French forces in Beirut and later the —then new— Israeli compound of Tyre.

Read more of this post

Opinion: Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination 25 years ago was an intelligence failure

Rabin Arafat

THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZHAK Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, on the evening of November 4, 1995, by an extreme right-wing Jew was one of the most traumatic events in the history of the State of Israel. Contrary to the public perception that the assassination happened as a result of a security failure and poor management of the Israel Security Agency (ISA), I argue that the murder was mainly due to an ISA intelligence failure.

“The Shamgar Inquiry Commission”, as it was known because it was chaired by Meir Shamgar, former president of the Supreme Court, submitted its report in March 1996. This commission found significant failures in the security measures taken by the ISA to protect the late Prime Minister. But, in my opinion, its findings were seriously wrong, as it avoided diving into the major intelligence failure that led to this tragic incident.

On the evening of November 4, 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by Yigal Amir, a 27-year-old student who was known as an extreme rightwing activist. Amir was waiting for the prime minister next to his car and shot Rabin three times from a close distance, in spite of the fact that four of Rabin’s bodyguards were surrounding the prime minister. Amir claimed to have done it “for Israel, for the people of Israel and the State of Israel”. He was found guilty and was sent to serve a life sentence in prison.

The progress in the peace process with the Palestinians, known as the Oslo Accords of 1993, allowed the political breakthrough of a peace agreement with Jordan in October 1994. Rabin was awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, for their role in the creation of the Oslo Accords.

Read more of this post

Analysis: The second intifada, a spontaneous act that shocked Israelis and Palestinians

Guest Ed PostOn the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the second intifada (October 2000), the debate arises again in Israel as to whether the Palestinian move was an initiative of Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority or whether it was a spontaneous evolution on the Palestinian side that largely surprised not only Israel but also the Palestinians.

One opinion in Israel states that the intifada was the result of an initiative by the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, and that Israeli intelligence knew about it in advance and warned Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who did not listen. This opinion was expressed in the memoirs of Maj. Gen. Res. Amos Gilad, formerly the head of the research division in the Israeli Military Intelligence (IMI) and former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, Lieutenant Gen. Res. Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon. However, the picture presented by the two former IDF senior personalities seem to be wrong, and in this article, I’ll present another view showing that actually, the IMI (which is responsible for Israel’s national intelligence estimates), contrary to its allegation, failed to predict the Palestinian moves and did not warn the IDF and the Prime Minister to prepare for the intifada.

The different and probably correct opinion has been argued by the ISA (Israel Security Agency, known also as Shabak or the Shin Bet) former managing directors at the time, who discussed the event very openly and presented a clear conclusion: namely that Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat did not initiate the intifada but was as much surprised by it as was Israel. The source of the views presented by ISA leaders is the book The Gatekeepers (in Hebrew) by David Moreh (2014), in which six former ISA leaders were interviewed. Among other things, the book raised the question of how the second intifada broke out. It is important to mention that there is no doubt in Israel that the ISA is the organization that has the best intelligence on the Palestinian territories. Read more of this post