Israeli Counter Intelligence Discipline: Theory and Practice
Dr. Avner Barnea
Head, Competitive Intelligence, Corporate Security Crisis Management studies, MBA program, Netanya Academic College
2 August, 2018

I would like to speak today about the Israeli counterintelligence and discipline theory and practice. And in order to explain and to give more information about it and to emphasize later the current situation I have to go back to the early days of the Israeli state in 1948.

As some of you may know, Israel got independence from the British mandate in 1948, and immediately after the British left and the formal launch of the State of Israel more than 10% of the population in the new state were Arab, most of them Muslims, which at that time were considered, as I will call it, hostile population. Because before the independence of Israel we were engaged in war with Arab states and also with the local population, the Palestinians, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. And when the war was over, still around 10% of the Arab Muslims living in State of Israel stayed and wanted to live here. But it was quite complicated, a challenge for the State of Israel because there was no clear understanding of how loyal they were to the new state. And that was the reason why in 1948 the Israeli government took a decision to impose a military regime on the Arabic population in Israel. And this actually lasted for eighteen years – until 1966. So at this time, at these eighteen years the Arab population was living in Israel, they were under military regime, as I said. And they had to get a lot of approvals for many activities they have done at that time because the State of Israel wasn’t sure that they are loyal and would behave as loyal citizens. And in 1968, after a long discussion between the heads of the political parties in Israel and the military, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) a decision was taken to stop this military regime.

At that time, at these eighteen years, the Israeli Security Agency (ISA), which is the intelligence agency for counterintelligence, was responsible, I would say, to cover this population and to make sure that they do not become a threat to the existence of Israel. So, Israel has had a lot of experience in activities of counterintelligence for such a long time.

And a year after, in 1967, there was a well-known Six-Day War when Israel actually won the war against the Arab states around us, and we got new territories. And the most populated were in the West Bank – Judea and Samaria – that was before under the regime of the Jordan Kingdom, and the Gaza Strip which until ‘67 was under the regime of Egypt.

In 1967 the Six-Day War, when Israel won the war against the Arab neighbors, was a turning point for the State of Israel, as well as for the ISA – the Israeli Security Agency. Suddenly, Israel took control of millions of Palestinians which were living in Judea and Samaria, what’s called also West Bank, which was the west bank of the Jordan in the Jordan Kingdom, and the Palestinians in Gaza Strip. Nowadays the numbers in Gaza Strip are approximately two million Palestinians, and in the West Bank – Judea and Samaria – around three millions.

So, the ISA had to get ready to get involved in what was going on in this territory which immediately after the war became again under military regime. But the decision was taken that the military will just be the overall responsibility, while the counterintelligence, mainly counterterrorism, activity will be done by the ISA. Just a few months after the end of the Six-Day War, the first terrorist attacks against Israel started from the West Bank as well as from Gaza Strip, and since then, since 1967 up to now the ISA has been a major arm for counter terrorism coming from Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria.

We also have to remember that during this long period of fifty years there were not only terrorist attacks against Israel from these territories; there were a lot of attacks against Israeli installations outside Israel, mainly embassies, consulates, the Israeli national airlines and so on. So, actually the ISA became not just responsible for the counterterrorism in attacks coming from the West Bank and from the Gaza Strip, but also to take the security measure for protecting the Israeli institutions outside Israel, as I said, mainly diplomatic stations, embassies, and the Israeli airlines, and also Israeli shipping national cooperation and so on. So, if we look at the situation, if the ISA before ‘67 was more focused on countering political subversion, since ‘67 the focus is on anti-terrorism and counterterrorism. And actually I don’t think that there was one day in the last fifty years when there was no terrorist attempt or terrorist activity that from the Palestinian point of view was successful. So it’s an ongoing battle against the terrorist attacks when actually the main problem is that it’s very difficult to forecast who is going to be the next terrorist. And in order to prevent it, you need a very close monitoring of the population in order to be able to get information – intelligence – before the terrorist activity actually has been executed.

So, this is the history of the Israeli counterintelligence for the last seventy years since the independence of Israel. And it’s a major challenge, and obviously we are lucky. Partly because, let’s say, unlike other countries in the world that have a counterintelligence responsibilities, In our case, Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip are actually surrounded by Israel and these areas are closed areas, and that makes them more easy to cover with intelligence means.

So, this is the history. And we’ve had not just terrorist attacks. We had two major Intifadas. Intifada is actually an uprising, popular uprising, that’s not done by, as in terrorist attacks, specific people acting as terrorists. The first Intifada in 1987 and the second in 2000 were actually the whole population revolting against the control of the Israeli regime. It was quite complicated; it took Israel a long time to bring the situation back to kind of a control.

And there was another major event in that time. Israel had an agreement with the Palestinian Authority in 1993 when at that time it was seen as if Israel and the Palestinians are coming to agreement to split this area for two states, what we call a two-state solution: the Israeli state and next to it the Palestinian state. But because of many reasons that I don’t want to discuss now, we don’t have the time, mainly because the religious fractions of the Palestinians, mainly the Hamas, who is now by the way responsible for the Gaza Strip, didn’t accept the signature of Chairman Arafat at the time for this kind of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. And the whole thing actually had been broken away – what we call the Oslo Agreements. And they are not actually practical, they don’t exist anymore.

In 2002 the Israeli government took a decision to bring to the Parliament of Israel a new law called the “Israeli Security Agency (ISA) Law”. It is a security agency law that has actually defined what the responsibilities of the ISA are, what this organization is allowed to do and not allowed to do. Up to 2002 the ISA would usually act by government decisions and by internal procedures between the ISA and the military and the police. But since 2002 there is a very brief and clear law which defines exactly what the ISA is allowed to do, what is expected to do, what it’s not allowed to do. By the way, similar laws exist also in Canada, in Australia, in the UK. And so Israel actually took this what was written in laws in other Western countries and tried to build a combination of all of its laws into something which will be good and relevant for the Israeli challenges.

So, if we look at the challenges of the counterintelligence in Israel, we see three major challenges. The most important one is, obviously, the counterterrorism which we are involved with in the last fifty years. So, Israel has a lot of experience with counterterrorism, not only internally in Israel, but also, as I said before, terrorist activity outside Israel, regarding Israeli interest and institutions. The second one is the countering of extreme political subversion, meaning that organizations that do not accept the Israeli law, the Israeli independence, actually, they are opposing many of the major rules of the State of Israel. And so they are not involved in terrorism, but we can say that there are some fractions, some groups that are thinking of changing the democratic status of Israel. And the third challenge of the counterintelligence in Israel is counterespionage, which was, by the way, a very major challenge before 1967. And if we look now at the last few years at counterespionage, we can see a new modus operandi of counterespionage, when states like Russia, China and Iran are trying to gather information in Israel through a cyber activity. Offensive cyber activity became a major activity by countries that get information about Israel and this has actually demanded Israel to develop cyber-security capabilities which a few years ago were not existing in Israel. And in the last, I would say, four, five years Israel became quite significant power in cyber security.

So if we look now at counterespionage and also counterterrorism, we will see that suddenly cyber became a tool for attacking Israel. But the conventional modus operandi of terrorism, like bombs and shootings, and throwing Molotov bottles, and so on, still happens in the area. But we are seeing now a change when the conventional terrorist attacks, although many of them are still going on as it was before, are becoming more sophisticated and we have to be ready for countering cyber attacks. And this is making the ISA much more technology-oriented organization than it was before. If before it was like the conventional counterintelligence organization, as we had known them for so many years, nowadays counterintelligence becomes a highly technological organization. The old modus operandi of attacks and tourist attacks and so on still exists, but we have to be ready for these new tools that are threatening Israel, as they threatening many other countries in the world.

I would like to say a few words about the control of the counterintelligence in Israel. Usually, counterintelligence organizations are quite strong organizations, because they are involved in the internal security of the state. In Israel the cabinet minister who is responsible for the ISA is the Prime Minister himself. That’s also mentioned and defined in the ISA law that I mentioned before. And so this organization can be, or has the potential to be a very strong factor in all kinds of events that happen in the democratic state.

And so the ISA is controlled, first of all, by the government. We have a government controller, which is a very high position in Israel, and this office can control every state organization in Israel. So this is one organization which controls and looks at the activity of the ISA. The second one, there is a special committee in the Israeli Parliament which is responsible for overall control of the ISA as well as the Israeli foreign intelligence organization – the Mossad. And inside the ISA there is a control organization which actually is independent in the organization, and this unit can look at every activity that the ISA is doing in order to see if it’s right or wrong, if it’s according to the law, according to the rules, according to the procedures. And no one can get involved with them and tell them what they have to do or what is not allowed to do. They are very independent. So actually if we look at the situation of the control of the ISA, there is quite a good governmental control, as I said before, including also internal control, which is very independent.

I would like to say a few words about teaching, about the academia, and teaching counter-intelligence in the academia. In many countries, especially United States, there are universities that have intelligence studies and among the classes of intelligence studies there is usually also a class, or a lesson, for counterintelligence. In Israel, first of all, we don’t have a very structural organization for intelligence studies. We have intelligence studies in various universities. But in Europe or in the United States you can have an MA in intelligence studies – we don’t have it in Israel. In Israel, if you want to learn intelligence, you do it usually through lessons in political science, or international relations or in government. And up to now, there have been only very few universities in Israel which have lessons on counterintelligence. One of these lessons I am reading in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when we have lesson course called counterintelligence in democratic societies, which is for the third-year students for BA in Political Science, and I have been teaching this lesson for the last three years. And, obviously, it’s based on open-source intelligence. There are no secrets there, they are no hush-hush activities in this course – it’s all open and according to what was discovered, what was revealed about the ISA, its success stories, also its failures. And we have a few lessons about the effectiveness of the control by the state and by checks and balances of this organization by other organizations, and the cooperation with other government organizations, including courts, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defense. And so it’s more to make the students aware that in many democratic states in the world there is a counterintelligence organization which is a quite powerful organization, and to explain to them what it’s expected to do, what it’s doing, what’s the history, how other counterintelligence organizations in Western countries are operating, and so on. And I feel that this is quite an important value for the making counterintelligence known and appreciated by the citizens and not something that nobody would like to speak about because it is a clandestine activity. There is an aspect of clandestine activity but still a lot of what I say it is doing is well known to the population and we have to explain it to students, and especially when many of them are looking also to be employed by the ISA when they will graduate from the University.

So this is actually what I have to say about the experience of Israel with counterintelligence. I think that we are keeping an organization, a very effective organization, which is countering terrorism quite successfully. You can’t be always successful but I would say that if you come to visit Israel and you see that we are behaving like any other country and the atmosphere is quiet and people don’t feel under a lot of security pressure, and one of the reasons actually is the efficiency of the ISA which makes living in Israel easy and not under security threat. And as the ISA is so successful, it gives also the government the ability to discuss future agreements with the Palestinians not under the threat of terrorist attacks and in fears of the population, but to look at the situation in a very calm and balanced way which couldn’t be, if there was no control of the terrorist activities in Israel.

Thank you very much for listening.

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