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The Israeli Security Agency (ISA)/Shin Bet/Shabak


The Israel Security Agency (ISA, Hebrew: שֵׁירוּת הַבִּיטָּחוֹן הַכְּלָלִי‎ Sherut ha-Bitaẖon haKlali “the General Security Service”; Arabic: جهاز الأمن العام‎), better known by the acronym ISA (Hebrew: שב״כ‎, IPA: [ʃaˈbak], Arabic: شاباك‎) or the Shin Bet (a two-letter Hebrew abbreviation of “Security Service”), is Israel’s internal security service. Its motto is “Magen veLo Yera’e” (מָגֵן וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה‎, lit. “Defender that shall not be seen” or “The unseen shield”). The Shin Bet’s headquarters are located in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv.

It is one of three principal organizations of the Israeli intelligence community, alongside Aman (military intelligence) and the Mossad (foreign intelligence service).

The Israel Security Agency is charged with the defense of the State of Israel, its institutions and its democratic governance, against the threats of terror, espionage, political subversion, and the exposure of state secrets. More specifically, the ISA is responsible for the security and protection of Israel’s prime minister and other governmental leaders as well as of defense industries, sensitive economic locations, and Israeli installations abroad. The ISA, which is sometimes compared to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), also handles overall security for Israel’s national airline, El Al.

Reuven Rivlin with Yoram Cohen and Nadav Argaman

ISA Director Nadav Argaman summarized the organization’s mission:

Since its founding, the operations and achievement of the Israeli Security Agency have been intertwined with the history of the State of Israel. These operations are carried out under a heavy veil of secrecy, captured by the organization’s motto –The Unseen Shield….The State of Israel faces numerous difficult and complex security challenges. Ever since the ISA was established, it has worked to safeguard the security of Israel and its citizens, while upholding the ideals of democracy and the spirit of Jewish history….ISA employees work day in and day out, in secrecy, to secure state secrets and counter threats posed by terrorism, cyber-attacks, foreign espionage, and domestic subversion.

On June 30, 1948, one month after the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and as the War of Independence was still raging, the Haganah Intelligence Service was dissolved and the Israeli intelligence community was founded with the following branches:

  • The Intelligence Service, later to become Aman – in charge of military intelligence, information security, and counterintelligence.
  • The Political Division in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, later to become Mossad – responsible for intelligence operations abroad.
  • The Internal Intelligence Service, later to become ISA, under Isser Harel – responsible for internal security, primarily the countering of terrorism and domestic political subversion.

On February 18, 1949, the existence of the Security Service was anchored in law (although ISA existence was not revealed to the public until 1957). The law entrusted ISA with the following missions:

  • The countering of foreign espionage.
  • The countering of domestic political subversion.
  • Responsibility for the security of vital institutions within Israel and in embassies abroad.

The ISA was spread geographically throughout the country with several hundred employees serving as case officers, investigators, operations officers, SIGINT producers, analysts, technology and administrative staff, security officers, and security guards.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the ISA’s primary activity was to aid the military administration, counter terrorism and political subversion among Israeli Jews, and counteract foreign espionage from Eastern Europe and Arab countries.

One of the ISA’s greatest successes was obtaining a copy of the secret speech made by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 in which he denounced Stalin. A Polish edition of the speech was provided to the Israeli embassy in Warsaw by the boyfriend of the secretary of a Polish communist official. The ISA’s Polish liaison officer conveyed the copy to Israel. The Israeli government shared the information with the United States, which published it with Israeli approval.

A notable achievement in counter-espionage was the 1961 capture of Israel Be’er, who was revealed to be a Soviet spy. Beer was a Lieutenant Colonel in the reserves, a senior security commentator and a close friend of David Ben-Gurion. Beer was tried and sentenced to ten years in prison (later extended by the Supreme Court to fifteen years, following his appeal), where he died.

In 1967, an Egyptian-Israeli double agent, Rif’at al Gamal/Jacques Bitton, gave Egypt false information about Israel’s battle plans, claiming it would begin with ground operations. The Egyptians thus left their aircraft on open runways, which enabled the Israel Air Force to knock out Egypt’s air force within three hours of the outbreak of the Six-Day War. Operation Yated, as it was later known, is considered one of the most successful deceptions in Israeli intelligence history.

Since 1967, the ISA has been deployed in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip with the purpose of preventing terrorist activity carried out by residents of the disputed territories. Following the hijacking of an El Al plane to Algiers in 1968, and the murder of members of the Israeli Olympic team in the 1972 Munich Olympics, the ISA established a worldwide security apparatus to protect Israeli targets from terror threats.

The 1980s and 1990s were characterized by the ongoing fight against terrorist activity. During these years, ISA also provided support to IDF forces in Lebanon, exposed the Jewish Underground, solved several cases of espionage and treason, and took part in the political process granting autonomy to the Palestinians, a process that entailed continuous communication between ISA representatives and Palestinian Authority officials.

The 1987 Landau Commission, set up to investigate ISA interrogation methods, criticized the organization and established guidelines to regulate what forms of physical pressure could be used on prisoners. The ISA has nevertheless been accused of going beyond the “moderate physical pressure” authorized by the Landau Commission.

Each year, the ISA prevents hundreds of terrorist attacks. The ISA has also had numerous failures, including the Bus 300 Affair, terrorist attacks that succeeded and, perhaps its most serious, failing to prevent the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Following the assassination of Rabin, the ISA director, Carmi Gillon, resigned. Later, the Shamgar Commission pointed to serious flaws in the personal security unit. Gillon was replaced by Israeli Navy admiral Ami Ayalon, who helped to restore the organizational morale and to rehabilitate its public image.

In 2000, Ayalon was replaced by Avi Dichter, an ex-Sayeret Matkal commando and experienced ISA agent, who tightened the working relationship with the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli police.

ISA has also worked closely with the Israeli Air Force in “targeted killings” of Palestinian terrorists. The ISA gathers intelligence used to identify and locate the targets.

In February 2002, the Israeli parliament passed the ISA Statute which established four central areas of responsibility:

Institutional aspect – the status of the ISA, its powers, its subordination to the government, and the status of ISA Director.

ISA functions – the ISA’s mission, functions, general powers granted to it (including the authority to conduct interrogations), and specific powers granted (e.g., conducting searches, receiving communications data, carrying out security vetting).

Control and supervision – the status of the internal comptroller, the requirement that periodic reports be provided to the Knesset, the government, and the Attorney General, the requirement for external approval of legal ordinances, rules and instructions, and the establishment of an external appeal entity for security checks.

Unique aspects to the ISA – the status of internal debriefings, exceptions concerning the responsibility of ISA employees and their proxies, restrictions on ISA employees during and following their period of employment, and instructions regarding confidentiality.

In addition to these ordinances, further instructions, rules and procedures were established. They serve to set internal standards, and are not public information.

The ISA is believed to have four operational wings:

  • The Arab Department: responsible primarily for Arab-related counterterrorism activities in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
  • The Israel and Foreigners Department: formerly named the Non-Arab Affairs Department. It includes the Department for Counter-intelligence and Prevention of Subversion in the Jewish Sector, also known as the “Jewish Department.” It is responsible for preventing espionage, and for dealing with extremists who carry out actions (such as terrorism) against the state. As its original concerns mostly related to the Communist Bloc, it shrunk after the fall of the Soviet Union, but rose again in importance in response to Jewish terrorist activity beginning in the early 1980s.
  • The Protective Security Department: responsible for protecting high-value individuals and locations in the country such as government officials, embassies, airports, and research facilities. Advanced developments are carried out in several areas, including Computer Vision, Speech Recognition, Data Mining, Natural Language.
  • Cyber and technology: the technological divisions develop information systems and produce sophisticated technological means for gathering intelligence.

Although a security agency, the ISA is not a part of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, and its director answers directly to the prime minister of Israel.

Sources: “Shin Bet,” Wikipedia.
Israel Security Agency.
“Shin Bet thwarted 500 terror attacks in 2018, Netanyahu says,” Times of Israel, (December 5, 2018).
Judah Ari Gross, “Shin Bet thwarted over 450 terror attacks in 2019, chief says,” Times of Israel, (November 7, 2019).

Photo of directors - עמוס בן גרשון, לשכת העיתונות הממשלתית, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.