Outgoing Shin Bet Chief Presided Over Quiet Time by Israeli Standards

Yoram Cohen’s five years heading the security service saw him oversee the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap and trade blows with Military Intelligence over the 2014 Gaza war. And despite the recent outbreak of violence in the West Bank, he maintained a good relationship with his Palestinian counterparts. Haaretz reviews his term in office.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Sunday marks the end of Yoram Cohen’s 34 years in the Shin Bet, including the last five as head of the security service. Compared to the terms of his four most recent predecessors – Yuval Diskin (whom Cohen replaced), Avi Dichter, Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gilon – Cohen’s tenure had relatively few dramatic moments.

It may be naive to ever expect full or long-lasting peace and quiet along Israel’s borders or in Palestinian affairs, given the circumstances. But in terms of our present time and place – and even allowing for the past few turbulent months in the West Bank – the past five years were relatively stable ones. Certainly compared to what is happening over the northeastern border, only a few hours’ drive from central Israel.

Cohen’s term as head of the Shin Bet was also characterized by a minimal media presence. Since Ayalon (who served from 1996–2000), the names of the Shin Bet heads have been made public in the Israeli media. In the early 1990s, during Jacob Perry’s time as Shin Bet chief, the press still had to come up with complicated tricks to get his name into the paper in a roundabout way – such as bad puns in headlines. Gradually, though, the agency opened up a bit and began giving background interviews to journalists. Dichter and Diskin even gave speeches occasionally, toward the end of their terms.

Cohen preferred to keep a lower public profile, and it is reasonable to assume that his successor, Nadav Argaman, will do the same.

Nevertheless, the Shin Bet played an important part in most of the security matters that have kept Israel busy in those years. The beginning of his tenure was marked by the October 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, which Cohen gave his professional backing to. In his last year on the job, the agency’s department that handles Jewish extremism caught the alleged murderer of the Dawabsheh family following an arson attack in Duma last July. At the same time, the agency’s other units were taking part in efforts to stop the wave of lone-wolf terrorist attacks, which have characterized the present intifada since it began last October.

Diskin opposed the concessions demanded of Israel in the negotiations for Shalit’s release, both under then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and, subsequently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But in the summer of 2011, two months after Cohen was appointed, the social protest movement broke out across Israel. Netanyahu needed a public triumph.

At the same time, Israeli public opinion crystallized and provided broad support for reaching a deal on Shalit, and Netanyahu recognized an opportunity to bridge the gaps with Hamas, which also showed willingness to be flexible and reach an agreement. Netanyahu gave instructions to close a deal with Hamas, and Cohen and negotiations coordinator David Meidan came up with the formula in which 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were released, including 450 convicted murderers.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, IDF Soldier Gilad Shalit and his father, Noam Shalit, after landing at Tel Nof Air Base, Oct. 18, 2011.Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office

The gap between the sides concerned the release of some 125 high-profile murderers. Ultimately, an agreement was reached in which some of the prisoners Hamas demanded were not released. Over 200 of the freed murderers were kept out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and sent instead to the Gaza Strip, Turkey and other countries. Many of those expelled returned to terrorism and operated from afar, but only one of those released – who remained in the West Bank – has been convicted of murder again, so far (the death of police officer Baruch Mizrahi, who was murdered on Passover eve in 2014). The Shin Bet’s evaluation that it could “contain the threat” stemming from the released prisoners has yet to be disproved.

Division of labor

The operating methods created during the days of Dichter and Diskin – night arrest raids (some in Area A, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority), followed by investigations, more arrests and trials – continued to work effectively under Cohen, too. The preventative machinery has proved itself. But the image of the Shin Bet as an infinitely capable organization that can prevent all terrorist attacks – or at the least solve them at lightning speed after they happen – suffered a blow in the case of the three kidnapped and murdered young Israeli hitchhikers in Gush Etzion in June 2014.

It took the agency nearly three weeks to locate the bodies, and a further two months to find and kill the two Hamas members who took part in the murders. The police drew most of the fire from the media because of their scandalous mishandling of the initial emergency call from one of the kidnapped youths. But the Shin Bet was not innocent of making mistakes, either. A short time after the bodies were discovered, the war in Gaza erupted. And when Operation Protective Edge finished at the end of August 2014, an “intelligence war” broke out – an exchange of accusations and blame between the Shin Bet and the Israeli army’s Military Intelligence division.

In retrospect, it turned out that the agency had a better understanding of Hamas’ preparations for fighting, even though MI held its position that Hamas was dragged into the confrontation as a result of a chain of miscalculations from both sides – a risk that was demonstrated again this week with the Gaza Strip border heating up once more.

In July 2015, after the murder in Duma, the Shin Bet was the target for most of the criticism. Some say the agency’s powerlessness in the face of right-wing Jewish extremists is what allowed the extremists to progress from arson against empty mosques to the murder of a Palestinian family in its sleep. Some newspaper columnists said Cohen could not, and maybe did not want to, solve the murder. But Cohen and the Shin Bet passed this test with honor. Enormous efforts were invested on the investigation and a murder suspect, Amiram Ben-Uliel, was arrested and indicted in January – but not before exceptional investigative methods (in other words, torture) were used against him, the first time ever against a Jewish suspect.

File photo: Three women stand inside the Dawabsheh family home in Duma, West Bank, where an arson attack claimed three lives, August 4, 2015.Credit: Menahem Kahana \ AFP

At the same time, progress was made solving other attacks by extremists, and harsh steps were taken: arrests, administrative detention orders and restraining orders against dozens of activists – members of the West Bank “Revolt” gang who were behind most of the acts of Jewish terror.

But even before an indictment was served in the Duma case, the latest intifada broke out last October. Its clearest characteristic is the unorganized and unplanned acts of young terrorists. The Shin Bet and Israel Defense Forces needed time to arrange themselves and devise new modes of operation. But in the past few months, it’s possible to see a significant decrease in the number of terror attacks as well as the number of those injured, even if it’s far from certain that this is anything but a temporary lull.

Part of the change must be attributed to the improved ability of MI and the Shin Bet to monitor the social networks of the Palestinian population, where many of the attackers leave preliminary signs of their intentions. The complementary measure is the improvement in the work of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces. The IDF says the division of labor to prevent attacks was 90 percent Israeli and 10 percent Palestinian at the beginning of the latest round of violence, but now it’s 40 percent Palestinian to 60 percent Israeli. Along with senior IDF officers, Cohen also understands the value of security coordination with the Palestinians, as he told the cabinet – to the chagrin of many of them, it seems – at his farewell cabinet meeting last week.

Throughout his entire service, Cohen preserved his good working relationships with his Palestinian counterparts. In the spring of 2014, after the Shin Bet uncovered a widespread Hamas network in the West Bank, it was Cohen who was sent to present the findings to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The evidence, including recordings of the interrogation of one of the suspects who attacked Abbas harshly, seems to have been rather convincing. It’s clear that Abbas was convinced to take a very harsh stance against Hamas during the war that broke out only two months later.

Cohen didn’t disagree with the recent policies of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, which have blocked the demands of a few politicians for collective punishment on the West Bank and the cancellation of a large number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel.

In any case, the various security forces have issued similar estimates. The relative lull is still threatened by possible blowups in the form of a single major incident – for example, a large terror attack by extremist Jews, a serious incident on the Temple Mount, or a Palestinian terror attack with mass casualties. When you factor in the growing struggle to succeed Abbas, in light of his apparent weakness, it’s no surprise that the forecast remains rather pessimistic, certainly when even a sliver of diplomatic hope is missing at the moment.

The cement trap

Cohen’s last weekend on the job is marked by the escalation in Gaza. Wednesday was filled with clashes, the worst day since Operation Protective Edge ended. The threats Hamas is now issuing are rather explicit: The organization claims that Israel is violating the understandings that once again came into force after the end of the last war, in which Israel is allowed to conduct engineering operations west of the border fence only up to a distance of 100 meters (328 feet) inside Palestinian territory. Hamas is also threatening to respond with rocket attacks in places that will surprise Israel.

Hamas tunnel near the Israel border, May 5, 2016.Credit: Spokesperson's Unit

The IDF denies this and claims that the bulldozers searching for tunnels at the northern end of the Gaza Strip near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, and in the south near Kibbutz Holit (where a tunnel was discovered last month), did not leave the area of the “parameter” – the agreed-upon 100-meter buffer zone area. On Wednesday night, Egypt began mediating between the two sides in an attempt to calm matters. It seems Hamas, as well as Israel, prefers to avoid a general conflict – for now.

Intelligence work to locate the tunnels is conducted jointly by the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence (in the same way the two intelligence branches work together on providing intelligence on the operations of Wilayat Sinai, the ISIS affiliate in the peninsula). Netanyahu announced two weeks ago that Israel has found a technological solution that will enable it to locate and destroy the tunnels. But it’s clear that the choice of where to drill into the earth, as long as a barrier is not built along the border fence, also depends on the quality of the intelligence obtained.

The tunnels remain Hamas’ main project, and they are investing enormous amounts of money in building them – including using the building supplies they receive from Israel and the West Bank.

Over a year ago, the Shin Bet located, a bit late, a security loophole. It turned out that Palestinian businessmen from Jerusalem and the West Bank, with the aid of Jewish Israelis from the Negev, were regularly smuggling dual-purpose goods into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing, which Hamas then used to rebuild the tunnels, and also its arms industry.

Today, the Israeli approach is more suspicious and uncompromising. This can be seen in the decision made last month to halt supplies of cement to Gaza, after it was proven that Hamas was using the cement to build tunnels. At the same time, it’s clear that the worsening economic situation in Gaza, alongside the many disruptions of things that should be going smoothly – the supply of electricity and water, and proper treatment of sewage – only increases the likelihood of another war.

Despite the escalation, the political leadership and defense establishment will soon discuss easing various economic limitations on the Palestinians, related to improving nonmilitary infrastructures in the Gaza Strip. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s proposal to build a port on an artificial island in the sea near Gaza will also resurface. The IDF’s position, as has been reported here before, is in favor. Nevertheless, the probability that the project will receive any real support given the present political situation is rather slim.

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