The Shin Bet’s Failure in Gaza

The security service’s basic purpose has become blurred over the years; it has become a kind of Military Intelligence for the occupation.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Israeli soldiers walking through tunnel discovered on Gaza border, October 13, 2013.
Israeli soldiers walking through tunnel discovered on Gaza border, October 13, 2013.Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The world claims that Israel has nuclear weapons. Israelis are proud of the fact that the Israel Defense Forces is the strongest army in the Middle East, and that the Israel Air Force is the best air force in the universe.

Be that legend or reality, it has no direct influence on the operation against Hamas in Gaza. All that matters is the action that Israel chooses, or is forced to take, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

This is true for the key policy questions regarding the use of force, and specific clauses regarding the battlefield. The number of armored vehicles tucked away in our emergency storehouses is irrelevant; what’s relevant is that at a certain decisive moment, a vulnerable armored personnel carrier was sent into the fray.

The thundering military machine’s silent partner in this operation is the Shin Bet security service. The Shin Bet has proved capable of discovering trees, but yes, it has problems seeing the forest. The organization worked impressively to locate and rearrest prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit deal, but it was much less impressive predicting the events that led to their arrest, and how things would continue going forward.

Those who eventually investigate government agencies’ lackluster performance in the years up to Operation Protective Edge won’t be able to ignore how much the Shin Bet has contributed to the failure. The organization has been very strong in struggles for power and jurisdiction, but pretty weak in terms of goals and missions.

The Shin Bet is a counterintelligence service. Its raison d’être is active, intelligence-oriented security. This basic purpose has become blurred over the years; the Shin Bet has become a kind of Military Intelligence for the occupation. It bears excess responsibility for warning about dangers from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

The same organizations with the same leaders and the same target audiences are working against Israel both in those sectors and outside Israel. The Shin Bet doesn’t have a monopoly on monitoring the Palestinians. Although it is joined by Military Intelligence, Central Command, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Southern Command, the Mossad and the police, the Shin Bet has priority.

As long as the Shin Bet was tasked with identifying the planning and carrying out of terror attacks, as well as calling in the security forces to thwart them, its success rate has been considerable over the past two decades, even if far from perfect. But the Shin Bet has shirked its duties in Gaza since 2005-7, the period that has shaped the new reality there: the evacuation of Israeli troops, the Hamas election victory and the Hamas takeover by force. Hamas is no longer a terror group carrying out attacks, it’s a mini-army in a mini-state.

In this new reality, the dozens of tunnels leading into Israel are not just underground holes in the fence, they’re what the IDF has taken to calling a “breakthrough,” a new dimension of warfare – land submarines. They’re a means for transporting combatants to fight Israel on its home turf — also like the Egyptian helicopters that dropped forces east of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. These are commandos, not gangs.

Fighting an enemy that employs such tactics requires intelligence capabilities that the Shin Bet doesn’t have, as an organization that uses operatives to thwart terror attacks. Shin Bet people are dedicated and risking their lives, but the Shin Bet has no relative advantage in generating intelligence during wartime, as this requires a different kind of training (and communication).

The path of promotion from coordinator to sector chief to Shin Bet director is irrelevant here; as at Military Intelligence, commanders need an operational background so they’re familiar with what operations require. But unlike the head of Military Intelligence, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen doesn’t report to the big three: the prime minister, the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff. Cohen only reports to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Those two are the ones responsible for the Shin Bet’s failure in Gaza.

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