A little history of Shin Bet

  • Themes: Intelligence, Israel

Israel’s domestic security service has a chequered history, but it will continue to play a key role in the current war against Hamas.

Satellite image of the Gaza Strip.
Satellite image of the Gaza Strip. Credit: SpaceEnhanced / Alamy Stock Photo

In the current Middle East conflict, Israel’s domestic security service, better known by the letters ISA, or Shin Bet, will play a critical role.

Often compared to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, and the British MI5, Shin Bet’s key missions are countering espionage, subversion, and sabotage; dealing with Jewish extremists, mainly on the West Bank; protecting individuals, such as the prime minister, and, in recent years, conducting cyber operations. Shin Bet’s director answers directly to the prime minister.

During the British Mandate of Palestine, from 1922 to 1948, Jewish Intelligence was concentrated in the hands of the mainstream Jewish underground organisation, Haganah (‘Defence’). Upon the British departure from Palestine and the birth of Israel, in May 1948, Haganah was incorporated into the newly established Israel Defence Forces (IDF), and its Intelligence Service was dissolved. Subsequently, three intelligence agencies emerged: AMAN, in charge of military intelligence; Mossad, which is concerned with foreign intelligence gathering, intelligence analysis, and covert operations; and Shin Bet.

While the formal tasks of Shin Bet remained unchanged overall, over the years there have been shifts in priorities depending on emerging threats. The organisation’s early preoccupation was Soviet-bloc espionage, as among the many Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel from the Eastern European bloc were spies planted by Soviet intelligence. Another key task of Shin Bet during the early years of the state was monitoring Israel’s Arab minority, those 150,000 Arab Palestinians who remained in Israel after the 1948 war, and lived under a military regime, under the preying eyes of Shin Bet.

On the eve of the 1967 War, Shin Bet scored a great success, when an Egyptian-Israeli double agent, Ri’fat al Gamal (Jacques Bitton), provided Egypt with false information about Israel’s war plans, saying Israel would begin with ground operations. On the basis of this information, the Egyptians made preparations to absorb an Israeli ground assault, but they left their aeroplanes exposed on open runways, which enabled the Israeli Air force (IAF) to destroy the entire Egyptian air force, mainly on the ground, within three hours of the outbreak of hostilities. ‘Operation Yated (Operation Stake)’, is considered one of the most remarkable deceptions in Shin Bet’s intelligence history.

The aftermath of the 1967 war has been a turning point for Shin Bet, as its main focus shifted, quite dramatically, to the Palestinian front, and this has been the situation ever since. What triggered this change was that after the war, the IDF, lacking good intelligence, struggled to conduct an effective counter-insurgency as Palestinians, under Yasser Arafat, embarked on a campaign of terror against Israelis, and Palestinians co-operating with Israel, in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel proper. This reality led to the deployment of Shin Bet in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Before long, the organisation started gathering intelligence, recruiting a network of collaborators – young and old, rich and poor – insinuating itself into all areas of Palestinian life, penetrating town and villages, exploiting religious rivalries, and also making extensive use of underworld figures. Some of its tactics were controversial as, for instance, it recruited Palestinian women as collaborators by blackmailing them, taking advantage of their vulnerabilities as members of a traditional Palestinian society, photographing them naked, threatening to distribute the pictures should they fail to collaborate.

With Palestinian attacks on Israel becoming ever more frequent and lethal, Shin Bet operators responded by pushing the boundaries in desperate attempts to obtain key intelligence to foil terrorist attacks. Scandals followed. The years 1984–86 brought unwelcome exposures to the organisation, as ‘The Shin Bet affair’ dominated the headlines. The affair became public when two Palestinians who hijacked an Israeli bus were said by the authorities to have died during the Israeli rescue operation. In fact, photographs showed them leaving the bus alive, and it became clear that they had been killed by Shin Bet personnel while in custody. In 1987, the Landau Commission was set up to investigate this incident, and also to look into Shin Bet’s interrogation methods. The commission criticised the organisation and established guidelines to regulate what forms of physical pressure could be used on prisoners, ruling that only ‘moderate physical pressure’ was allowed.

The 1990s Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO led to Israeli withdrawals from occupied Palestinian lands, and in 2005, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel pulled out from the Gaza Strip. These withdrawals, particularly, from the Gaza Strip, hit the Shin Bet, as it lost many of its assets, mainly Gazan collaborators, which made it difficult to obtain crucial intelligence. Gradually, the organisation recovered as improved technologies enabled it to penetrate into Palestinian communication systems and gather key information from there.

In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian elections in the Gaza Strip and, a year later, assumed control of the Strip. This, in turn, put it on a collision course with the Israelis who, on one hand, allowed Hamas to thrive as they saw it as a counterbalance to the Fatah regime on the West Bank, and a guarantee that a divided Palestinian camp would fail to set up a Palestinian state, but on the other hand, considered Hamas a terrorist group. Since assuming power in the Strip, Hamas and the IDF clashed on numerous occasions, in what came to be known as ’rounds of fighting’. In these ’rounds’, Shin Bet was instrumental, providing the military with key intelligence which enabled it to attack key Hamas targets.

The murderous Hamas attack on Israeli villages on 7 October 2023, in which its gunmen massacred 1,400 innocent Israelis and abducted 220 was a terrible blow to Shin Bet. Its director, Ronen Bar, admitted that ‘unfortunately we were unable to generate a sufficient warning that would allow the Hamas attack to be thwarted’, and he added: ‘There will be time for investigations. Now we are fighting.’

What is the role of Shin Bet in the current war against Hamas? Working closely with the IDF, Shin Bet provides key intelligence on Hamas’s assets – headquarters, weapons, warehouses – which the IAF systematically destroys from the air. When Israeli forces start moving into the Gaza Strip to tackle Hamas head on, Shin Bet operators will join the advancing forces to gather intelligence, mainly about the whereabouts of the Israeli hostages, which the IDF hopes, if accurate intelligence becomes available, they could rescue. Another Shin Bet mission would be to locate Hamas leaders, as the aim of the Israeli invasion is to topple Hamas, and to achieve this goal the Israelis will strive to assassinate key Hamas leaders. Lastly, straight after the Hamas attack, Shin Bet (along with Mossad) formed a special operations centre tasked with tracking down and killing members of the Hamas commando unit that entered Israel and massacred Israelis on 7 October.

It is likely that Shin Bet’s main priority in coming years will continue to be the Palestinian front, particularly, the Gaza Strip.


Ahron Bregman