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An Overview of the Israeli Intelligence Community

Ever since the Hamas-led October 7 attack on the State of Israel, the Israeli Intelligence Community has garnered increased attention from the global community. This article however does not intend to discuss Israel’s intelligence failure on October 7. Rather, the overall structure of the Israeli Intelligence Community, its historical context, its notable operations and relevant controversies will be explained. 

Israel’s intelligence capabilities can be traced back over a century to 1909. Hashomer, a group founded by the earliest Israelis, collected information on potential attacks as they blended in with communities. Arabic-speaking Jews had also been performing their intelligence operations before Israeli independence. This took place in the Political Department of the Jewish Agency for Palestine as well as in the Haganah, an illegal Zionist paramilitary organization that replaced Hashomer. In June 1948, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, would create three intelligence organizations. These still exist today and are known as Aman, Shin Bet and Mossad. Today, the Israel Police and Ministry of Foreign Affairs possess intelligence branches, as well. Intelligence and national security have always played a large role in Israeli government, politics and overall society which can be shown in Ben-Gurion’s quote, “For our state which since its creation has been under siege by its enemies. Intelligence constitutes the first line of defense...we must learn well how to recognize what is going on around us.”

Aman is the military intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Its main mission is to supply the government and IDF with intelligence warnings and alerts. As such, Aman produces national intelligence briefings for the Prime Minister and Cabinet, daily intelligence reports, target studies on nearby Arab countries and more. To accomplish this, Aman uses reconnaissance commando teams in enemy territory, aerial reconnaissance and military attachés stationed in overseas embassies to gather intelligence. The directorate is made up of 3 main units: 8200, 9900 and 504. 8200 is the biggest unit with its main tasks being the collection of signals intelligence (SIGINT) and code decryption. 

Shin Bet is Israel’s internal counter-espionage and counterterrorist agency, similar to the United States’ FBI. Shin Bet is responsible for the security and protection of the Israeli Prime Minister and other government officials, defense industries, sensitive economic locations, Israeli installations abroad and Israel’s national airline, El Al. 

Israel’s foreign intelligence agency is known as Mossad. Mossad agents collect intelligence, conduct covert operations and engage in counterterrorism. The agency is broken into eight departments, with the Collections Department, which is responsible for espionage efforts, being the largest. Mossad is one of the world’s most well-known intelligence agencies and is among the most elite in the world, rivaling the United States CIA, the United Kingdom’s MI6 and the Russian Federal Security Service. 

Notable operations of the Israeli Intelligence Community include the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, the assassination of leaders responsible for the 1972 Munich Massacre, Operation Solomon in 1991 which involved a covert airlift of Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia to Israel and 2007’s Operation Orchard in which the Israeli Air Force conducted an airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria. 

The Israeli Intelligence Community is not immune from criticism and controversy, however. Concerns of a lack of oversight have resulted in calls for laws that govern Mossad activities. This concern particularly arose after the jailing of alleged Mossad spies for trying to illegally obtain New Zealand passports. A similar instance occurred in 1997 when Israeli agents in Jordan were caught carrying fake Canadian passports. The political implications of conducting assassination operations in foreign countries have also raised concerns of possible escalations of conflict and retaliation. Today, much controversy regarding Israel’s intelligence agencies surrounds the treatment of Palestinians and the occasional failure to prevent attacks, which was seen in the Yom Kippur War and most recently on October 7. 

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