The use of intelligence has been a crucial aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for the simple and obvious reason that this conflict has always been highly militarized. Equally, the arena of intelligence has reflected the great asymmetry between the two parties. Israel has put all its resources into building intelligence capabilities that rival those of most countries in the world, in the process developing cutting-edge technology, vast human resources and key intelligence cooperation with superpowers, most prominently the United States. Palestinians, on the other hand, have tried to offset Israel's comparative advantage in the field of intelligence by concentrating on other ways and means in which they have a comparative advantage--Palestinians are under no illusions that they can compete with Israel in matters of security.
One example of this was the manner in which each party handled Israel's continuing attempts to uncover underground cells of resistance during the time Israel occupied all of the West Bank and Gaza, from 1967 to 1996 when the Palestinian Authority was established. When Palestinians discovered that they were not wily enough to deceive Israeli security agents and avoid capture, they began to use their imprisoned cell members as recruiters and organizers, so that a major center of recruitment became the prisons themselves. That cyclical situation led Israel to a situation where it had 18,000 Palestinians in jail, but no end to the resistance in sight.
In this current round of confrontations, the gathering of intelligence has become even more important than ever. Israel has been very successful in tracking targets for assassination and arrest by using its human and technological intelligence. But this tactical success, which reflects a Palestinian failure on the flip side, has not been "good" enough to allow Israel to achieve its objectives of security and peace simply because the Palestinians, who are no match for Israel on the intelligence front, are resorting to other tools in which they have the comparative advantage thus ensuring that Israel is never near to achieving its political goals.
In a very cynical and callous view, the tactic of suicide bombings is one Palestinian attempt to neutralize Israeli intelligence gathering. Setting aside for a moment its immorality or horrendous destruction, the fact is that when the bomber destroys him or herself along with the weapon and target, key pieces in the intelligence trail are destroyed and Palestinians are somewhat able to narrow the gap between themselves and the vast Israeli security machine. The bloody give-and-take between an occupying state and its resources, on the one hand, and a people trying to make up the difference, on the other, is where we are today.
The incredible machinations that go into Israeli intelligence-gathering and the political hay that is made of its use and manipulations only highlight the truth of the matter: political differences remain at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no sophisticated techniques will save us all from this bitter struggle until the same sophistication is applied to advancing a political solution.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
Over the past three years Israeli intelligence has raised its skills in combating Palestinian terrorism to a high level of success that is already being emulated by American forces in Iraq. In contrast, at the strategic level, Israel's intelligence services have a far more problematic record over the past three years. They have not been particularly successful at such tasks as comprehending Palestinian intentions and the inner workings of Palestinian decision-making, understanding why the peace process failed and violence broke out, and finding ways to alter Palestinian strategy.
Again and again our military and political leaders, smugly certain that they have figured out Palestinian strategy, have misinformed us that "Yasser Arafat is finished" and that we have emerged victorious. Nor did Israel's tactical successes prevent General Security Service (Shabak) head Avi Dichter from announcing recently that the security community had "failed to deliver security" to the public.
Have the Palestinians suffered similar failures of intelligence at the strategic level? From an Israeli standpoint this certainly appears to be the case. This determination is rendered difficult by the fragmentation of Palestinian society and chaotic nature of the Palestinian security community, which point to the likelihood that more than one strategy is being employed (for example, Hamas' strategy that does not aspire to a two state solution, compared to that of Fatah, which ostensibly does). Indeed, some Palestinian analysts believe that Arafat is essentially not capable of strategic thinking at all! At least some Palestinian strategic decisions seem to have been predicated on a misreading of both Israeli society and the international situation, i.e., on intelligence failures that have had tragic consequences for all concerned.
The suicide bombings, for example, did not "break" Israel; instead they produced the security fence, an unexpected and undesirable outcome from the Palestinian point of view. Settlement expansion did not stop despite repeated attacks, and by and large settlers' morale has not been broken. Nor has the violence bent Israel's will: the current government, and any likely successor, will not offer the Palestinians more concessions than those that were already rejected as inadequate at Camp David/Taba. The Karine A affair (smuggling arms from Iran) represents a gigantic miscalculation by Arafat and the Fatah leadership in view of the Israeli and American reaction. And Arafat's ongoing failure to appoint a capable, high-level ambassador in Washington appears to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding at the strategic level of the importance of the American role in our conflict.
One compelling reason for Israel's strategic intelligence failures appears to be a dangerous inclination of intelligence analysts to adjust their assessments to meet the expectations of the political leader. In the case of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who believes that the Palestinians can be subdued militarily and compelled to produce a leadership that accepts his solution and his "map", Israeli intelligence has at times fallen into line by assessing publicly that this was possible, or was already a fait accompli, even when there was no basis for this determination. Key figures in Israeli intelligence readily connived in contriving to persuade Washington to adopt Sharon's political approach, and in convincing the Israeli public to accept the Bush administration's questionable strategy of improving the atmosphere for Israeli-Palestinian peace by conquering Iraq (the "positive domino theory").
But this politicization of intelligence and deviation from healthy intelligence norms is not confined to a right wing prime minister. In retrospect it is now clear that in Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's day, Israeli intelligence at times failed to warn adequately of the ramifications of Arafat's ongoing rejection of Israel as a Jewish state and his support for violence and extremist views, apparently because it sought to provide the prime minister with assessments that supported his peace initiative.
In defense of the Israeli intelligence performance at the strategic level, a number of important points must also be noted. For one, there have been impressive strategic intelligence successes, such as correctly assessing the reticence of Egypt and Jordan to become deeply involved on the Palestinian side of the conflict. Then too, the traditional restrictions against factoring in one's own government's political and strategic initiatives and their ramifications for the reactions of the other side are a particularly strong constraint on intelligence success in the current situation, which mixes a political process with the struggle against terrorism and guerilla warfare. This points to an additional factor: the absence in the Israeli system, despite repeated recommendations of commissions of inquiry, of an echelon that operates between the intelligence establishment and the decision-makers, and that integrates Israeli strategic and operational thinking with the intelligence estimate or estimates and comes up with recommended alternative courses of action for the government to consider.
This is a political rather than an intelligence failure. By the same token, at the end of the day the absence of a realistic strategy for peace, or at least for ending the violence, is most emphatically not the fault of intelligence, but rather of the highest echelon of decision-makers: Sharon and Arafat.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former senior official in the Mossad, and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
Any comparative overview of intelligence capabilities between Palestinians and Israelis can only begin by noting a tremendous disparity. Arriving in Palestine in a hostile environment, the Jewish settlers established rudimentary intelligence apparatuses as early as 1914. When the Jewish Agency was founded in the 1920s, it included an Arab Affairs Department that collected information about the Palestinian population and leadership.
Efficient intelligence was decisive in the 1948 War and with the creation of the official Israeli army on May 26, 1948, the intelligence branches took another form. Today, Israel's three main intelligence agencies remain Aman, military intelligence; the Shabak (General Security Service) which handles counterespionage and internal security, including intelligence gathering in the occupied territories; and the Mossad, created in 1951, which collects external intelligence, and is entrusted with carrying out clandestine Jewish immigration (from Arab countries, for example) and assassinations outside of Israel and the occupied territories. Today Israel is making use of and developing some of the most advanced intelligence gathering technology available, including its Ofek satellite, communications sensors and unmanned hovercraft.
On the other side, up until 1948, Palestinians did not have a single formal intelligence body. Even the most advanced Palestinian paramilitary organization, Al Jihad al Muqadas, led by Abdel Qader Husseini, had no intelligence branch. After 1967, the major Palestinian faction Fateh organized Razd al Thawri, which means "revolutionary intelligence", led by Saleh Khalaf (Abu Eyad). But when Abu Eyad was captured by the Jordanian forces in 1970 and "broken", he ordered by radio that Palestinian fighters surrender--and was quickly replaced by Ali Hassan Salameh, who was later assassinated by the Mossad in Beirut.
This negligence of intelligence capabilities is rather symptomatic of the Palestinian performance altogether. Historically, the Palestinian struggle has been mainly spontaneous, sacrificial and demanding great resilience from the population, at the same time that political and military institutions show lack of planning. The Arab states did not help this situation, refusing to offer logistic support. But this is not the only way to understand this huge failure. It is my point of view that the Palestinian leadership, including Fateh, was never really serious about armed struggle.
Later in the 70s, the primitive intelligence Palestinian centers, mainly found in Fateh, were divided up among the "Abus", or the major Palestinian leaders. Some of the leaders at that time had real influence, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat used this method to divide and rule (while security branches are historically competitive the world over, among Palestinians this competition was used to absorb dissent). After the Oslo accords with Israel, there were at least ten security apparatuses in the Palestinian Authority, and according to the agreements, they were not to collect information about the Israeli side.
Israeli intelligence infiltration into Palestinian life after 1967 was particularly dramatic because the entire occupation system was set up to force any Palestinian trying to carry out a mundane task to come in contact with Israeli intelligence agents. If one only remembers that in four years of Nazi occupation in Belgium during World War II, the Nazis succeeded in "turning" 11 percent of the population, using these converts to provide intelligence, imagine the state of Palestinians after nearly 40 years of occupation, in which Palestinians have largely been cut off from the support of the outside world. All indications are that Israeli intelligence infiltrated the high ranks of security apparatuses and Palestinian political organizations. Palestinians have tried to deal with this through the extrajudicial killing and torture of alleged collaborators. But these have often been the small fish or those already "burned"--those obviously working with the Israelis in supplying permits, selling land or accompanying Israeli special forces.
There have been a handful of celebrated cases in which Palestinian collaborators killed their own handlers. But if one considers the vast number of Palestinian recruits, albeit many recruited against their will, this number is relatively small. Many of these killings did not result from a coordinated intelligence strategy, but from personal initiative and the desire to inflict vengeance for humiliation incurred. There have also been a handful of cases where Israelis have reported being approached by the PLO to gather information. But these Israelis were usually caught and arrested before they could do any damage, which is just one more testimony to the effectiveness of Israel's intelligence capabilities.
Finally, one arena that Israeli intelligence seems to have mastered (and this is terribly pronounced in the media in the United States) is its sophisticated manner of controlling the press. One of the main departments of the Mossad deals with psychological warfare, propaganda and operations of deception. But the great paradox here is that there is also a great deal of "real" information about Israel in the press. While Israel may not be a democracy for its Arab citizens, there is a large body of security information to be found in the public domain. And in truth, this is one more sign of the failure of Arab intelligence efforts. Israelis are not afraid of releasing this information because no one on the other side is paying attention.
Saleh Abdul Jawad is a political scientist at Birzeit University and senior visiting scholar at the Harvard history department. He has written several bodies of research on Israeli assassinations of Palestinians and the phenomenon of collaboration in Palestinian society.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Are intelligence assessments leading to intelligent policies?
by Shlomo Brom
The Israeli intelligence agencies deserve the respect and admiration of every Israeli and of every intelligence professional for their excellent performance in the daily fight against Palestinian terrorism. The level of their penetration into terrorist cells and the rate of success in foiling terror attempts are amazing, especially taking into account that the perpetrators of these attempts are aware of the risks and are taking extreme precautions to avoid exposure.
At the same time, the intelligence agencies are playing an important role on the strategic level in shaping the perceptions and the grasp of reality of the decision makers and the public at large. But in these areas their record is far from stellar. The recent example of the war in Iraq shows how intelligence services in the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel failed to present a perception of Iraq that approximates reality. The reason for the discrepancy in performance between the tactical and operational level on the one hand and the strategic level on the other, lies in the difference between the nature of intelligence that is needed in these two different domains.
In the first domain the intelligence professional traces specific steps that are being taken by the adversary. This is done by collecting concrete information about these steps and developing a system of clear early warning indicators. In contrast, in the strategic domain one has to analyze and understand long term and dynamic political processes and identify political intentions. This is much more difficult, because only seldom are there concrete and reliable data that enable this kind of understanding. Usually understanding stems from analysis of the political behavior of the other party and broad interpretation of the available data, enabling the construction of conceptions that explain the other party’s behavior. But these interpretations and conceptions are deeply affected by prior conceptions and prejudices held by the intelligence analyst.
Another weakness of the intelligence analyst is his inclination to look only at the other party and ignore the role of his own side. This tendency makes it difficult to understand the dynamics of processes in which the actions of the other side are in many cases only a reaction to the actions of the analyst’s side.
These problems explain why, during the last three years of violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, we have repeatedly heard about disagreements between Israeli military intelligence and the GSS (General Security Service) on issues that pertain to understanding of the Palestinian side of the conflict. One salient example is the debate between the two services regarding the initial outbreak of violence. While military intelligence described the intifada as a premeditated and planned act decided by Arafat, GSS analysts tended to see it as a more complex process in which spontaneous reactions and decisions with unintended consequences played an important role.
A second example concerns the understanding of Hamas' behavior in the last couple of months. Military intelligence argues that the leadership of the organization decided to temporarily cease suicide bombings in Israel, while the GSS denies there is such a decision and explains the cessation of Hamas suicide bombings with reference to the successes of the Israeli security community in foiling them.
The decisions of the political leadership in Israel, as well as the views of the Israeli public, are derived to a great extent from their perception of reality. This implies that through their intelligence assessments, the intelligence agencies have considerable influence over policy. This influence is not always benign.
A clear example of the problematic nature of the effect of intelligence assessments is the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecies. If the prevailing intelligence assessment holds that a certain Israeli action will not achieve the hoped for results, then it is only natural that this course will not be followed enthusiastically, leading to its failure. That is exactly what happened during the Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) government and the recent Palestinian hudna, or ceasefire. The prevailing military intelligence assessment was that Abu Mazen’s government would fail to prevent terrorism and would eventually collapse, and that the hudna would not hold. Accordingly the Israeli authorities did not do all they could to help Abu Mazen, and Israel did not restrain its military activities in a way that would afford a better chance of success to Abu Mazen’s government and the hudna, both of which indeed collapsed. One cannot say with certainty that the same results would not have been reached without Israeli actions and abstention from acting, but certainly these had a role in the failures.
Leaders are tested in the way they use intelligence. They have to understand the limitations of the intelligence agencies and the problematic role they sometimes play, and not easily forego their own reasoning and intuition. Because of their experience and the intuition they develop during their political careers, in many cases political leaders have a better and deeper understanding of the leaders on the other side.
Brigadier General (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University. He is one of the Israeli initiators of the Geneva accord.
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