Amir Rapaport’s Column: HUMINT Returns to Gaza

What is the connection between the return of human intelligence and Operation Golden Hand? How long will Hezbollah continue to deter Israel in the north? Why does the Israel-Syria-Jordan triangle cause deep concern in the defense establishment? And who is afraid of the Rafah occupation?

In the autumn of 2000, the IDF Central Command conducted an extensive series of preparations for an impending severe security escalation in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). These were the days following the failure of the Camp David Summit between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat.

The situation was still entirely calm, but the preparations included providing defense measures alongside numerous exercises - from squad and battalion level training to the entire command level.

The preparations were so comprehensive, that when the Second Intifada broke out, after Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount at the end of September, the Palestinians struggled to inflict significant losses on the IDF. In fact, the significant casualties on our side occurred only after a wave of suicide bombings began, in addition to widespread mass disturbances.

I came to think of the tense summer of 2000, as the Central Command is currently in the midst of similar extensive preparations, anticipating a potential surge in terrorist attacks in the coming weeks.

At the moment, there isn't loud talk about a "Third Intifada," but concerns are mounting about escalation leading up to the month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10th.

This year, Ramadan is considered particularly sensitive (it has historically been a time of unrest in previous years), due to the ongoing conflict in Gaza and because Iran is flooding the West Bank with weapons and money smuggled through the long borders with Jordan. This money is intended to fuel terrorism.

As part of the comprehensive preparations for the potential wave of terrorism, some details became public due to the use of the term "enemy staging," which simulates a kidnapping by settlers in one of the exercises conducted so far (the IDF apologized for the use of the term).  

In the coming days, the climax will arrive: the Central Command will hold the concluding exercise that will examine preparedness across all sectors, as well as the command and control measures.  At the community level, preparedness will be examined against scenarios of mass attacks, some "inspired" by what happened in the western Negev settlements on that bitter morning of October 7th. This will be one of the most comprehensive exercises conducted by the Central Command.

Generally, despite the similarities in the command’s preparation between these days and 2000, there are still two significant differences: back then, we were living in relative calm, whereas today we are in the midst of a war in the Gaza Strip, which is perceived by many Palestinians in the West Bank as a victory over the Jews and as a model to emulate.

On the other hand, in 2000, Yasser Arafat instructed the Palestinian security forces to sever contact with Israel and effectively participate in the chaos.

In 2000, the Intifada erupted with the killing of an Israeli Border Police officer by a Palestinian police officer in Kalkilya. Today, the mechanisms, at least for now, are at the height of a wave of arrests of Hamas members, alongside the ongoing operations of the IDF and Border Guard forces themselves.

Additionally, in recent days, the Palestinian security forces uncovered explosives planted on the sides of roads and dismantled them. They are acting against Hamas out of concern that it will seize control of the West Bank as it did in Gaza in 2007, and not out of love for Israel.

It is also important to note that within the IDF and the Shin Bet, there's a consensus that the worsening economic situation in the West Bank, due to the cessation of work permits in Israel, significantly increases the risk of a terror wave. Sure, this could be a false concept (the Second Intifada, for example, broke out during an economic boom). Yet it's difficult to ignore the clear professional stance of the central defense bodies - although, for now, the government is ignoring it.

And one more thing about the Central Command: It seems that decades of almost complete quiet along our eastern border with Jordan are coming to an end. The IDF will reassess its readiness along the border anew. It is important to understand that this is a border stretching over no less than 300 kilometers, and the patrolling forces are sparse. Lately, it seems that the IDF and the Jordanian army are greatly struggling to block the influx of people across the border. So far, it's been mainly for smuggling purposes, but there's a possibility that in the next stage, attacks may also come from within Jordanian territory.

There is also particular concern regarding what's happening in the triangle between Israel, Jordan, and Syria in the north, where Jordanians are overwhelmed by thousands of people attempting to infiltrate their territory, whether on foot or by vehicle. The concern is that some of these individuals are affiliated with Shiite militias or ISIS and may attempt to cross the border into Israel.

The concern about the situation in the sector is the reason behind the recent proactive step by the IDF, which deployed a highly qualified reconnaissance battalion for operations along the Jordanian border. The unit was transferred directly from the central battlefield in Khan Yunis.

All eyes on Rafah

Regarding the events in the main battlefield, the Gaza Strip, the heroic operation to rescue the hostages Fernando Marman and Luis Har drew the most attention this past week. We will touch on its main lesson, which is positive, for a change: the remarkable comeback of human intelligence, or HUMINT.

But first, a general overview of the fighting.

This past week, the Nahal Brigade (under Division 162) continued dissecting the Gaza Strip from north to south, based on the "Netzarim Axis" from Be'eri towards the sea. In the part north of the axis, the IDF is already conducting raids, as part of the war’s “Phase C.” Towards the end of the week, the combat teams of the 5th and 401st Brigades, (under Division 162) completed two weeks of incursion focused on the Shati area in western Gaza.

Just for comparison, when the IDF captured the northern part of the Gaza Strip at the beginning of Tammuz, it required three brigades. This time, two divisions were sufficient for the operation. The division of the city of Gaza from side to side lasted for many days in November.

This week, similarly, from side to side, it took only two hours. Alongside the rapid operation, dozens of terrorists in Gaza were killed from the air and sea. They were targeted from a distance by the 2015 Fire Brigade.

It appears that the IDF will soon embark on further incursions into the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the 143rd Division, responsible for territorial defense against the entire Gaza Strip, continues to build the buffer zone against the Strip, while the main fighting still focuses on the siege of Khan Yunis and the underground battle there.

The fighting continues to take a heavy toll. Among those killed in battle last week were two Golani Brigade soldiers who were hit by an anti-tank missile, and three reservists, including the commander of a company from the 646th Brigade, who didn’t manage to get out on time from a trapped building before it collapsed. Dozens were also wounded in this event.

Above ground, the fighting still focuses on the systematic elimination of Hamas assets and tightening the siege from all directions of the city. On Thursday, the IDF completed its takeover of the Nasser Hospital, the central hospital in Khan Yunis, where bodies of hostages were reportedly held, and perhaps also living hostages.

The main drama in Khan Yunis continues to unfold underground. The footage of Yahya Sinwar wandering through tunnels beneath the city with his family, from October 10th, is just a preview of what could happen between the Hamas leader and our forces if they encounter each other in areas where they see the whites of each other’s eyes.

In parallel to the siege of Khan Yunis, which seems to continue until the "moment of truth," the IDF is finalizing operational plans for the occupation of Rafah - the last central city in the Gaza Strip that has not yet been captured. Under Hamas' Rafah Brigade, there are still four battalions, which have so far faced minimal damage.

The battalions of Rafah are not considered the elite forces of Hamas. The biggest military challenge in occupying the urban space is precisely because it is densely populated by over a million refugees from the north, most of whom fled from the northern part of the Strip as early as October – in addition to approximately 200,000 original residents of the city.

It can be estimated that reports of the planned occupation of Rafah include a considerable amount of disinformation, which is characteristic of psychological warfare in wars. Some of the disinformation, most likely, is intended to exert pressure on Hamas as part of the ongoing negotiations regarding the exchange of hostages for prisoners - but they also contain a significant kernel of truth.

Without the occupation of Rafah and preventing future smuggling between the Gaza Strip and Egyptian territory, the IDF will not achieve the goal of weakening Hamas' rule and demilitarizing the Gaza Strip.

Who is against the occupation of Rafah?

Probably not many. Even the Americans will not try to stop this, as long as Israel promises the timely evacuation of the population and a humanitarian disaster is prevented.

I asked Brigadier General (res.) Amos Gilead, who accumulated the most hours in his long tenure as the head of the Political-Military Bureau at the Ministry of Defense (and today heads the Center for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University), whether an operation in Rafah could jeopardize the stability of the peace agreement with Egypt.

Gilead replied that yes, such a danger exists. "The Egyptians view the mass entry of Palestinians into their territory as a strategic threat. They will prevent such a scenario by any means. At the same time, their security coordination with Israel is at high levels. Challenging the peace agreement with Egypt could also negatively affect the stability of peace with Jordan," he said.

Adding a positive perspective on the overall situation, Gilead said that "Within all the harsh reality of war, we have a rare opportunity to stabilize a significant axis together with the moderate Sunni world in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, with the full backing of the United States.

“This could certainly turn the lemons into lemonade, but unfortunately, I don't see any indication that the Prime Minister is working to seize this opportunity, because the political echelon has not presented any plan regarding the ‘day after’ in the Gaza Strip.

HUMINT’s comeback

In the north, it was a tough week for the IDF, mainly due to the missile strike that caused one fatality and eight injuries at the Northern Command base near Tzfat on Wednesday.

This was a humiliating blow, coming in response to a series of severe attacks in southern Lebanon the day before. Of course, the IDF responded with a strong strike of its own, meanwhile without "breaking the rules," although the Chief of Staff again spoke about preparations for a possible comprehensive war against Hezbollah when he visited the north hours after the strike on the Northern Command headquarters.

Until the expectations for war are realized (if they are indeed eventually realized), it can be said that Hezbollah is deterred – but the opposite also holds: Israel, too is deterred by the arsenal of weapons that Iran has deployed along our northern border. This arsenal also includes precise anti-tank missiles with a range of up to ten kilometers. A mother and son were severely injured by a rocket strike on Kiriyat Shmona on Tuesday.

The threat of the anti-tank missiles directly targeting northern communities is the reason Israel is demanding the withdrawal of Hezbollah forces from the northern border up to the range of the missile, as part of implementing a new reality. This is despite UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which, following the Second Lebanon War in 2006, mandates that all Hezbollah forces should be located exclusively north of the Litani River line.

The issue is that the distance of the Litani River from Israel is not uniform. From the north to Metula, the Litani River is only about 3 kilometers from the border. In contrast, in the western sector, from the north to Nahariya, the distance is no less than 30 kilometers. Israel's current demand from Lebanon is for a 10-kilometer zone without Hezbollah’s Radwan Forces, stretching from west to east.

However, last week’s attack is Hassan Nasrallah's current response to the demand: No. Hezbollah does not intend to cease the limited fighting against Israel before the war in Gaza ends.

Back to Rafah.:49 a.m. was the precise moment when the raid by the Yamam and the operational unit of the Shin Bet, with extensive backup from the IDF, transformed the quiet into "roaring" in the heart of the Shabura neighborhood.

Much has been reported in the press about what happened from that moment onward, but I will focus on the fact that the operation is evidence of the return of human intelligence (HUMINT) - which is based, among other things, on information gathered in investigations, in the field, as opposed to technological intelligence based on signals, such as interpreting communication frequencies or cyber operations.

For such an operation, it can be assumed that every detail about the apartment where the hostages were held, and what would happen at each point along the route – to the destination and along the way – needed to be known. No detail is left to chance, or imagination.

Indeed, for decades, HUMINT was a central tool of the Shin Bet for gathering quality intelligence across all sectors. However, one of the consequences of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was the severance of direct contact between the organization and its sources, the agents in the field.

The disengagement made it difficult to recruit new sources and, primarily, resulted in a lack of quality investigations within the Shin Bet for years. Investigations are the foundation upon which the HUMINT network relies because, during each investigation, names of individuals emerge who can be further investigated to gather information about additional terrorism suspects, who in turn could lead to more suspects and so forth. This process was interrupted.

In addition to the disengagement, the Shin Bet also underwent a technological “addiction.” This process was accelerated during the tenure of the last two Shin Bet directors - Ronen Bar, the current head, and Nadav Argaman before him - both of whom emerged from operational systems within the organization that viewed technology as the preferred solution to any challenge. Before them, the Shin Bet was led exclusively by heads who emerged from field operations, who worked directly with agents.

Naturally, during the years of Nadav Argaman and Ronen Bar as heads of the Shin Bet, individuals from operational and technological systems were promoted throughout the organization, from divisions to specialized units to departments. Anything technological received absolute budgetary preference, even in matters concerning human resources.

The role of intelligence coordinators, who remained primarily under the Jerusalem District (there were no field coordinators in Gaza when the war broke out, due to the circumstances), is difficult and demanding, under all weather conditions, and in hostile territories. Sometimes danger is involved. But the highest salaries – at times, special contracts of tens of thousands of shekels per month – were given to the technological staff, just so they agree to leave the booming high-tech market and come, even for a few years.

The heads of the southern region of the Shin Bet, equivalent to a major general in the IDF ranking, in the years preceding the war, were "Yaniv" (a nickname, not a real name), who also served as head of the Jerusalem region before that and retired in July 2021. He passed the position onto A., another senior member whose luck landed him in a central role on October 7, 2023, thus becoming "stamped" on one of the biggest failures in Israel's history.

It can be assumed that even in the years preceding the 2023 war, the Shin Bet still operated human sources.  Yet, generally speaking, HUMINT faced a decline. The fact that 3,000 Nokhba terrorists raided the western Negev on October 7th without any human source in the Shin Bet warning of the expected event is the decisive proof of this.

However, since the ground incursion in Gaza, things have changed. The Shin Bet has resumed deep operations in the Gaza Strip. Its personnel participate in every operational activity and bring back high-quality intelligence information.

Some of the information also comes from thousands of interrogations around the clock, with almost every day bringing Hamas members for interrogation at a facility in the Negev. Directly from the field. There is no doubt that HUMINT has returned to its central position, big time.

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