Anyone who ever read a Daniel Silva spy novel or watched “Fauda,” “Mission Impossible,” “James Bond” or “Get Smart” has got to be intrigued by the workings of the intelligence community. There’s even more to learn in Israel, the country with a history of bold incursions to abscond with truckloads of Iranian data, foiled terrorist plots, missions to rescue Jews in trouble, dangerous worldwide hunts for Nazis and deadly terrorist targeted executions.
The Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center (IICC) is one of the best-kept secrets in Israel. It contains a treasure trove of information about the intelligence community in Israel, that is imparted to visitors by actual members of the Mossad, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and Military Intelligence. And, no worries, if they tell us about it, they will not have to kill us.
The Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Unit is the largest of the three organizations, responsible for analyzing and disseminating classified and unclassified information. Similar to the FBI, the Shin Bet, also known as the Shabak, works within Israel, however agents have been known to track terrorists wherever they may be. The Mossad, similar to the CIA, works abroad and deploys and manages assets and agents all over the world. Nativ is a special division that helps to collect and airlift Jewish asylum-seekers from dangerous, war-torn areas to freedom in Israel.
Nestled in a corner of Ramat Hasharon, just feet from Mahane Herzog, a training facility for intelligence officers, the IICC has a high-level advisory board consisting of intelligence experts from all three organizations. The facility has an educational arm, including events for special needs and disadvantaged youth from the periphery of the country, some of whom eventually join the intelligence community.
The search for potential recruits begins as young as age 16 in Israel, and the few, the proud and the exceptional become agents, analysts and cyber experts. There are many aspects to collecting, analyzing and disseminating information, so the intelligence community is multi-faceted. According to Brig. Gen. Yuval Halamish, former IDF chief of intelligence and CEO of the IICC, all student visitors have lots of questions, and their visits can last three to five hours.
Founded in 1985 by the family of Yehoshua Sagi, an Israeli intelligence officer who served as director of the Military Intelligence Directorate and as a Knesset member, the center opened in 1999 and features a Memorial Labyrinth that represents the human brain, just as the intelligence faction represents the operations center of the country. Names of deceased agents are memorialized on the walls of the maze.
Because of the nature of intelligence and espionage, many of the officers remain anonymous and don’t make it onto the wall, and many of the ones who do have stories to tell from beyond the grave. Over 750 fallen intelligence personnel have been inscribed on the wall to date, and albums documenting their lives are housed in an adjacent building that also has a synagogue with special Torah scrolls, one rescued from the Holocaust, the other, a 147-year-old Torah from a synagogue in Damascus, Syria, that was rescued after a bombing.
Nina, who was a member of the Mossad and is one of the volunteer guides, was two when that synagogue, just feet from her house, was bombed one Yom Kippur.
“I ran to the synagogue and saw my father covered with blood,” she remembers. “I was only two and a half years old, but the memory is clear and strong. My father told me to go but I stayed behind the heavy wooden door and watched him pulling worshipers out of the flaming building.”
For Nina, working for the Mossad came naturally. She speaks seven languages fluently. Her father worked for the Mossad, and so did some other relatives, but they never spoke of their work at home. Neither, she said, did she.
“My children never knew where I worked,” she recalls. “Just that I worked for ‘the office,’” she explained. “My children thought I worked with children with special needs. I never spoke about my work to anyone.
“No other country has opened their intelligence to the public the way we have here,” she continued. So why do they do it? “We provide information on the delegitimization of Israel in the world. We show the booty—documents and weapons we have confiscated. The IICC allows its visitors to enter the secret world of Israeli intelligence.”
A visit begins with a tour of the Commemoration Labyrinth, narrated by veteran intelligence personnel, who share stories of the agents and assets who died. They infuse the talk with their own personal stories of successful intelligence coups.
Nina pointed out the name of a Druze agent, Mahmoud Kessem Sayid Ahmed, who was blown up by a listening device in November 1956 in Syria. He went back to check if the device was on and triggered a failsafe, causing the detonation.
Historical wars reflect historical intelligence successes, for instance, the Six-Day War is called “Three hours in June” by the intelligence community. Nina remembers when Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser sent in a spy to act as if he were an Israeli asset. The Israelis identified him because he did not speak French, and fed him fallacious information about a planned attack at the entrance to the Red Sea. As the Egyptian army amassed at the Red Sea, the Israeli Air Force attacked the airports and trashed the runways while the Egyptian pilots were eating breakfast, grounding the Egyptian air force. After intercepting a distress call from Egypt to Jordan, the Israelis were able to capture Judea and Samaria and eastern Jerusalem.
The group moved on to visit the synagogue and the room featuring albums put together by bereaved families, and watched a half-hour multi-media show called “The Power of Knowledge” that dramatizes how Israel’s intelligence community deals with current threats. It culminates with a visit to the museum and an introduction to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which conducts research and analysis and, according to Naava Reich, head of the library, houses the most robust trove of unclassified intelligence documents and source materials in the world.
The center is used by academics and students of all ages, by lawyers gathering information for trials, journalists and members of the intelligence community itself. The center, which also houses captured materials from the Yom Kippur War, will be commemorating its 50th anniversary soon.
How is it that the center can make these resources public?
“The bad guys already know about these things,” said Reich.
Millions of pieces of information come into the Israeli intelligence community each day.
“The technology to analyze it is very complicated,” explained Nina. But she said Israel’s tech resources are all geared to cull the data and flag important information.
Unlike Washington D.C.’s International Spy Museum, which enables visitors to “go undercover and test your spy skills at eight different digital interactives,” create spy gizmos and experience spy gadgets, crack codes and conduct surveillance missions, this facility is decidedly low-tech and non-interactive, and rests on the laurels of Israel’s outstanding intelligence achievements. Its museum features real materials used in UNESCO-funded Palestinian Authority classrooms, that alter maps and delete all mentions of Israel, which totally violates all UNESCO agreements.
Also on display are knives and daggers collected from terrorists, armed kites flown from Gaza and munitions captured from the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara that prove the true nature of the Gaza “Freedom” Flotilla, as well as weapons from the Karine-A, an Asian ship filled with Iranian weapons that were being transported to Gaza, without the knowledge of many aboard.
However, noted the veteran Mossad agent Nina, the most dangerous weapons are also often the most intangible.
“It is easy to fight a tank or a rifle,” she explained. “It is not easy to fight a belief.”
She remembered being called in to interview a female suicide terrorist that had been arrested before she could finish the job.
“I am married unhappily and live with my in-laws,” the woman explained in Arabic. “My husband beats me. I have no money and I want to know that my children will be taken care of. If I martyr myself the P.A. will take care of them.”
Nina mentioned a video showing a very young Palestinian child reciting every capital of every country. When his father asked about Israel, the child looked up puzzled. “There is no Israel,” he exclaimed.
She pointed out that providing the proof, the sources, the booty collected from Israel’s enemies helps to legitimize Israel’s existence, and that this is one of the missions of the IICC.
According to CEO Halamish, representatives of the International Spy Museum recently toured the IICC facility and were treated to firsthand looks at Israel’s northern borders and the Hezbollah-built tunnels at Rosh Hanikra. He said the center is working on a new exhibit that will be introduced at the end of October and will feature a historical look at Israeli intelligence.
Recently, the American Friends of The Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center (AFIICC) was established by its president and founder Igal Zaidenstein as a 501(c)(3) American nonprofit organization.
AFIICC is dedicated to bringing awareness of IICC’s mission, raising funds for IICC projects and activities, helping IICC to achieve its mission and serving as a liaison between the American Jewish community and the organization in Israel.
Zaidenstein said, “We expect the AFIICC to bring great value and inspiration to the American Jewish community about Israel intelligence forces and their contributions to the State of Israel and the world to help Israel in fighting against BDS by providing accurate and high-level information.
“We also expect to connect young generations through learning about Israeli intelligence with speaking engagements and movies as well as educating and updating the Jewish community about the current situation in the Middle East and facilitating visits of different groups from the U.S. to the center to introduce them to the mission of the IICC.”