The top Shin Bet official who ‘converted’ a Hamas supporter to Judaism

The unimaginably bizarre situation meant that for years this man lived with the dissonance of being both a Hamas operative and an admirer of Judaism.

ARIK ‘HARRIS’ BARBBING: Second to none in recruiting Palestinian double agents.   (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ARIK ‘HARRIS’ BARBBING: Second to none in recruiting Palestinian double agents.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Move over, Fauda.
One could hardly imagine a more surreal scene.
There he was, a top Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) official having smuggled a member of Hamas from the West Bank into Tel Aviv. And the purpose was to help make him feel like he was on the path to converting to Judaism so that he would keep giving them leads to bust terror cells. No, this is no Purim joke.
Arik “Harris” Barbbing just retired about a year ago after 27 years in the Shin Bet, during which he nearly rose to the top of the Israel Security Agency. Tall and imposing, but able to suddenly be gregarious and fit into whatever the situation might dictate, his singular skills are quickly apparent.
In recent years he held positions with awesome responsibilities, such as head of the counter-terror division for all of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, as well as being the first head of the agency’s cyber division.
But over the years, he served in a wide variety of roles. In recruiting Palestinian double-agents, he was second to none.
In order to successfully “turn” Palestinians, especially members of groups like Hamas, against their terror comrades, Harris noted that “you need great chemistry with the person, using emotional intelligence more than IQ.”
Next, “it’s very important that you do not interact from a position of coercion… You need to be sensitive. You need to understand more about where he feels he is missing or needs something. With many agents, they are adventurers. Life is boring and they want more.”
“All of us hide and lie and want more. We want more money, more attention and more love… there is lots of manipulation. Even if you don’t think you want more, I can lead you on. People conceal things that they don’t want to discuss,” said the former top Shin Bet official.
HARRIS SAID that years ago there was one hardened active Hamas terrorist in the southern area of the Judea region who the Shin Bet discovered “had some kind of connection and interest in Jews, a Jewish girl, and even possessed books about Judaism in Hebrew.”
The unimaginably bizarre situation meant that for years this man lived with the dissonance of being both a Hamas operative and an admirer of Judaism.
“He was not just a member of Hamas, he was a big terrorist who collected materials for and manufactured bombs,” he recalled.
The Shin Bet arrested the Hamas operative and he and Harris discussed the paths his life might take from that point.
The Hamas operative told Harris that “he did not want to go to jail. He wanted to convert to Judaism!”
“It wasn’t important whether this was practical. But we told him you can do it, but you need to do it as part of the proper process.
You can do it quietly. But you need to understand – when you are in the process of converting, you can’t act against Jews anymore,” he recounted with a twinkle in his eye.
The Hamas operative objected, “But you kill us!”
Harris and the Shin Bet responded, “If we convert you, then you are a Jew. You’ll help us with small things, to stop terror attacks and improve relations” between the two peoples.
With a wry look, he explained that the Shin Bet “brought him an elderly man wearing a kippa who spoke Arabic as his mother tongue.” This Shin Bet agent was originally from an Iraqi-Jewish background, but the Shin Bet presented him as an Arab who had converted to Judaism. They wanted the Hamas operative to feel that he was not the first convert from an Arab background.
The Hamas operative “believed the story big time, because otherwise he could not explain how the man spoke Arabic so perfectly – like someone who had spoken it even in his youth.”
“Then he helped stop many attacks… in the south Judea areas, including significant Hamas weapons infrastructure for carrying out shootings and kidnappings.”
In the above instance, when Harris brought the Hamas informant to Tel Aviv, he said he was careful to bring him to a location with no wine. Previous Shin Bet experiences showed that some double agents, even as they are ready to turn on Hamas, get uncomfortable when offered wine.
Harris could not reveal how they smuggled the Hamas double-agent into Tel Aviv. But he said there is a clever procedure dating back around 20 years that avoids problems seen in two past incidents. He noted that if Hamas killed a Shin Bet agent “it would be their biggest possible win.”
HARRIS’S UNPARALLELED and up-to-date experience in the Shin Bet also gives him unique insight into the question of who might replace aging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, when frailty or death end his reign.
“Abu Mazen has not picked a successor, so we can’t tell who it will be” for sure, but Harris, narrowed his gaze and listed off some top potential contenders.
First, he discussed Jibril Rajoub. He said Rajoub has “lots of power” as head of the PA’s sports ministry because “soccer is huge for Palestinians and it gives him popularity on the street.”
Rajoub has the benefit of combining a resume of formerly heading the PA’s security services for an extended period with his current street power, he commented.
Next, Harris mentioned Mahmoud Aloul, Abbas’s vice president and Fatah’s head of Nablus. He said that Aloul is “highly influential in northern West Bank areas, while less connected in the southern West Bank.”
Another name he discussed was Majid Faraj, the current head of PA intelligence and the top national security adviser for Abu Mazen. He said that Faraj is “one of Abbas’s closest advisers and a very strong figure.”
Comparing Rajoub and Faraj, Harris said that although Faraj was strong with the security services, Rajoub has done far more to build wide political support.
Next, Harris evaluated PA Civilian Affairs Minister Hasin A-Sheikh, who is a liaison with Israel. He said A-Sheikh “has lots of influence with Abu Mazen and significant power among the public, but not enough independent power to succeed him unless Abu Mazen explicitly selected him as his successor.”
A further potential candidate he discussed was Tawfik Tirawi. On one hand, he said that Tirawi “has significant power in the refugee camps” where the PA is weaker and there is a higher quantity of weapons not tied solely to the PA. On the other hand, all of this partially derives from Tirawi being close to and having the financial backing of Mohammed Dahlan, a former chief of Palestinian security forces.
Dahlan was once thought of as a potential successor of either Yasser Arafat or Abbas. But after a falling out with Abbas, who worried Dahlan was trying to push him out, he was expelled from PA areas. While Dahlan helps provide Tirawi and his allies with money and guards, Tirawi’s closeness to Dahlan could sink his chances of succeeding Abbas.
One fascinating point was a name that Harris disqualified as out of the game. For years, many discussed Marwan Barghouti as a potential successor. Barghouti was a top Fatah official who led the Tanzim forces during the Second Intifada and has managed workable relations with Hamas through contacts he made with their officials while in Israeli prison since 2002.
Harris said Barghouti used to be so powerful that if he called a hunger strike in jail, it could cause a nationwide crisis. However, he said Barghouti has lost some of his following and momentum. After a hunger strike protest around two years ago, Barghouti received fewer concessions than usual and basically has not been publicly heard from since. Between Israel’s determination never to release Barghouti and the 18 years that he has been in prison and out of the active political arena, Harris viewed him as yesterday’s news.
Harris predicted that when Abbas’s reign ends, “there will be no revolution. There is not major tension or fighting between the PA’s factions. But if they have trouble agreeing on someone, this could create a situation where armed groups from Jenin and the refugee camps could influence the PA public using their weapons.”
“Also, attacks on Israel could get out of hand” in that scenario, he warned.
With all of the discussion of succeeding Abbas, Harris said there will be no wide Palestinian election either under Abbas or to succeed him – the PA would not risk this because Hamas’ power could grow unintentionally.
Instead, he said that at most after PA leaders picked a successor for Abbas, they might hold a kind of rigged election simply to endorse the selection.
Asked which of the above candidates Israel would want to succeed Abbas, Harris put up a strong stop sign.
Israel must avoid taking sides at all costs, he stressed, since anyone it signaled it supported would inevitably lose all public support and be tarred as a collaborator.
CROSSING OVER to discussing the implications of US President Donald Trump’s Deal of the Century for the Jewish state and the PA, he said, “As long as Trump is in office, some of the Arab states may help Israel, since they see the Palestinians as a small state… Geopolitical changes have caused the Palestinian issue to be viewed not as the biggest problem. The attention of other Arab states is directed much more at being worried about Iranian expansion. The Sunni-Shi’ite conflict is the biggest issue.”
Beyond that, while he would not analyze many of the plan’s diplomatic proposals, he did analyze its security implications. He zoned in on the question of how any Israeli annexation move in line with the Trump plan could impact security, noting that all the major Israeli political parties support annexing the Jewish settlement blocs eventually, but that the debate is about timing. The Right might like to rush forward now. The Left and Center are more concerned about Palestinian and global acceptance in a negotiated process.
What if a new government moves in the near future to annex, say, the Jordan Valley, before a fully negotiated settlement is reached?
“If you take a big decision, you must ask what it can cause. With the Palestinians, there can be consequences. They could limit or end the security cooperation deals since Oslo,” he said.
This is crucial because, based on his experience, Harris credited the PA with helping thwart up to 20% of terror threats against Israelis emanating from the West Bank.
“But with the security cooperation, you need to understand that the Palestinians’ interest in continuing this is no less than our interest. It helps them to survive versus Hamas. The cooperation is not just for Israel.”
He explained that if there was no IDF and no Shin Bet to crack down on Hamas and essentially protect the PA, their rule could be endangered.
“So the security cooperation is a win-win for both sides.”
If the PA needs the security cooperation so desperately, why does Harris think any Israeli decision could risk the PA canceling it?
Essentially, he noted that security cooperation is not zero-sum. It “can go up and down. Sometimes they are more or less successful,” and that even partial PA willful blindness to terror attacks on Israel could lead to dead Israelis
In terms of whether the simple presentation of the Trump plan would lead to a new intifada, as some had predicted, Harris, who was speaking just after the plan was rolled out, calmly said this would not occur.
He calmly diagnosed how even a few days of multiple terror attacks were really mostly coincidence, spontaneous and not an organized effort.
Without an organized effort, he did not see enough pent-up anger on the street to lead to another lone-wolf intifada and felt the violence would likely subside to standard levels much faster than the 2015-2016 Knife Intifada.
In addition, he said, “Abu Mazen is not for terror. He wants a state.”
Harris agreed with the statement that “diplomatic terror is not terror” and that as disturbing as Abbas’ support is for BDS and International Criminal Court proceedings against Israel, he has been much better than Arafat because “he did not allow terror” (whereas Arafat did.)
On the other hand, he said that Abbas “hasn’t brought the Palestinians a state. He didn’t succeed at anything. There is an expectation the next generation may be able to make changes that he could not.”
HARRIS’S DECADES in the Shin Bet also give him a platform for comparing the eras of the many chiefs he served under.
Avi Dichter (Shin Bet chief 2000-2005), he said, “was one of the big movers” who helped get the West Bank and east Jerusalem security barriers built. Describing the situation before the barrier, he listed off a range of areas in the West Bank that the Shin Bet could throw a security blanket over, while failing sometimes to catch the one needle in a haystack with a bus bomb. He credited Dichter’s push for the wall and his ability to improve joint coordination between the Shin Bet, the IDF and the police for significantly reducing terror.
He complimented Yuval Diskin (chief 2005-2011) for “fully developing the idea of integrating the intelligence community and its collection units in all places, including the quick sharing of intelligence to different locations” for where it would be most relevant.
“We should get a global patent for it. The US and the French didn’t fully know how to do it. Now, they are developing the capability for quick sharing of intelligence among agencies, but we created it.”
He said that Diskin understood “if the Shin Bet, IDF and police were thought of as different units, then we would miss the danger and another bus could explode. The lessons implemented [by Diskin] concretely stopped actual terror attacks. There were many terror attacks where some agency knew something, but didn’t coordinate” intelligence sharing fast enough.
He said that Diskin started using big data mining to fight terror, but that under Yoram Cohen (chief 2011-2016), “there was a huge jump in data mining and developing new kinds of intelligence from that data.”
Cohen “connected data mining with cyber capabilities. Cyber grew under Yoram into its own separate division. He appointed me the first cyber division chief. I then saw how Yoram brought the organization over from classic intelligence abilities like HUMINT (human spies), interrogations [of terrorists] and SIGINT [signal intelligence] from Unit 8200, to a dramatic revolution of combining cyber and intelligence together. Yoram took it much deeper,” he said.
“After we withdrew from Gaza in 2005, for the first time the Shin Bet could not operate freely there. We needed to develop new capabilities” to stay on top of intelligence there and “cyber kills geographic obstacles. Yoram pushed harder to find many new ways to detect and stop terror from Gaza, and even from Sinai,” noting that Egypt president Hosni Mubarak allowed a Beduin area to become infested with ISIS.
“Bibi built a fence” on the Sinai border, but there was still the ISIS-Beduin terror attack on a nearby road. “Yoram jumped on collecting intelligence not just with men in the field,” but also in carrying out targeted killings and other operations even without an agent in the field. Sometimes waiting for an agent could take an hour and a counter-terror opportunity would be lost, he elaborated.
Under current Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman, in office since 2016, and who Harris worked directly with until about one year ago, he said, “there were new jumps in using technology.”
He said that Argaman patented some new “more daring methods of action, substantial reorganization” of the Shin Bet’s different units to “make things more tailored to specific threats” and internal changes to address new challenges, as well as making the agency “much more open to the media and the public.”
Noting that the Shin Bet’s website shares more information than ever, he also said that Argaman is participating in far more conferences, like Cybertech, than in the past.
THIS LED to a discussion about changing times in terms of the Shin Bet and Israeli intelligence in general partnering more with the private sector.
“We don’t need to develop whole new technological systems ourselves. We can buy them from the private sector, from start-ups and then make the necessary modifications for our needs.”
There are still some issues where humans outperform cyber. Harris gave a fascinating accounting of how – based on social media posts – the Shin Bet decides when to arrest someone or when to just give them a warning. One might expect that the more violent the post sounds, the more likely the Shin Bet will arrest someone. Yet, even as the Shin Bet does use cyber and machine-learning abilities to collect social media information, the decision about what to do is always still made by human analysts.
He explained that only human analysts can weigh the complexities of an individual case to estimate whether prison is necessary or whether prison might harden a teenager into a terrorist who, until now, just wanted to express angst loudly on social media. In such cases, a warning call to the teenager’s parents about their posts might do far more good both for the teenager and for Israeli security long-term.
These calls with potential lone wolf-attackers, recruiting double-agents and maximizing new cyber abilities are just some of the ways that Harris helped keep the country safe in recent decades.