The Mossad’s long arm

Terrorist attacks raise the dilemma of how much Israel should be involved in protecting Jewish communities overseas.

A Belgian paratrooper stands guard outside a Jewish school in Antwerp. (photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
A Belgian paratrooper stands guard outside a Jewish school in Antwerp.
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
MUCH HAS already been said and written about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks at the various ceremonies in Paris in the wake of the terrorist attacks there in early January.
Netanyahu called on the Jews of France to immigrate to Israel, and hinted that Eu - rope, in general, and France, in particular, are not safe for them. His words stirred discomfort in France as well as in Israel.
But the truth is that Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to sound a defiant message to a foreign government or even to the French government, specifically, following a terror attack in which Jews were killed.
One premier who preceded Netanya - hu with such a message, and who did not hesitate to publicly pour out his heart and frustration to that effect, was Menachem Begin, who did so in 1982, after two Palestinian terrorists of the Abu Nidal group carried out an attack in the Goldenberg restaurant in the heart of Paris’s Marais Jewish quarter. The terrorists hurled hand grenades and fired automatic weapons at diners and passersby, killing six people and wounding 22. The attack was then described as “the worst bloodshed experienced by French Jews since World War II.” Begin warned the French government that if it could not protect its Jewish citizens, Israel would have to do so.
Then, and even more so today, terror attacks in which Jews are killed spark fury and solidarity within the Israeli public, but also infuse the Israeli intelligence community and defense establishment – especially the Mossad – with a sense of helplessness.
Every attack of the sort renews the dilemma of how to protect the Jewish communities of the world and inspires profound questions: What can Israel do to help the situation? Should it even be a party to the matter? Should Israel involve itself when a terror attack or anti-Semitic incident occurs in a foreign country? And, if so, how? Covertly or overtly? How is Israel supposed to operate and maneuver in these sensitive matters with - out breaching the sovereignty of the foreign nation involved and without destroying the fabric of its diplomatic relations with the respective nation? The relation - ship between Israel and other states is a tricky triumvirate when it comes to the Jewish community.
From nearly the moment it was established, Israel’s intelligence community saw itself as defending not just Israel, but the Jewish world at large. This outlook was based on the idea that as Israel is the state of the Jewish People, so must Israeli intelligence be “Jewish intelligence.” This meant not just protecting obvious Israeli interests like embassies, companies and citizens abroad; the overarching responsibility for these entities lies with the host nations, but Israel deploys the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) to protect them.
The scope of “Jewish intelligence” goes even further into a gray area – protecting the individual security and safety of Jews who are not Israeli citizens, as well as guarding their property and institutions.
Under the orders of the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, the intelligence community took upon itself the responsibility of liaising with Jews living in countries in which their lives were at risk – Arab and Muslim states, and places that forbade their exit, such as Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This liaison was not just a show of concern for the well-being of Diaspora Jews, but rather enshrined a clear interest – assisting them to immigrate to Israel.
This policy was adopted by the first Mossad chief Reuven Shiloah, and was enthusiastically embraced by his successor, Isser Harel, who replaced him in 1952. It continued, if somewhat less in - tensely, under all the succeeding Mossad chiefs and remains in practice today.
One might ask who are you to do this? Who authorized Israeli prime ministers to decide that what is in the best interest of their state is also in the best interest of the Jews of the Diaspora? And, even more importantly, who assigned them the mission of operating on the Diaspora’s behalf? Only the Jewish communities themselves can request such assistance – and, in most cases, these Jewish communities did not ask for help. And, even were they to make such a request, does any government really have the right to assist an ethnic or religious minority to which it is aligned, when this minority exists under the auspices of a different state? This right, which entails interfering in the internal affairs of a foreign country and encroaching on its sovereignty, is not anchored in international law, which recognizes the right to interfere in an - other country only when based on a UN Security Council resolution or other organization of nations. But Ben-Gurion and his aides did not concern themselves with these petty legal questions. They made a decision that, in their eyes, was natural and necessary.
In effect, the business of what can be called “Jewish intelligence,” or working on behalf of Diaspora Jewry, began even before the State of Israel was established.
During the British Mandate period, an organization called the Mossad L’Aliya Bet was in operation, under the leadership of Shaul Avigdor, to facilitate the immigration of Jews to Palestine. The organization was disbanded in 1952 and its man - date was divided between two new bodies.
One of these groups was known as Nativ, or the Liaison Bureau. It operated under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office and was founded by Avigdor. Nativ was responsible for liaising with Jews in the Soviet Union and its Communist satellites in Eastern Europe.
The second body was called Bitzur, a unit established by the Mossad and responsible for two disciplines: working to bring Jews to Israel from Arab and Muslim states and protecting the security of Jews and Jewish institutions around the world.
Two notable heads of this unit were Shmuel Toledano (in the 1950s) and Efraim Halevy (in the 1970s and 1980s), who later became the director of the Mossad. One of Bitzur’s emissaries Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, was killed in the 1980s outside of his Paris home by a Lebanese terrorist belonging to the George Abdallah faction.
The method used by Bitzur was that it was necessary to create groups of support, or assistance, among the Jewish communities, preferably honed by young people with connections to Israel (members of Zionist youth groups), who could be trusted in their loyalty and ability to keep secrets. These groups were coined “frameworks.” Bitzur used them, when needed, for two main missions: assisting immigration to Israel and as self-defense for the community.
Take, for example, the framework that operated in Morocco in the 1950s (before that North African state received its independence from France, and even afterwards in the 1960s). Its mission was to assist immigration to Israel. The framework in Algeria in the 1960s was focused on defending the community and its institutions from attacks and pogroms carried out by its Arab neighbors.
Bitzur’s covert activities (in conjunction with the Jewish Agency and international Jewish aid organizations, particularly the American Joint Distribution Committee) facilitated the immigration or smuggling of Jews from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in the 1960s and 1970s, and Yemen in the 1990s, as well as the mass immigration operations that brought Jews from Ethiopia and from Iran following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The frameworks were particularly involved in defending the Jewish communities from the threats directed at them by local organizations with anti-Semitic orientations.
They were used, for instance, in Argentina and Uruguay in the early 1960s (particularly in Argentina following the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960).
Israeli military advisers (retired IDF officers) were sent to these countries to help the frameworks by training them in security measures to defend their communities.
Young Jews were brought to Israel for training and, upon return to their home countries, served as the team leaders in the framework.
Bitzur also helped Jewish communities in Western Europe to improve security measures they had been forced to introduce since the 1960s in the face of ever-increasing threats by neo-Nazi and Palestinian groups, and in the last decade against terror threats posed by Hezbollah and fundamentalist Islamic groups. Like their South American counterparts, young West European Jews were sent to Israel to gain training and expertise.
One can assume that Bitzur’s operations were occasionally carried out without the formal knowledge of local governments. If this was the case, the conclusion is that Israeli intelligence was ready to take wide risks even at the cost of damaging diplomatic relations. However, governments are not happy when their sovereignty is encroached. Thus, many countries saw this activity as an infringement of their sovereignty and protested to the government of Israel. In some cases, action was even taken against Israeli security officials operating in these countries.
Meanwhile, the threats to Jewish communities in the 1990s and early 2000s dropped, due in part to fewer anti-Semitic incidents and to the decline in Palestinian terror activities outside of Israel following the Oslo Accords of 1993. Bitzur reduced its activities accordingly and there was discussion within the Mossad whether to disband the unit entirely.
A former senior official in the Mossad told me that at a certain point in the 1990s “we thought we didn’t need Bitzur anymore, that it was an anachronism.” As such, the unit was downsized and barely operated in sub - sequent years. Then came the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, and the rise of the global jihad movement and its terror threats against Jewish and Israeli targets abroad. As far as these global jihad organizations are concerned, there is no difference between Israeli and Jewish targets.
Here is a brief reminder of some of the main terror attacks carried out by jihadi movements against Jewish targets: In April 2002, a suicide bomber detonated his gas- rigged vehicle outside the ancient Ghriba Synagogue in Tunisia; in November 2002, Muslim suicide bombers exploded their vehicle at the entrance to the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, targeting Israeli tourists; in May 2003, terrorists carried out four simultaneous attacks against four Jewish (or Jewish-owned) sites in Casablanca, Morocco; in November 2003, members of an al- Qaida cell in Turkey blew up their vehicles next to the two largest synagogues in Istanbul; and in 2008, Muslim terrorists attacked the Chabad House in Mumbai, India. Furthermore, in the last few years, a number of terror attempts were exposed that had been planned by Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence against Jewish targets in Azerbaijan and other countries.
This wave of attacks in the first decade of the 21st century led then Mossad chief Meir Dagan to decide to place the threat of global jihad and the dangers facing Israel and the Jewish communities as one of the four major issues on the intelligence agenda. Bitzur regained its status within the Mossad.
Still, in the last decade, Israel’s intelligence community has adopted the position that the responsibility for the defense and well-being of Diaspora Jews, as well as the security of their institutions, lies with the security services of the countries in question.
This position has become dominant in part due to improved coordination between Israel’s intelligence organizations and their counterparts abroad, and also due to the increased awareness around the world of the threats and challenges posed by international terror networks. As part of these coordination efforts, the Israeli organizations have tightened their ties with the local security forces around the world charged with ensuring the security of the Jewish institutions in their various states.
Ilan Mizrachi, who served as deputy Mossad chief under Halevy and later as national security adviser (2005-2007), believes the approach taken over the last decade is correct and should not be changed in the wake of the latest terror attacks in Paris.
“Jews in the Diaspora are citizens of the countries in which they live, and it is thus the responsibility of their host country to ensure their safety,” Mizrachi tells The Jerusalem Report . “In addition to that, Jews must know how to protect themselves.”
Asked whether Israel should be involved in providing security for Diaspora Jewry, Mizrachi says, “Israel must know how to send them the clear message that the responsibility for the safety of Jews belongs to the country in which they reside. Israel must not let itself appear as though it is claiming owner - ship of the Jewish citizens of other countries.
Still, at the same time, it must concern itself with ensuring that the Jewish communities are alert and understand the gravity of their situation.”
Mizrachi says he believes that the Jews of Europe are under threat, but that threat is posed far more by anti-Semitism stemming from radical Islam – al-Qaida, Nusra, ISIS – than by traditional Christian anti-Semitism.
“The greatest threat facing Jews comes from the lone wolves,” he says, “the lo - cal Muslim cells that show up suddenly one day, as we saw in Toulouse or at the Jewish museum in Brussels. The lone attacker, or pair of attackers, operating at their own initiative, even without the guidance of an ISIS or al- Qaida headquarters, are problematic for intelligence organizations, which have a hard time collecting information in order to prevent attacks like these.”
As to whether Israel can do more, Mizrachi says, “The communities can always request assistance from Israel to increase their security. The assistance does not need to come from the Israeli government. They can hire private security companies from Israel. But it is absolutely imperative not to let a situation emerge in which a local government is rid of its responsibility to ensure the well-being of Jews.”
Bringing in private security companies from Israel is something that the communities are already doing, but, warns Mizrachi, “it is impossible to protect every Jewish store or office.”
■ Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Ar - mageddon.’ He blogs at and tweets at yossi_melman