Ex-Shin Bet chief tells how he altered the rules for combating terrorism

An exclusive and first-ever English interview with Yoram Cohen.

YORAM COHEN (second from right) sits down with (from right) former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, current IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, former coordinator of government activities in the territories Yoav Mordechai,  (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
YORAM COHEN (second from right) sits down with (from right) former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, current IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, former coordinator of government activities in the territories Yoav Mordechai,
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
In an age of increasing tribal politics and partisanship, Yoram Cohen, the most recent ex-chief of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), is a pragmatist, a throwback to an earlier age.
Where many public figures today are more interested in showmanship and subscribing uncompromisingly to a camp and a specific ideology, Cohen, who is neither loud nor flamboyant, is razor-focused on practical solutions to national security problems.
The chief enforcer of Israel’s legendary homeland security intelligence service from 2011 to 2016 also has a presence and an intensity stemming from his unique experience and knowledge, which tells its own story.
Showing off some of his hard-nosed pragmatism, in his first English-language interview since stepping down, the 58-year-old Cohen agreed to answer the Jerusalem Post Magazine’s questions about his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how and why he altered the rules of the game for combating Jewish terrorism and some key points of his tenure.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Cohen is a realist in every sense of the word.
On one hand, his experience has taught him that the Palestinians’ capability to take over counter-terrorism efforts is very weak, even if Israel gives them land. For this reason, he is opposed to full Palestinian statehood and would only support Palestinian “autonomy plus in Judea and Samaria or a state-minus,” noting Yitzhak Rabin had endorsed a state-minus (where the PA would govern nearly all internal issues that states normally govern, including internal security, but would lack formal sovereignty, since the IDF would still have a hand in external security). He is also opposed to giving Hamas an artificial port off the Gaza coast, which has been supported by some in the Israeli defense establishment.
On the other hand, if there is a final-status deal in the very distant future, he would “not view it as a disaster” if some of the all-Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem “which have no Jewish historical, religious or security value” would be part of a Palestinian autonomous-area. He cited Jebel Mukaber, Sur Bahir, Sheikh Said, Eram, the Shuafat Refugee Camp and Isawiya as examples.
Cohen is against ceding away the Mount of Olives or splitting the Old City.
Also, in the undefined nearer future, if there was sufficient extended quiet, he would even be ready to redefine limited parts of the West Bank from Area C to Area B to show good faith and “which we know for sure will be part of Palestinian areas in a final-status deal anyway.” Area B gives the Palestinians most aspects of control and the idea would be to build new economic projects to boost the Palestinians’ standard of living. In the immediate future, he is in favor of increasing the number of Palestinian workers in Israel and providing their security forces with “means and capabilities to maintain public order but that could not harm Israeli security.”
How does Cohen come to these conclusions? In a series of very clear and hard-nosed assessments.
First, he says, “It is in Israel’s national interest to get to a final agreement with the Palestinians and its representative the PA.”
Despite that point, he said, “In the near future, we cannot get to a final agreement between us and the Palestinians” due to unbridgeable gaps in positions about what that deal should look like, chronic instability and religious extremism in the Middle East.
Next, he notes, “Gaza has been ruled for more than 10 years by Hamas and while its military power is limited,” it has essentially eliminated any alternatives to its rule over Gaza.
Further, he says, “No external force has an interest in conquering Gaza and freeing the residents there from the burden of the murderous terrorist organizations, led by Hamas, that want to destroy Israel.”
Israel is not interested in conquering Gaza, he said, because of the inevitable cost in Israeli soldiers’ and Palestinian civilians’ lives as well as the absence of someone else to hand over control to.
He supports the policy of trying to reduce tensions with Hamas to avoid an escalation into a broader conflict, even “if it hurts someone’s image and looks pareve [mild].” Simultaneously, he says it is important to be watchful “that they do not try to exploit any weaknesses, to maintain deterrence and improve our counter-tunnel defense.”
ALL OF these points lead Cohen to his emphasis on seeking to improve the Palestinian economy, with openness to other offers to the Palestinians down the road if the security situation stabilizes and Hamas remains deterred. At the same time, he would consider facilitating a direct shuttle between Gaza and Jordan without requiring stopping for checks in the West Bank. He adds that at some point, some of these moves toward Hamas should be connected to the return of two Israelis it has captured and the bodily remains of two Israeli soldiers.
He opposes any kind of sea or naval port, viewing them as “a big open door to bring in a much higher quantity and quality of weapons and military equipment and hostile actors.”
Strategically, he is bothered by the idea of giving a big win to Hamas in a way that could undermine the PA. He says that PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas will not bridge their differences in the near future in a way that could reunify the Palestinians, making setting borders difficult. He says Hamas is at most interested only in the Lebanon model where the PA could run some bureaucracies but Hamas would hold the real power.
He disputes claims that Israelis and Palestinians mostly have an understanding on a 90%-plus Israeli West Bank withdrawal for setting borders. Rather, he calls these deals fictional because the Palestinians cannot be trusted with counter-terrorism and have refused all offers on setting borders and security arrangements.
Cohen states that PA counter-terrorism forces “do not have anything remotely similar to Israel in professionalism, technology and motivation” for protecting Israel from Palestinian terrorism. He asks how PA security forces can be trusted when the PA pays salaries to Hamas terrorists in Israeli prisons.
Moreover, he says, “No one can be sure that Hamas will not take over the West Bank by force or by election.”
Next, he says that some ideas for withdrawals of Israeli security forces to the 1967 borders naively rely on technology. Yet, he says mere surveillance cannot block an attack from Bethlehem to a Jewish town that is only five minutes away or fill the gaps from losing boots on the ground.
He does believe that both sides should try harder to restore trust and improve their dialogue, but he accuses the Palestinians of never responding to the US’s 2014 peace ideas and other prior peace offers even when Israel endorsed many ideas.
Yet, looking into the distant future, if there were a final deal, he says that giving a Palestinian entity control of select all-Arab east Jerusalem neighborhoods “could have a benefit for Israel. Then we do not need to pay for their benefits. Anyway, they do not want to be a part of us. They are not like Israeli Arabs. Many of them identify with the Palestinians and some of them act like terrorists, so I would not see that as ‘dividing Jerusalem.’”
COHEN’S LIFELONG pursuit has not been diplomacy, but counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence.
“Combating Palestinian terrorism, particularly Hamas, is the primary focus of the Shin Bet’s efforts and activities. This trend is not expected to change in the near future,” said Cohen.
“Despite the reduction in the volume of terrorist attacks in Judea and Samaria in 2018 as compared to 2017, the Shin Bet has said that it succeeded over the past year in thwarting more than 500 intended significant terrorist attacks, mostly from Hamas – including planned kidnappings, mass killings and shooting attacks.”
Cohen says that Palestinian terrorist “shooting attacks over the past year on roads in Judea and Samaria were the main cause of Israeli deaths, including civilians.”
He says that about 90% of the Shin Bet’s operations are directed toward that goal.
“The rest of the counter-terror efforts are against Hezbollah, ISIS, the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, Israeli-Arab terrorism and also Jewish terrorism,” he states.
Born to parents who made aliya from Herat, Afghanistan in 1951, Cohen joined the Shin Bet in 1982 and was trained in Arabic. From then until he became the chief in 2011, he handled field security, operations in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem – including dramatically reducing terrorism from 2003 to 2005 during the Second Intifada – counter Arab-Iranian terrorism and served as the agency’s deputy chief.
IT IS from this vantage point that he addresses the current Jewish terrorist case that has dominated the headlines for weeks.
While he says the Shin Bet “must deal with Jewish terrorism as full-fledged terrorism and not as a mere public disturbance,” he also emphasizes that nabbing Jewish terrorists saves Jewish lives by stopping escalations that often inflame Palestinian terrorists into overdrive and revenge attacks against Jews in the West Bank.
Importantly, Cohen views the current Jewish terrorism allegations not as something new, but as the evolution of earlier events that cropped up from time to time.
Maybe it is for that reason that, despite himself being an Orthodox Jew, he does not flinch from supporting the Shin Bet in its current and past conflicts with critics on the Right when it interrogates Jews for terrorism allegations.
Giving a detailed history of Jewish terrorism, Cohen says that in the distant past, Jewish terrorism started often as individual uncoordinated and somewhat spontaneous revenge attacks against Arabs following Arab attacks against Jews. These attacks were also to deter future Arab attacks on Jews.
He cites an Arab attack on Beit Hadassah in Hebron as one example in which Jews responded with an attack on Arabs.
Cohen notes that revenge attacks sometimes evolved to “become ideological,” such as plans by Jews “to blow up the Temple Mount to bring the Redemption” by “the Jewish underground.” But often there was no long-term ideology and attacks merely reflected a sentiment of fighting Arabs the same way some Arabs attacked Jews, including crossing lines the government could not cross. 
Cohen says that the rise of Hamas and its suicide bombings, which killed mass numbers of Israeli civilians in a string of sudden blows, changed the map.
Hamas’ attacks eventually led to Baruch Goldstein’s mass murder of 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994, Cohen states, noting that Goldstein’s attack in turn led to an even greater wave of Hamas mass-murder attacks against Israeli civilians, especially in Judea and Samaria.
Ever a man of nuance, Cohen says, “I am not saying without this, attacks [by Hamas] wouldn’t happen,” only that Goldstein poured more gasoline on an already burning flame and that Hamas knows how to exploit such incidents to foment even more terrorism.
NEXT, HE moves to the Second Intifada era, saying that from 1999 to 2005, mass suicide and shooting attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, mostly on Israeli civilians, were much deadlier than the First Intifada and Jewish terrorism increased to new highs in order to respond.
In 2001, he recalls that some police, almost accidentally, caught two Jewish terrorists waiting to set off a bomb at a school next to Mukased Hospital in A-tor in east Jerusalem. Busting these two helped unravel the Jewish terrorist Bat Ayin network.
A small number of Jews cooperated with investigators, but most refused and were released.
This was at a time when enhanced interrogation, administrative detention and preventing meetings with lawyers were not yet typically being used in Jewish terrorist cases.
Cohen acknowledges that current Jewish terrorists, also because there are fewer of them, are far harder for the Shin Bet to probe using conventional police methods. He says that sometimes intelligence has not succeeded in bringing some Jewish terrorists to justice in court.
The above Jewish terrorism trends from different eras, as different as they were, were all basically set against Arabs and “helping” the State of Israel fight battles it was too ethical to fight to achieve deterrence.
A dark weight came over the former Shin Bet chief as he described another strand of Jewish terrorism that eventually made it necessary for the Shin Bet to treat Jewish terrorists more like Palestinian terrorists.
He says that Yigal Amir’s assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 – a Jew murdering a Jew over ideological messianism and commitment to the land of Israel even against the State of Israel – was a new strand of Jewish terrorism. Cohen was also disturbed by statements of incitement against Rabin by some extremist religious leaders that influenced Amir.
ANOTHER CRITICAL point in the evolution of Jewish terror came after the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, says Cohen. He says that the failure of the right-wing religious leaders to stop the withdrawal ultimately radicalized a group of fanatical activists that became the problematic “hilltop youth” phenomenon.
They developed an entire ideology in opposition to the State of Israel and its institutions, since it was ready to demolish (unauthorized) Jewish residences and eventually came up with “the price-tag” strategy, he comments.
When they vandalized Arab cars and property, they would spray graffiti blaming the State of Israel for removing Jewish outposts, says Cohen.
Once some activists saw that “mere” price-tag attacks did not achieve their goals, they realized that due to their small numbers, “they needed an explosion to cause chaos, inter-religious and tribal conflict between Jews and Islam and Christians and other minorities,” he remarks.
This led them to arson attacks on religious symbols like churches and mosques, designed to provoke wide regional conflict.
The 2015 Duma attack cell and affiliates were committed to overthrowing the democratic State of Israel with a “rebellion in favor of a new Jewish Kingdom” theocracy-style regime.
Following Hamas terrorists’ murder of Malachi Rosenfeld in the summer of 2015, some of these activists got even more violent.
This included at least three incidents of attempted murder, of which Duma was the only “successful” one (without counting Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s 2014 murder, which Cohen says was not connected to the movement.)
During this same time, Cohen said that the Shin Bet thwarted hundreds of attempted Palestinian terror attacks and that from 2011 to 2016 around 80 Jews were killed by Palestinians.
Cohen says that Jewish terrorists in Judea and Samaria in the Duma era and their affiliates were “very young; mostly under 18. Many had run away from educational institutions, were on the margins of society and lived in tents or caves, sometimes with no water or electricity in very bad conditions.” 
All of this is an introduction to why Cohen led the push in August 2015, shortly after the Duma attack that killed three members of the Palestinian Dawabshe family, to get greater authorities from the government to come down on Jewish terrorists.
Cohen says that his successful push to get the affiliated Jews defined by the attorney-general’s office as essentially an illegal terrorist organization, freeing them up to use some of the harsher tactics they use on Palestinian terrorists, was targeted at stopping future attacks.
The three arson attacks on residences, all of which could have killed Palestinian or Beduin civilians and including one after the Duma incident, made it clear to Cohen that these Jewish terrorists would not stop with Duma.
He remarks that the Shin Bet always acts as public servants of the state to solve terrorist cases, ignoring any political or ethnic considerations and that displaying these values to the world by catching the Duma Jewish terrorists was an added plus.
Incidentally, he says that the prime minister did not need to weigh in on the specific tools Cohen convinced the attorney-general’s office to approve in interrogations.
Rather, the process was that Cohen or his Shin Bet lawyers presented a series of tools to the attorney-general’s office that might be used to get information from detainees who were refusing to cooperate.
Once the attorney-general’s office agreed that the tools were within the spectrum of reasonable tactics, Cohen decided when to use them.
Cohen notes that after Duma, Hamas carried out a revenge attack that killed the Henkin family. This strengthens his point that it is the Jewish West Bank community that pays when its most extremist elements join Jewish terrorist groups.
He criticizes a group of fanatical religious rabbis who need to internalize this before they blast the Shin Bet for trying to thwart Jewish terrorism – since thwarting Jewish terrorism is going to save some of their lives, even if it will not eliminate Palestinian terrorism.
Cohen vehemently rejects allegations of torture and recalls an unusual list the Shin Bet published in late 2014 of actions it had not undertaken against the Duma suspects, noting that the agency cannot discuss what enhanced interrogation methods it did use without risking undermining its tactics.
REGARDING TWO recent Israeli court decisions that invalidated aspects of confessions of alleged Jewish terrorists because the confessions were viewed as non-voluntary, he makes two points.
First, he says that there could be some rare cases where the Shin Bet’s intent of thwarting terrorism “was the right intent, but afterward the court said the Shin Bet had gone beyond the acceptable framework… then the Shin Bet needs to review itself and make some changes” so the evidence it gathers sticks.
Just as important, though, is his second point. He says that the court validated the Shin Bet as having “followed parameters for stopping future terrorism” and has not acquitted any of the involved defendants. Rather, some or all of the defendants may still get convicted using other evidence besides their confessions.
This brings Cohen to the current allegations of the Jewish terrorist killing a Palestinian woman on October 12 by a stone thrown at her in her car.
Interviewed before the indictment was filed, he said he assumed that the intelligence the Shin Bet has on the Jewish suspects is strong.
Further, the former Shin Bet chief says that even if the measures he took post-Duma bought “a few years with no murdered Palestinians, last year there was a rise, including five to six arsons of Palestinian cars and violence from mainly Yitzhar residents against Israeli security forces.”
To fight and thwart the latest Jewish terrorists, he says it is necessary to “use collection and prevention tools that are more or less identical, with no discrimination” to what are used against Palestinian terrorism.
After more than three decades running the Shin Bet and seeing the ups and downs of mostly Palestinian, but also Jewish terrorism, Cohen would clearly agree with the sentiment that “terror is terror is terror” and would say that critics of the Shin Bet’s treatment of the five minor-suspects in the case need to better learn their history. Only by stopping Jewish terrorism will the Shin Bet save the lives of Jews in the West Bank, he concludes.