The Israel Security Agency was established soon after the founding of the state; however its functions, structure and powers were not comprehensively legislated until 2002. It’s motto, inscribed on the organization seal, is “Defends and Shall Not Be Seen.” Until this time, they were decided by governmental decisions alone. Over the years, various powers granted to the ISA had been anchored in law, such as the 1979 Wiretapping Law, the 1981 Protection of Privacy Law, and others. Nonetheless, these laws were specific and limited in scope, while the overall status, structure, functions and powers of the ISA, as well as the method of supervising its activity, were defined only with the passage of the ISA Statute.
On June 30th, 1948, a month after the establishment of the IDF, and in the middle of the War of Independence, the Haganah Intelligence Service was called to a meeting. Its commander, Isser Be’eri, announced the dissolution of the Intelligence Service, and the reorganization of the secret services.
In this way, the Israeli intelligence community, which consists of the following bodies, was established:
a) The Intelligence Service, serving as army intelligence and including counterintelligence, later to become “Aman.”
b) The “Political Division,” responsible for intelligence operations abroad, later to become the “Mossad”
c) The Internal Intelligence Service – later to become the ISA, under Isser Harel. Its primary responsibility included all issues of internal security, most importantly, the countering of right-wing political subversion.
The danger of a civil war seemed to the prime minister at the time, David Ben Gurion, real and imminent, and much more dangerous than the damage that could be caused to the state and the police by espionage or by Arab subversion.
This fear regarding the weakening of governmental authority only increased following the Altalena affair and the assassination of UN representative Count Bernadotte, immediately after the establishment of the state. On February 8th, 1949, the existence of a Security Service was established for the first time in official law, although it was not revealed to the public until 1957. The Service was entrusted with further missions, including the countering of espionage and subversion in the Arab sector, and the responsibility for the security of vital institutions and infrastructure within Israel as well as in embassies abroad.
The ISA was spread geographically throughout the country, and was aided by several hundred employees active as case officers, interrogators, operations officers, Sigint producers, analysts, technology and administrative staff, security officers, and security guards.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the ISA’s primary activity was to aid the military administration, to counter extremist right and left-wing underground groups, and to uncover foreign agents, largely from Arab countries and from Eastern Europe, who had been planted in Israel.
Since 1967 the ISA has doubled its power and strength in Judea and Samaria, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, with the purpose of preventing terrorist activity on the part of the residents of the territories. Following the hijacking of the El Al plane to Algiers in 1968, and the murder of the Israeli sportsmen and sportswomen in the Munich Olympics, the ISA established a worldwide security apparatus, in order to protect Israeli targets from the growing terror threats.
The 1980s and 1990s were characterized by continued struggle against terrorist activity, aid provided to the IDF in Lebanon, the exposure of the “Jewish Underground,” the exposure of a number of cases of espionage and treason, and wide-ranging involvement in the political process granting autonomy to the Palestinians, which included continuous contacts with PA officials.
In addition to numerous successes which remain classified information, the ISA has also known difficult times: the “Bus 300” Affair; painful terrorist attacks in Israeli cities which exacted high prices in lives; and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Since then, the organization has learned lessons and implemented conclusions, and has placed great emphasis on being a body that places top priority on self-evaluation and drawing conclusions from the past.
The Al-Aqsa Intifada, which began in September 2000, set off a wave of violent terror unprecedented in the history of the state. The ISA successfully and efficiently adapted its human, operational and technological resources in order to stand at the forefront of the intense battle to counter these terror attacks.
In February 2002 the Israeli parliament established the “ISA Statute” – a step which was taken due to an initiative by the ISA itself, which accompanied the entire process of legislation.
Hostile activities, unfortunately, have not ceased, however the ISA’s contribution to state and public security, especially in minimizing fatalities, have earned high praise in the security apparatus and amongst the public. The ISA and its employees continue, as always, to serve as the hidden shield of the people of Israel.
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