There are several thousand of them, sitting in dozens of hidden military outposts somewhere in Israel, with headphones and powerful computers, collecting all kinds of information that help the long arm of the security forces to thwart terror attacks, find the vulnerabilities of the enemy, and track suspicious movements on an international scale. They monitor messages, break codes, and translate, process, and analyze the material. They’re considered the best minds in the military; IDF recruiters had been eyeing their proficiency and talent since high school. These soldiers don’t fight in combat units and never face the barrel of a gun, but they serve as Israel’s real front line of defense.
Israel’s powerful position in the Middle East is often associated with its armed forces, its assumed nuclear weapons arsenal and its covert worldwide Mossad operations. But at the heart of it all is Unit 8200, Israel’s intelligence corps, arguably the best military intelligence gathering apparatus in the world. The innocuous name comes from the number on its military post office box, yet in secret installations from the Urim base in the Negev desert to a mountain cavern on the Hermon close to the Syrian border, soldiers monitor governments, international organizations, foreign companies, political organizations and individuals. They intercept phone calls, e-mails, maritime communications, and satellite transmissions from local terror hotbeds and all over the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia — the Urim base in the Negev is said to run the largest wiretap network in the world. Unit 8200 also reportedly maintains covert listening posts in Israeli embassies abroad, taps undersea cables, maintains covert listening units in the Palestinian territories, and has Gulfstream jets equipped with electronic surveillance equipment. And all that information is funneled to Unit 8200 headquarters in Herzliya, where it’s processed and passed onto military strategists, the GSS, the Mossad, the police, and other bodies responsible for the security of Israel and its citizens.
If Unit 8200 sounds too “politically incorrect,” that doesn’t seem to bother most Israelis. It’s considered the most prestigious military unit in the IDF, its soldiers are handpicked (8200 gets first-choice pick of recruits after candidates are selected for pilot training), and the unit’s graduates are snapped up by high-tech and other companies after their discharge. Many job offers in the highly competitive civilian market will specifically advertise “for 8200 alumni only.” And it’s no coincidence that numerous successful high-tech start-ups originate with Unit 8200 graduates: Many of the technologies developed in Israel and in use around the world were originally military technologies and were developed and improved by Unit 8200 veterans.
But while those veterans might be high-profile with a gold ticket into the job market, the unit’s soldiers while still in uniform aren’t even allowed to disclose where they’re stationed. Although these soldiers are responsible for collecting electronic intelligence, for operating a surveillance and translation network, interpreting and analyzing information and formulating it into effective intelligence data which saves lives and prevents casualties, no one on the outside knows what they do.
Years ago, even discharged soldiers weren’t allowed to disclose where they’d served. Everyone just assumed they were “jobniks” with paper-pushing desk jobs, and people claim the code name of the unit in those days — “515” — was a reference to their supposed lifestyle: coming in the morning and leaving every day at 5:15 p.m.
These soldiers still have eight-hour shifts, but those shifts go round the clock, during which the signals intelligence (SIGINT) operators are glued to their headsets, listening for suspicious transmissions, broadcasts, conversations, or any other hint of foul play. In the Urim base in the Negev, satellites pick up transmissions from around the Middle East. In the cave-like structure on Mount Hermon, initial information from Syria gets processed, as antennas intercept signals that undergo decryption in technology networks and end up in the listening center, where the information is passed on to the heads of military intelligence and to military divisions in the field.
It’s no secret that Israeli intelligence is tops on the international front, but Unit 8200 is also vital in fighting local terror and protecting soldiers in war. Last summer’s Gaza war was no exception. “When Operation Protective Edge broke out, I had already been discharged from regular service,” S. tells Mishpacha one year later, in a conversation filtered by the information security officer that sits in on every authorized interview, which we were fortunate to be granted — as he’s no longer in active service. “But I have personally developed some of the systems used by the IDF’s data collection units, and not too many people knew what I did about operating them, so I was deployed to the command center right outside of Gaza. I spliced the information I got from the central unit with that from the front, and that’s how the commanders got the high quality intelligence that helped them decide what to do — when to avoid face-to-face combat and when not, which houses were booby-trapped, and which buildings had to be taken down immediately because they were harboring snipers or missile launchers.”
According to S., who is Torah-observant in a yarmulke and tzitzis, no tunnel was imploded before it was checked out by the intelligence corps, and the real-time intelligence meant dozens of lives were saved. “In one instance, I provided information that saved a tank that was about to be bombed, and instead led to the liquidation of a terrorist. It’s still a little hard for me to fathom. I mean, who am I? True, we’re well trained, but I must tell you, it’s clear to me that Hashem puts wisdom into our heads.”
- says it’s like a contest, only the stakes are higher. “The enemy also thinks and is also constantly advancing technologically, so we’re always in this race against time to update our systems. We always have to be a step ahead.”
- says the hardest thing about the service is the weight of responsibility on your shoulders, responsibility for human life. “It’s hard to sleep when you know that fighters are carrying out military operations based on the data you provided. You’re constantly thinking, ‘Did we make a mistake in the assessment? Can soldiers die because of us now?’ We’re really their ears and eyes, and I don’t think there’s anyone in the unit that, in his own way, doesn’t daven for siyata d’Shmaya.”
One day during last summer’s fighting, S. had been granted a leave, but no sooner had he pulled up in front of his house than he was summoned back to base — the system that streams important information to the commanders in the field collapsed. “Say goodbye to your family and come right back,” his superior ordered. S. zoomed back, and within half an hour, the system was back up and running.
A week later, S. met a friend from a combat unit, who told him how the troops were supposed to carry out a certain operation but it was delayed because there was a lack of accurate intelligence due to a glitch in the system. “After the system began functioning again,” his friend told him, “we were informed of several changes in the orders because of new information. If we wouldn’t have gotten that information, we would have been slaughtered.”
What S. wanted to say was something like, You think I have some cushy desk job, but I saved your life. But of course, he didn’t say a word. In Unit 8200, silence is the name of the game. “Your work saves lives, but you can’t tell anyone about it. Ever.”
Unit 8200 had its beginnings at the end of the British Mandate in 1948, when a group of Haganah fighters took up positions in a hut on the outskirts of the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school in Jerusalem. The school’s principal was told that the hut was for guards who would secure the access road, but in reality those “guards” were busy digging a tunnel to an underground telephone cable that passed from Jerusalem through the international telephone exchange in Jaffa all the way to Egypt. The tunnel enabled them to monitor thousands of phone calls made via the cable, but that wasn’t the only wiretap. “Shai,” the sheirut yediot, or information services of the Haganah, activated many wiretaps, and was really the first incarnation of Unit 8200. Soon afterward the official unit was initiated using primitive surplus American military equipment. In 1956 it became known as Unit 515; after the 1967 Six Day War it was called Unit 848 and after the Yom Kippur War it was given its current name, Unit 8200.
In the Six-Day War, Israel achieved a fast-as-lightning, decisive — and many say miraculous — victory over Syria and Egypt largely thanks to the high-quality information supplied by Unit 8200 and other intelligence branches. During the war, the unit intercepted a phone call between Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and King Hussein of Jordan. Surprisingly enough, Nasser was heard telling Hussein that the Egyptian air force was attacking Israel’s airports — although by that time Israel had already decimated the Egyptian air force. Nasser’s attempt at persuading Hussein to join the war (which he did despite Israel’s entreaties and wound up losing all of Judea and Samaria) was recorded by the intelligence unit and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan instructed that the conversation be aired on Army Radio in order to drive a wedge between the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan.
Perhaps Israel began to be arrogant about its superior intelligence corps, but as with everything in the Holy Land, pride goes before a fall. The unit’s biggest botch-up was right before the Yom Kippur War, when — despite warnings from foreign sources — Military Intelligence failed to determine that Egyptian army exercises were actually preparation for all-out war. And during the war itself, the unit sustained a severe blow to its image and morale, when Amos Levinberg, an intelligence officer with Unit 8200 stationed in the Hermon outpost, fell into Syrian captivity with an additional 31 fighters on the second day of battle.
Levinberg had extremely high security clearance and access to innumerable secrets. He had a phenomenal memory, but he also suffered from claustrophobia, which the Syrians made the most of when they got him to “sing.” His captors convinced him that their offensive has succeeded and that Israel had been wiped off the map, causing him to feel so hopeless that he told them everything he knew. The content of his interrogations were conveyed directly to Hafez al-Assad, who was in utter shock to learn that Israel had been listening in to nearly all the Syrian military transmissions traffic, including those between Assad himself and his divisional commanders. He also learned that the Israelis had penetrated Syrian territory and had installed listening devices that were connected to all of Syria’s communications cables and relayed the information collected from them to Unit 8200 bases.
The confessions of the “singing officer,” as Levinberg was disparagingly called in Israel, caused such immense damage to Israeli intelligence that a massive overhaul in the structure and methods of Unit 8200 were warranted — and when Levinberg was finally returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange, one of his commanders publicly suggested that he commit suicide.
The Syrians were convinced that they had put the brakes on Israeli intelligence, but it wasn’t long before Israel recouped and continued to outsmart them time and again. Israel had managed to plant sophisticated listening devices deep in the ground near Syrian cable lines, and for good measure, booby-trapped them as well — over a dozen Syrians were killed when some of those devices were eventually discovered. Israel showed its intelligence muscle against Syria again in the Lebanon War of 1982, when approximately 100 Syrian planes were downed during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon without Syria managing to shoot down even one Israeli aircraft — largely due to top Israeli intelligence collected on the Syrian air force and its anti-aircraft batteries.
In 2007’s Operation Orchard, Israel bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor under construction by North Korean technicians — the site was being built to process weapons-grade plutonium and build a nuclear bomb — and according to intelligence sources, Unit 8200 used a secret kill switch to deactivate Syrian air defenses during the operation.
Many media reports alleged that Unit 8200 was responsible for the creation of the Stuxnet computer worm that in 2010 infected industrial computers including its primary target — Iranian nuclear facilities.
But not everyone considers Unit 8200 the heroes of the IDF. After Eric Snowden leaked a document revealing how Unit 8200 receives unfiltered data of US citizens as part of a secret agreement with America’s National Security Agency, 43 veterans of Unit 8200 signed a protest letter decrying what they called the unit’s abusive gathering of Palestinians’ private information so that the information “might be used to extort people into becoming informants.” The letter turned into a full-blown media event, generating a slew of responses, including a counterprotest letter by 200 other reservists expressing “shock, disgust and total renouncement by our fellow soldiers, who chose political refusal over our unit.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon slammed the original letter, saying that “the soldiers and officers there are doing G-d’s work, night and day. Unit 8200 preserves Israel’’s existence.” Opposition leader and Labor Party head Isaac Herzog, who served as a major in 8200, said he was repulsed by “so-called conscientious objectors” and that “this unit and its activities are essential not just in time of war, but especially in times of peace,” adding that he believed the way in which the members went about voicing their objections was harmful and that Israeli citizens would ultimately pay the price. And Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich called them “cowards.” Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence under Netanyahu, dismissed the hullabaloo with a wave of his hand, calling the group a far-left “fringe percentage” of the thousands who work in Unit 8200.
Soldier S. says he took all the noise in stride. Members of Unit 8200 are used to hearing comments from all kinds of people, from self-righteous peaceniks to blow ’em up hard-liners to combat soldiers themselves, whose operations those 8200ers might have even – unbeknownst to those soldiers — been supervising. But if some of those comments might be frustrating, S. says a more significant emotional issue is that you go to sleep and get up in the morning with the government’s secrets. “You walk in the streets and know that at this location, a terror attack was averted, and you might be responsible for the fact that it didn’t happen, but you can’t tell anyone. People from our unit conceal information even from their wives. But as one commander put it, ‘Go tell everyone what you do — no one will believe you anyway.’ ”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 572)