The breakthrough came in April 1995. New intelligence obtained by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) pointed to the possibility that Yahya Ayyash, Hamas’s top bomb-maker, had somehow made his way from the northern West Bank to the Gaza Strip.
One of the founders of Hamas’s Izzadin Kassam Martyrs Brigades, Ayyash was No. 1 on Israel’s most-wanted list, and the Shin Bet’s entire resources at the time were dedicated to hunting him down.
Israel was just getting its first taste of Palestinian suicide bombings, and Ayyash, nicknamed “The Engineer,” had his hand in almost all of them. It was Ayyash who rigged a Volkswagen which exploded near the settlement of Beit El in 1993, and it was Ayyash who rigged the Opel that blew up in Afula and killed eight Israelis in 1994. In total, attacks he had planned killed some 80 Israelis and injured nearly 400.
But when Ayyash got to Gaza, he disappeared. In an unusual move, Avi Dichter – at the time head of the Shin Bet’s Southern Division – decided to allow Ayyash’s wife to cross into Gaza from the West Bank.
After a few months the Shin Bet discovered that she was pregnant, meaning that the 30-year-old bomb-maker had to be somewhere inside Gaza’s crowded refugee camps.
Israel had pulled out of the Palestinian parts of Gaza in 1994 under the Oslo Accords, and while it remained in the Gush Katif settlement bloc, intelligence was difficult to come by. Sources were limited.
Nevertheless, Dichter and his men picked up Ayyash’s trail after a few weeks and succeeded in infiltrating the terrorist’s inner circle, the Hamas men who surrounded him.
The Shin Bet then learned from its informants that Ayyash would talk every Friday by phone with his father, who still lived in the West Bank. So the Shin Bet used its informants and agents to get a cellphone to a house Ayyash occasionally visited in Beit Lahiya. Getting a phone into Gaza, and then into Ayyash’s inner circle without anyone suspecting a thing, was not easy, but Dichter and his men succeeded.
The risks were huge: if one of the agents used to smuggle the phone was discovered or caught, Ayyash would go deeper into hiding. Now he was in Israel’s sights. They had to get him.
Consultations with the IDF led to the conclusion that an arrest raid was out of the question. While the Shin Bet would have preferred to capture Ayyash alive and question him, a ground operation would have been seen coming from miles away, and he likely would have succeeded in escaping. There was only one option: to kill him. The question was how.
An air strike was considered, but ruled out – the house was in an apartment building with too many civilians. The strike would have disproportionate consequences.
That’s when the Shin Bet remembered the phone.
If they could get the phone back to Israel, fill it with a small amount of explosives, and then get Ayyash to use it, they could potentially kill him. That was a lot of “if” right there, but there was also the technological hurdle – the phone was one of those old flip Motorolas. Inserting enough explosives yet leaving the phone able to function would be tough.
Some Shin Bet operatives suggested smuggling an explosives-laden fax machine into the house. The explosion, the Shin Bet experts said, would only kill people in the room.
The problem was that children were in the house, and there would be no way to know if they would be in the room at the same time as Ayyash. The assassination had to be precise.
So Dichter and his men went with the phone. They smuggled it out of Gaza, brought it to Shin Bet headquarters, and planted about 50 grams of explosives inside. Enough, experts said, to blow up his head if the phone was pressed to his ear.
A few Fridays later, after the phone had been smuggled back into Gaza, Ayyash’s father called the phone. The Shin Bet was waiting and listening.
While the detonator could be set off from Shin Bet headquarters, the air force put a plane over Gaza to serve as the transmission relay point.
One Shin Bet operative listened to the call. His job was to identify when Ayyash was on the line. Another had his finger on the detonator. After a few tense moments, the first operative identified Ayyash and gave the signal.
The second operative pressed the button but nothing happened. He pressed again a little harder but again nothing happened.
The Shin Bet pressed the button six times that Friday, but something was wrong. Dichter and his team stayed in Shin Bet headquarters all of Saturday to try and determine what went wrong. After a few days, they managed to get the phone back to Israel, and despite the risk of reopening a booby- trapped cellphone, they did just that, and discovered that one of the detonator wires had loosened.
ON JANUARY 5, 1996, Ayyash answered a call on the phone. When the Shin Bet operative pressed the button, the call went silent. At first he didn’t understand why. Then another operative reminded him – the phone had just blown up.
Almost 21 years later, Ayyash’s assassination continues to reverberate throughout Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Not just because it was one of the first examples of how Israel was adapting to the new threat of suicide bombers, but because the skills honed then by the IDF and the Shin Bet continue to serve the country today in its never-ending war on terrorism.
I met with Dichter this week for a lengthy conversation about terrorism, the region, and Israel’s strategic interests in the era of President-elect Donald Trump.
The meeting was a simultaneous tour of the Middle East and Dichter’s life. At 18, he enlisted in the IDF and served in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, famously known as Sayeret Matkal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was then the senior team leader, and former prime minister Ehud Barak was the unit commander.
After his discharge, Dichter joined the Shin Bet and climbed the ranks until becoming its director in 2000.
After resigning in 2005, he entered politics, first as a member of the now-defunct Kadima Party, and then as a member of the Likud.
Following elections last year, Dichter was appointed chairman of the Knesset’s most important panel, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which gives him access to the defense establishment and Israel’s vaunted intelligence agencies. He is also frequently called upon to meet with foreign delegations. Just this past week, Dichter briefed the Belgian deputy prime minister, the Romanian foreign minister, and senior members of the Czech defense committee.
Dichter is of the opinion that terrorism can be defeated. When he was head of the Shin Bet, he famously said that “terrorism is like a barrel that has a bottom”, meaning that it has an end. While terrorism has dissipated in the years since, it has not completely disappeared. Nevertheless, Dichter remains confident that he was right.
But for that to happen, Israel – or any other country for that matter – can never let up its fight. It is a constant battle that never ends.
“Terrorism is like driving in a jeep in the sand,” he told me. “The worst thing to do is to stop since you will sink. You need to keep on driving. The same with fighting terrorism. You can’t stop.”
The same, he said, applies to the rest of the world, which he finds has not yet internalized what a war on terrorism looks like. When European countries say they are “supervising” some of their nationals who returned home after spending time in Syria or Iraq, they are missing the point.
“Use of the word ‘supervising’ is nonsense,” he said. “Terrorists can attack without warning. Suicide bombers who attacked us were recruited hours or days before without preparation.”
Second, he is disappointed when these countries say it is too difficult to arrest 1,000 or even several hundred terrorism suspects. Israel, he recalls, arrested 8,000 terrorism suspects over the span of three years – from Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the turning point in the second intifada – until 2005.
“Don’t be afraid of the numbers,” Dichter says. “You can make a prison for 5,000, 10,000 or even 50,000. If terrorists are outside, there is a high chance that they will carry out an attack. The name of the game is arrests.
The first best option is arrests. Second best is to kill – since you cannot get any intelligence from a dead body.”
A constant hunt for terrorists, he explained, forces the wanted men and women to completely flip the order in their lives: “That is what we did in Defensive Shield. Until then, terrorists were using 95% of their time to engage in terrorism and 5% to hide. The operation made it the opposite.”
AS HEAD of the FADC, Dichter gets briefed regularly on Israel’s most important security and diplomatic issues. He chairs the subcommittee on intelligence, which requires an extra layer of security clearance, which he obviously has from his days as director of the Shin Bet.
That is how he knew about the now-controversial submarine deal, possibly tainted by the involvement of David Shimron, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal attorney, relative and confidant. Dichter says that the submarine deal was brought months ago to the committee, where it was debated and approved.
Personally, he supports the deal. Submarines, he explains, have a 30-year lifespan, meaning that out of Israel’s current fleet of six, three will need to be retired by the mid-2020s.
“The new ones will arrive only in 2026-2030,” he said. “To start production you need about 10 years – if you start making them in 2019 [when the final contract is expected to be signed – Y.K.] then in 2027 you might have them.”
Dichter added another factor to the equation: Angela Merkel, who as chancellor of Germany has prioritized maintaining a strong alliance between Berlin and Jerusalem.
“The fact that Merkel is there is one of the reasons to close the deal now,” he says, referencing the 30% subsidy Germany is offering for the new submarines.
He steers with finesse away from the Shimron connection.
“In the committee, we don’t look at how the deal is made,” he explains.
“They [Shimron and Miki Ganor -YK] are not MKs. If someone thinks there is an ethical or criminal problem, there are ways to look into it.”
But Dichter is concerned. When looking out at the region today, he worries that the election of Donald Trump, combined with the presence of Russia in Syria, could have longterm ramifications for Israel, not all positive.
“The Russians are here to stay. They didn’t build what they built to leave.
They are along the Western coast.
They fly to other places, but they don’t build bases there. They don’t want to get engaged like they were in Afghanistan.”
Dichter said Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin could both decide that because of the ongoing upheaval and instability in the region, the time has come to once again set borders and change the current makeup of some of the nation-states around us. They could then come to Israel and say: This is the solution, take it or leave it.
“We are 100 years now from Sykes-Picot, the deal under which the British and French divided the Middle East into countries,” he said. “I ask myself if we are going to Sykes-Picot 21st century with Putin and Trump. We have two forceful leaders who lead the two superpowers that are relevant for our region. We need to ensure that nothing bad will grow near us, and that we won’t find ourselves in one year, two, three, that they are starting to divide the borders again.
We need to be on top of this and watch what will happen. If Putin and Trump decide that enough is enough, we need to be sure that the solution they bring does not fall on us.”
What this means practically, according to Dichter, is that Israel can’t gamble with its security by withdrawing, for example, from strategic places like the Jordan Valley or the Golan Heights.
“The debate about the Jordan Valley is over,” he said. “We need to understand that what happened over the last six years – an Arab earthquake that no one foresaw – means that we can’t take risks that will undermine our ability to be prepared for surprises and scenarios looming on the horizon.”