The IDF intelligence Unit 504, which recently disclosed its critical involvement in obtaining information about Hamas’s abuse of Gazan hospitals and helping IDF ground forces be effective in Gaza, has an interesting history. Historically, the IDF was the dominant force, and all of its arms, including human spying, were large and had a significant impact on Israel’s ability to attack and defend. But after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which IDF intelligence was blamed for failing to foresee a surprise attack on Israel, the government began to empower the smaller Shin Bet and Mossad.
This change was aimed at bringing in more voices and analytical tools to ensure that different agencies could catch threats that others might miss. Over the years, the roles of the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Unit 504 have evolved, with each agency focusing on different areas such as Lebanon, Iran, and Gaza.
Unit 504, in particular, has been re-established in Gaza and has doubled its ranks to reinvest deeply in the region. Its focus is more on ongoing military operations and it works on the frontlines to gather intelligence that can help troops advance and avoid ambushes. This is different from the Shin Bet, which spends more time recruiting sources and interrogating detainees to acquire bigger picture strategic information.
The Mossad, on the other hand, has a global focus with a special emphasis on Iran. It also runs agents and operations across the globe. In some cases, Unit 504 may supplement the Mossad when a larger number of combat operations personnel are needed for a covert operation.
Overall, the intelligence establishment in Israel is complex and each agency has its own unique role and areas of expertise. With the recent reestablishment of Unit 504 in Gaza, there may be a larger post-war role for this unit, especially considering the intelligence failures leading up to the recent conflict. Ultimately, the public will demand changes to the intelligence establishment as the probing of the war’s failures begins, and Unit 504 may find itself in the spotlight once again.