19 November 2012
5 September 2010. A sends:
Israels omniscient ears
4th September 2010
DESERT BASE LISTENS TO THE WORLD TALKING
Israels Urim base in the Negev desert is among
the most important and powerful intelligence gathering sites in the world.
Yet, until now, its eavesdropping has gone entirely unmentioned
BY NICKY HAGER
published in Le Monde diplomatique, September 2010
Israels most important intelligence-gathering installation is only
a 30km drive into the Negev desert from Beersheba prison where those
taking part in the Gaza aid flotilla were briefly detained this June. The
base, hidden until now, has rows of satellite dishes that covertly intercept
phone calls, emails and other communications from the Middle East, Europe,
Africa and Asia. Its antennas monitor shipping and would have spied on the
aid ships in the days before they were seized.
Israels powerful position in the Middle East is often associated with
its armed forces, nuclear weapons arsenal or covert (Mossad) operatives.
But just as important is its intelligence gathering monitoring
governments, international organisations, foreign companies, political
organisations and individuals. Most of this happens at the installation in
the Negev a couple of kilometres to the north of the kibbutz of Urim. Our
sources, close to Israeli intelligence, know the base first-hand. They describe
lines of satellite dishes of different sizes, and barracks and operations
buildings on both sides of the road (the 2333) that leads to the base. High
security gates, fences and dogs protect the facility. As you can see on the
internet, the satellite images of the base are quite clear. A practised eye
easily discerns the signs of an electronic surveillance base. A large circle
in the farmland shows the site of a direction-finding antenna (HF/DF) for
The Urim base was established decades ago to monitor Intelsat satellites
that relay phone calls between countries. It expanded to cover maritime
communications (Inmarsat), then rapidly targeted ever more numerous regional
satellites. As such, says intelligence specialist Duncan Campbell, it is
akin to the UK-USA pacts Echelon satellite interception ground
stations. The Echelon system is a network of interception stations
around the world, set up in 1996 by the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and
New Zealand. Satellite phones used by the Gaza-bound aid ships were easy
targets for this hi-tech equipment.
Our Israeli sources described how the computers are programmed to detect
words and phone numbers of interest from intercepted phone calls, emails
etc, then transferred to Unit 8200 the headquarters of Israeli signals
intelligence in the city of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. There they
are translated and passed on to other agencies, including the army and Mossad.
Unit 8200 and its counterparts the British Government Communications
Headquarters (GCHQ) and the American National Security Agency (NSA)
are less famous than their foreign intelligence and special operations agencies
(MI6, the CIA and Mossad). Yet the signals agencies are far bigger. The Urim
base targets many nations, friend and foe. A former analyst at Unit 8200,
a military service conscript, said she worked full time translating intercepted
calls and emails from English and French into Hebrew.
It was interesting work, studying routine communications to find
the nuggets. Her section listened mostly to diplomatic traffic and
other off-shore [international] signals. They also searched public
The Urim base, said our sources, is the centre of a spying network that taps
undersea cables (notably Mediterranean cables linking Israel to Europe via
Sicily) and has covert listening posts in Israeli embassy buildings abroad.
Unit 8200, which is officially part of the Israeli army, also has secret
monitoring units within the Palestinian territories and uses Gulfstream jets
fitted out as signals intelligence aircraft.
Excluding television satellites, most satellites, in an arc stretching from
the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, are probable targets: European, Arab, Russian
and Asian, as well as the Intelsat and Inmarsat satellites. Images of the
base show 30 listening antennas, making Urim one of the largest signals
intelligence bases in the world.
The only comparable-sized station is a US facility at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire,
UK. Other stations have been known about since the 1980s. There is a large
NSA base near the German city of Bad Aibling, and another US base on the
Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, just northwest of an airbase with a
runway full of B-52 bombers. The main UK base, at Morwenstow, Cornwall, can
be spotted through its 20 listening antennas above the cliffs. France has
its own network, known as Frenchelon, under the General Directorate for External
Security (DGSE), which includes several bases in France and its overseas
But unlike these, Israels spy facility at Urim remained invisible for
ORIGINAL TEXT IN ENGLISH
Nicky Hager is a journalist in Wellington, New Zealand, and author of Secret
Power: New Zealands Role in the International Spy Network (Craig Potton
Publishing, Nelson, New Zealand, 1996), which uncovered the Echelon intelligence
network Israels powerful position in the Middle East is often associated
with its armed forces, nuclear weapons arsenal or covert (Mossad) operatives.
But just as important is its intelligence gathering
27 June 2006
For locations click the links, zoom out.