Unit 8200 – kills, spies and makes the path to riches


October 5, 2016
Sarah Benton

This posting has these items:
1) Ynet: A peek inside the IDF 8200’s combat intelligence unit, this admiring peek reminded us of more thoughtful pieces we’d read, hence the rest, October 2016;
2) JPost: IDF dismisses unit 8200 reservists who refused to serve in Palestinian territories, a short-lived, but not forgotten scandal, January 2015;
3) FT: Unit 8200: Israel’s cyber spy agency, John Reed provides the most perceptive of the pieces, extract only, July 2015;
4) Forbes: Inside Israel’s Secret Startup Machine, the longest of the pieces, concentrates, admiringly, on 8200 as the route to riches, May 2016;



Building the cyber-infrastructure for Israel’s military-industrial complex in Beer Sheva. According to Wikispooks, the base 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 to Gaza in the days before they were seized. Photo by Yaakov Israel

A peek inside the IDF 8200’s combat intelligence unit

From listening to Hezbollah telephone conversations to going into battle to obtain real time information on Hamas in Gaza, the soldiers of the 8200 combat intelligence battalion are giving Israel an added technical edge in protecting the Jewish state.

By Yoav Zitun, Ynet magazine
October 04, 2016

It’s only been around for five years, and still doesn’t have a name or insignia. They are the combat soldiers of the elite intelligence unit 8200. Although 8200 is more known for its glasses-wearing computer geniuses, this section of the unit helps to gather field intelligence for the most elite combat units in the IDF – including Sayeret Matkal and the Israeli Navy’s Shayetet 13.

The soldiers of the unit primarily collect signals intelligence, or SIGINT. They are level 5 riflemen, but still undergo special forces style training.

Following them close until they’re assassinated

Between the anti-tank ditches on the Golan heights over the course of several nights, the unit’s fighters, cloaked in camouflage gear and under the cover of darkness, deployed their hi tech intelligence gathering devices at a Syrian town several miles away.

Artillery fire can be heard coming from the town, past the local mosque. You can hear the artillery firing, and then the thunderous boom as the shell lands a short while later. A mushroom cloud of smoke rises on the horizon from the impact point. Amongst the houses in the village which just got attacked, people are not only planning their counter attacks in Syria, but are preparing to attack Israel as well.


Soldier in the 8200 combat battalion on the border with Syria. Photo by Aviyahu Shapira

According to foreign sources, Israel has assassinated several high ranking Hezbollah and Iranian officials on this border, including Imad Mourghniyeh and Samir Kuntar. These kinds of operations could not have been done without these targets being followed electronically – particularly by reading online discussions, listening to phone calls, and a wealth of other means of electronic surveillance. They would have been followed and tracked electronically all day every day.

 the main function of 8200 in the territories is to control another nation.

Members of sig-int 8200, see article below.

“There are some operations which last a few hours, and some operations which last a few days,” said Lt. Col. Y., the head of the unit and a former Shaldag commando. “There were even times when we were out in the field for several months.”

Y. shared just a little bit about the operations of his unit, and only ventured a sly smile when asked about the giant, camouflaged device pointed towards the east. Using thick cables he connected to the tough, thin computers which the soldiers were holding, while they continuously typed on their keyboards.


8200 combat soldiers operation during a drill. Photo by Aviyahu Shapira

“We call these ‘SIGINT’ sensors,” Y. said. “The soldiers carry 50 percent of their bodyweight on them, like in the rest of the IDF. The enemy, including our main enemy Hezbollah – have people who do (what we do). They are our biggest challenge. There’s a reason that soldiers who go out to guard the border don’t take their cell phones with them.”

Working directly under the IDF Chief of Staff

The soldiers leave from basic training at the IDF field intelligence base in the Arava desert as level 5 riflemen. After two more months of basic training within 8200, they are split up into different battalions; one which collects SIGINT during wartime, one which collects and decodes captured enemy materials, and those who are used as liaisons between the forward 8200 bases and the ground forces during wartime.

There are also “arabists” within the unit who are experts at reading and understanding the Arabic written and spoken on the various borders. Dozens of computers were captured from Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War. During Operation Protective Edge, the fighters joined ground forces inside Gaza, and were able to feed the ground forces intelligence about various terror cells lying in ambush in real time.


Across the border into Syria. Photo by Aviyahu Shapira

“The soldiers can be deployed on a mission to help one of the battalions stationed on the Golan Heights right now, and in two days, be deployed on another mission under the direct order of the IDF Chief of Staff,” added Lt. Col. Y.

A Unit, not a Battalion

There is no lack of motivation in this unit with no name, but currently known as ”Gadsam” – the operational SIGINT Battalion. But the officers and soldiers don’t view themselves as a battalion, and not only because it’s “uncomfortable” for them. They work in small, elite teams, with each team and unit connected to a different IDF force or battalion. The number of soldiers – including reservists – is also much smaller than a normal sized battalion.

The unit doesn’t pull people through a tryout process – instead, it finds the soldiers who dropped from other special forces tryouts, and who have high IDF psychological and physical evaluation scores.

Yet everything – from the vehicles they use to the combat boots on their feet, to the day to day interactions they have with the likes of ISIS, Hezbollah, and Hamas provide new meaning to the intelligence battle the IDF wages against its enemies.



IDF dismisses unit 8200 reservists who refused to serve in Palestinian territories

“We take a severe view of the exploitation of military service to express a political opinion,” IDF Spokesman said.

By Yaakov Lappin, JPost
January 25, 2015

The IDF dismissed 43 reservists from Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200 on Monday, after concluding that a letter they sent to the media last year, expressing their refusal to go on serving, constituted a grave breach of the military code of conduct.

In a statement explaining the decision, IDF Spokesman’s Office said, “Unit 8200 has, since its founding, gathered intelligence that allows the IDF and security bodies carry out their missions. It assists them on a daily basis in protecting the citizens of the State of Israel. In any instance in which a soldier or commander raises moral or ethical doubts in carrying his duties or missions, he is obligated to turn to his commanders, and all requests will be examined and answered.

“There is no room for refusing orders in the IDF. We take a severe view of the exploitation of military service [by the letter’s signatories] to express a political opinion. In light of the conduct of the reservists, which is not in line with what is expected of them, we have decided to end their reserves service in the unit,” it said.

Last September, members of the unit, which collects signal intelligence, published a letter declaring their refusal to serve due to what they said was a series of breaches of proper conduct in the unit’s activities in the West Bank and Gaza.

The letter, addressed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, and the head of the IDF’s intelligence branch, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, decried  “the main function of 8200 in the territories, which is to control another nation.”

“The intelligence that is gathered [in the West Bank] harms innocent people and is used for the purposes of political persecution and violating the privacy of Palestinians,” the letter, which commented only on the unit’s activities in Judea and Samaria, read.

“We are conscientiously incapable of continuing to serve this system.”

unit8200
Inside the command room. Tweeted photo.

Unit 8200 is the military’s primary signal-intelligence body. The IDF Spokesman’s Office said in a statement: “Unit 8200 has been working daily since its founding to gather intelligence, which allows the IDF and security bodies to carry out their duties. It assists in the defense of Israeli civilians every day.”

“The Unit operates through a range of means and in many arenas, while activating techniques and rules for intelligence purposes only. Those who serve in the unit are trained, after a lengthy and meticulous process, and undergo a program that has no equivalent in any other intelligence community in Israel or the world. During the training, a special emphasis is placed on the field of ethics, morality and working rules. These are applied throughout the service of the soldiers and officers in the unit, who are continuously monitored by commanders of various ranks.”

The spokesman’s office said that “concrete claims” made by some of those who signed the protest letter, which were brought up in an interview published on Friday by Ynet, “are not known to the Military Intelligence Directorate.”
The fact that those who wrote the letter spoke to the media “before speaking to their commanders or to the relevant officers in the IDF, is strange and raises doubts about the seriousness of the claims,” the statement continued.

“Throughout the years, and in recent years especially, the unit has received daily evaluations, which sometimes result in citations and Israel security prizes. Regarding claims that innocents are harmed, the process of authorizing targets in the IDF is long and meticulous, and takes into account the issue of noncombatants.”

Responding to the letter, Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the unit’s officers and soldiers “do holy work, night and day, in an awe-inspiring manger, with extraordinary creativity and dedication. Unit 8200 perpetuates the existence of the state of Israel.

The attempt to harm it and its activities, through calling for a refusal to serve, is based on claims that do not match the path of the unit and the path of its personnel.

This is a foolish and offensive attempt which aids campaigns of fraudulent delegitimization in the world against the state of Israel and IDF soldiers, who are innocent of wrongdoing.”

Ya’alon added that the unit’s members are “moral, ethical, and carry out their various roles with modesty. I would like to support them in their work and activity, which is so important to the security of the state of Israel and the security of its civilians.”

The commanders of Unit 8200 are expected to dishonourably discharge the 43 reservists who signed the letter that was released to the press declaring their unwillingness to continue their service in protest of the army’s methods of intelligence-gathering in the disputed territories, Channel 10 reported on Friday.

According to that news outlet, the reservists’ fellow soldiers in the unit are outraged by the letter.

“We signed this letter out of a sense of urgency,” Capt. Daniel (an alias) told Army Radio on Friday.

“When I enlisted in the unit over 10 years ago, I knew that I was going to a place that I can do important work in defending the State of Israel. Today, we understand that the situation is different and that the only task of the unit in the Occupied Territories is not defence. The central task is to control another people.”

“We refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as a tool for deepening military rule in the Occupied Territories,” the letter read. “Intelligence allows ongoing control over millions of people, thorough and intrusive monitoring and invasion into most aspects of life. All of this does not allow for normal living, fuels more violence and puts off any end to the conflict.”

In response to the letter, the Legal Forum for Israel, a non-government organization that was formed to advocate against territorial concessions to the Palestinians, called on Gantz to oust the soldiers from the military.

“These people are not worthy of wearing the IDF uniform,” the group said. “It’s been less than three months since the murder of the three young boys at the hands of Hamas and the exposure of murderous terror tunnels and the firing of rockets on the State of Israel, and they are ignoring the dead and wounded while showing a readiness to harm the security of the residents of this country.”

No names of signatories were published, in apparent keeping with their non-disclosure commitments to Unit 8200, which monitors enemy states across the Middle East.

Several were interviewed anonymously by Army Radio and other news outlets, however, and complained about what they described as the abusive gathering of Palestinians’ private information – for example, sexual preferences or health problems “that might be used to extort people into becoming informants.”

Reuters contributed to this report.




Cadets in Unit 8200 at work June 10, 2013. Photo from IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

Unit 8200: Israel’s cyber spy agency

Former insiders and whistle-blowers provide a view of the formidable military intelligence outfit

By John Reed, Financial Times
July 10, 2015

EXTRACT

In some ways, 8200 is Israel at its best and worst: a high-tech incubator that trains some of Israel’s smartest young people but effectively excludes minority Arabs — 20 per cent of Israel’s population — because so few do military service, which is compulsory for Jewish Israelis.

Tal, a student at Magshimim, the elite feeder programme for Unit 8200: ‘They said at the end of the 11th grade you will get interviews to certain places [in the IDF]’
Unit 8200 also snoops on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank or naval and air blockade in the Gaza Strip, according to a whistle-blowing leak that created a stir last year. In an open letter in September 2014, published by Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and broadcast on Channel 10, a group of 43 serving and former 8200 reservists revealed what they said were coercive spying tactics being used on innocent Palestinians, including the collection of embarrassing sexual, financial or other information. One of the whistle-blowers, in a statement released along with the letter, described his “moment of shock” when watching The Lives of Others, the 2006 film about the Stasi’s pervasive spying in East Germany.

The furore has calmed since then, but I wanted to find out more about 8200. Officers in the unit are not allowed to discuss their service, even with relatives, and are limited — as I discovered — in what they can say after they leave it. I was, however, allowed to interview the Magshimim graduates. When I asked Tal what he wanted to do after military service, he answered somewhat overeagerly, as if I were interviewing him for a job: “I would like to form my own company, or join an existing company with an important role.”

Though forbidden from discussing it, many 8200 veterans are happy to drop the unit’s number freely in the corporate world as an elite calling card. It is fair to describe shmone matayim as one of Israel’s most powerful business brands. Gil Shwed, co-founder of Check Point, Israel’s largest cyber security company, was in 8200, as was Avi Hasson, Israel’s chief scientist, whose office dispenses risk-free government loans to technology start-ups. The 8200 alumni association, with more than 15,000 members, hosts networking events and community outreach programmes, including a start-up “accelerator” open to Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, most of whom do not serve in the army. Team 8, a self-described cyber security “foundry” aimed at providing know-how for start-ups, was launched by former 8200 officers in Tel Aviv earlier this year, attracting Google’s Eric Schmidt as an investor. Isaac Herzog, head of the centre-left Zionist Union party, played up his past service in 8200 when campaigning to unseat Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister in the recent election.

But what does 8200 actually do? Israel, as Netanyahu never tires of saying, lives in a “bad neighbourhood” in the Middle East, surrounded by several countries it classifies as enemy states. This requires world-class hacking and artificial intelligence tools as warfare moves from conventional battlefields — land, sea and air — to include cyber terrain. This new theatre of operations needs both offensive and defensive tools. According to some media reports, which the IDF won’t confirm, the unit was responsible for the Stuxnet computer worm deployed in 2010 against Iran’s computers, including ones at its nuclear facilities.

Alongside countries such as Iran — which itself has formidable cyber capability — various non-state hackers also have Israel in their sights. Over the past three years, pro-Palestinian “hacktivists” grouped under the #OpIsrael banner have targeted Israeli government websites and public institutions’ computer systems. The 2013 attack fell on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and in that and subsequent attacks, some of the hackers have threatened to unleash an “electronic Holocaust”.

According to intelligence analysts, 8200’s remit is similar to that of the NSA or Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, covering everything from analysis of information in the public domain to use of human operators and special signal intelligence. Its geographical remit is primarily outside Israel but it does include the Palestinian territories.

“Unit 8200 is probably the foremost technical intelligence agency in the world and stands on a par with the NSA in everything except scale,” Peter Roberts, senior research fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told me. “They are highly focused on what they look at — certainly more focused than the NSA — and they conduct their operations with a degree of tenacity and passion that you don’t experience elsewhere.”

Apart from 8200, the IDF also has other technological and spying units with their own cadres of alumni in business: a large air force intelligence unit, C4I, its telecommunications, computer and information technology unit, and smaller intelligence units so secret that Israelis will not utter their names. And last month, the Israeli military announced it would be forming a new “cyber command” to combat new challenges in online warfare.

The culture of Unit 8200 resembles that of a start-up, according to former officers. Soldiers work in small groups, with limited resources, to crack challenges that — literally, in some cases — are life-and-death matters. Disruptive behaviour and challenges to authority are encouraged, even if this means defying senior officers. “In intelligence, you can’t work only by rules, you need to be open-minded,” said Rami Efrati, a former 8200 senior officer and serial entrepreneur who is on his third start-up, Firmitas Cyber Solutions. “We teach them how to work out of the box.”

Nir Lempert, chairman of the Unit 8200 alumni association and CEO of MER Group, a mobile communications infrastructure company, said: “I think the best premise I took with me from this unit was the ability to manage big activities in uncertain situations with a lot of question marks regarding the environment — and the understanding that we must fulfil the mission.”

A growing focus in 8200, as in other spy agencies, is data mining, and specifically the ability to shift through mountains of information to find the one menacing email, or the recurring patterns that suggest something is awry. To get a clearer idea of the tools the unit uses in its work, one afternoon I went to Tel Aviv University to meet Oded Maimon, one of the world’s foremost experts on data mining and artificial intelligence — teaching computers to do not just what they have been told but to predict things that haven’t happened yet. Maimon has written 10 books and edited a 1,500-page tome called the Data Mining and Knowledge Discovery Handbook. Like other Israeli mathematics professors, he has worked for both the intelligence services and the private sector. In the past, he advised Verint, an Israeli-founded video-and-audio-monitoring company now based in Melville, New York. In 2008 he was awarded a medal by Mossad for services to the nation. He rarely gives interviews but he invited me to his office.

The first step in Israel’s intelligence work, he told me, was to obtain raw information. “This I won’t talk about,” he said, but went on to acknowledge that “8200 is very important here”. Once intelligence is gathered and organised into a database, an analyst needs to look for a common denominator. This is what big data experts call fusion: the ability to make sense of, for example, an object spotted from different angles by different means — maybe a drone in the air, a camera on the ground, or a listening device in a phone. Humans do this naturally, using their five senses and grasp of context, but computers have to be taught. One intelligence source might have identified somebody talking in a car on a phone while another, using a camera on a plane, identifies the same car. “You create a knowledge base,” Maimon said. “You now know not only that a person is in a vehicle but you have the information that his phone is interesting to you.”

Analysts can then apply data mining algorithms to this “knowledge base” — determining, for example, from a base of several million conversations, which two are relevant. Algorithms can also do what Maimon calls “data compression” — for instance, establish that a target makes calls every day at 7.30am and 4pm. This can then be matched with other intelligence. “Finding a modus operandi is important,” he said. Only at the end of this process is human intervention needed. The professor does not spell this out but presumably the options available might include an arrest, a drone strike or another military operation.

I asked Maimon about the “refuseniks” and last year’s protest letter. “I don’t want to comment. I don’t know the details,” he said. However, he added: “In general, one should be very careful. If I give you a knife, you can use it to cut your salad, but you can do other things with it, too.”


About a week later, in another part of Tel Aviv University, I met Gilad, a 29-year-old philosophy student, one of the veterans of Unit 8200 who had signed the letter. He is affable and smart, the kind of young man who makes Israelis proud. He excelled in physics and maths in high school in northern Israel, and was drafted into 8200 in 2003, ranking as lieutenant by the time he left in 2009. “I felt like I was doing something important, something challenging, something I would learn from and something meaningful for my country,” he said.

One of them said that during his training for 8200, he had been assigned to memorise different Arabic words for “gay”

Over time, though, Gilad became troubled by the intrusive methods being used against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The refuseniks say they were asked to gather information not only on people suspected of plotting to harm Israel but on their family members, neighbours and others who might supply information about them. This included information about medical conditions, financial problems and sexual orientation — a sensitive topic in deeply conservative Palestinian society. One of them said that during his training for 8200, he had been assigned to memorise different Arabic words for “gay”. Another said that soldiers would call one another over to listen when one of their targets was discussing a “funny” medical condition such as haemorrhoids.

From the protest, a picture emerged of bright young Israelis, still in their teens and twenties, making decisions that would affect the fate of Palestinians years older. “In a way, this power is intoxicating,” Gilad told me. “You get inside people’s lives and you laugh about their sexual habits or medical problems. And it shows how far it goes. It shows you how power can corrupt.”

Israel withdrew its military from much of the West Bank in the early 1990s and all of Gaza in 2005, but its forces can still enter Palestinian Authority-controlled areas for arrests or other security operations. Palestinians in both territories depend on permits to travel into Israel or Jerusalem, giving Israeli authorities, the protesters said, the ability to barter for information.

“It’s one thing to spy on Iranians or Syrians, another to spy on Palestinians, because they are subjects of Israel,” Gilad said. “It’s more like spying on your own citizens.”

When I mentioned the protest to RUSI’s Peter Roberts, he pointed out that rival spy agencies used similar tactics during the cold war. Russia, he said, still uses methods such as “honey traps” to ensnare targets. “The Israelis live in a different security environment from the rest of us,” he said.

Gilad and his fellow protesters did things by the book: they remained anonymous. (Gilad would not allow me to print his surname or photograph his face.) They showed their testimony to the military censor before going public. (The censor approved publication, except for the use of the signees’ full names.)

Nevertheless, their exposé, which came barely a month after last summer’s Gaza war, caused anger, much of it directed at the whistle-blowers themselves. Some of it carried a tinge of class resentment: here were some of Israel’s most privileged youth turning on the country’s most respected institution: the military. Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s hardline defence minister, said the refuseniks would be “treated like criminals”.

In fact, no charges were brought against them, although in January they received letters saying they were no longer reservists. Gilad is now writing his degree thesis on freedom of speech issues, and says he is disappointed that so little has emerged from the protest. “The thing that bothers us is that no one faced the content of what we said,” he said. “We didn’t say that Israel was a bad nation or Israelis are evil — we didn’t say that. [But] people thought it was a threat to Israel’s legitimate self-defence. They didn’t treat our criticism seriously.”

Less than a year later, the refuseniks’ protest is all but forgotten — but Israel’s military-industrial-cyber complex is moving from success to success. If the burgeoning cyber park in Beer Sheva develops as its backers wish, it could — as grand nation-building Israeli projects go — one day rival the building of Tel Aviv by early Zionists on the dunes north of Jaffa starting a century ago.

“Israel, at a national level, needs to be excellent in cyber,” Yoav Tzruya, a partner in JVP Cyber Labs, one of the office park’s first tenants, told me recently. “Unfortunately, we are getting attacked again and again — our banks, our critical infrastructure, our government.” JVP, a Jerusalem-based venture capital firm with $1.1bn under management, is hosting and incubating promising companies at the park in Beer Sheva, about half of which are founded from entrepreneurs with backgrounds in the IDF or related agencies.

One of JVP Cyber Labs’ early investments was CyActive, one of whose principals, Shlomi Boutnaru, spoke at the Magshimim graduation I attended. The company is at the cutting edge of cyber defence, with “predictive software” designed to anticipate hacking threats that do not exist yet. “The same way biologists try to predict what next year’s flu will be, we have programmes that can predict what today’s malware and threats will develop into,” Liran Tancman, CyActive co-founder, told me in an office so new it did not yet have all its furniture.

If Israel’s well-honed hacking, spying and cyber skills, developed in the military, can be deployed in the private sector to darker effect, few are taking notice. Privacy International, a human rights watchdog group, recently reported that two multinational companies with Israeli roots, Verint and Nice Systems, were supplying surveillance technology to repressive Central Asian countries, allowing “unchecked access to citizens’ telephone calls and internet activity on a mass, indiscriminate scale”. (In response to the report, Verint said that it only did business with countries with which Israel had commercial ties and in accordance with government regulations; Nice did not comment.)

The report passed almost unnoticed in Israel, where concerns for security trump demands for privacy. More than half of people in a recent University of Haifa poll said they were prepared to let the state monitor their online activity if it helped boost national security. By 2020, when 8200 and the IDF’s other technology and intelligence units will have moved to Beer Sheva, the links that already exist between the military, the academy and business will be visible in the city, which Israeli officials want to develop as an alternative to Tel Aviv and its sky-high property prices. Cyber, Netanyahu said recently, is “changing the face of the Negev”.

John Reed is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief



Graduates of Unit 8200, the IDF’s technological spearhead says Haaretz. Photo by Moti Milrod

Inside Israel’s Secret Startup Machine

By Richard Behar, Forbes
May 31, 2016
Even in the hallowed annals of teenage hackerdom, this never-before-told story might top them all. In the early 1990s Avishai Abrahami found himself, as required for most Israelis when they graduate from high school, enlisting in the Israel Defence Forces. But Abrahami had been assigned to a division he wasn’t allowed to speak of, not even to his parents–a crack cybersecurity and intelligence team known as Unit 8200.He was given an assignment that seemed right out of Mission: Impossible. Break into the computers of a country that remained in a state of hostility with Israel. The task contained several hurdles: First, figure out how to get into those computers; second, how to crack the encryption; and finally, the monumental challenge, how to access the “enormous amount” of computing power necessary to decrypt the data.So here’s what Abrahami did once he thought he could breach the targeted computers: He broke into the computers of two other hostile countries and hijacked their processing power to suck out the data held by the first target. A masterwork of spycraft–and a primitive precursor to cloud computing–done without leaving his chair in Tel Aviv.“If we had to do it with a computer researcher,” says Abrahami, “it would have taken us a year. It took us a day. I’m trying to think what would have happened if someone had discovered it, what a crisis that would have created.”
But (until now) no one ever did. Which is consistent with a unit whose existence, until roughly a decade ago, had never even been publicly acknowledged or identified.

The public did, however, hear about Abrahami, who’s now 45. After leaving Unit 8200, he co-founded Wix, currently one of the world’s leading cloud-based Web-development platforms.

“Just from my generation, there are more than 100 guys from the unit that I personally knew who built startups and sold them for a lot of money,” Abrahami says. “There was a team of ten people in one room in the unit. I call it the magic room, because all of them created companies where the average market cap is a half-billion dollars.” Abrahami did his part: Wix’s market cap sits at $1 billion.

[Are Arab nations hacking back? “They are trying,” says Yossi Melman, one of Israel’s top investigative journalists and national security analysts. “Iran is trying to attack Israeli computers—civilian, military, intelligence—day and night.” See my Q&A with Melman: Shadow Wars: In Missions Stretching From Iran To Syria, Israel’s Unit 8200 Can Be (Not) Seen]

Ron Reiter, 31, another 8200 alum, whose startup was just purchased by Oracle ORCL +0.31% for a reported $50 million and who hails from a newer generation, tells a similar story: “There was one person who sold his startup for, like, $300 million to Apple AAPL +0.25%, and another whose company was sold to Cisco for $500 million–and these were both my roommates in Unit 8200.”

Much has been made of Israel’s status as “Startup Nation.” Not even the size of New Jersey, with a population smaller than New York City’s, Israel is home to more Nasdaq-listed companies than any country except the U.S. and China. On a per capita basis Israel boasts more venture capital, more startups and more scientists and tech professionals than any other country in the world.

To understand these dizzying numbers, you need to understand the mysterious Unit 8200. While no one has ever disclosed how large it is, FORBES estimates the unit has, at any given time, 5,000 people assigned to it, all mandated to deploy the latest technology, often in life-or-death situations, with surprisingly little guidance.

“There’s nobody around to tell you how to do it,” Abrahami says. “The culture inside–and it’s by design–is that your superiors just tell you to go figure it out. That gives you the huge freedom to think differently. It’s you or nobody else. And when you’re an entrepreneur, that’s the most important skill. When you do 5 or 10 or 20 of those projects, you’ve just built 3 things that could be a startup.”

Multiply those three things by thousands of tech geniuses and decades of work, and it’s clear why, as FORBES estimates, more than 1,000 companies have been founded by 8200 alumni, from Waze to Check Point to Mirabilis, the parent company of ICQ. Tech giants like to gobble up 8200 firms like hors d’oeuvres. In the last three years alone, Microsoft MSFT +0.66% bought Adallom, a data privacy firm, for a reported $320 million; Facebook FB +0.27% bought mobile analytics company Onavo for some $150 million; and PayPal grabbed CyActive, which predicts hacks, for an estimated $60 million.

So what’s in 8200′s special sauce? After speaking with more than two dozen 8200 veterans, we narrowed it down to five things that, taken together, provide a pretty good blueprint for Startup Nation–and a pretty powerful cheat sheet on how to launch a successful tech startup.

THE SCREENING

Just as the existence of 8200 was barely acknowledged until a decade ago, its history has never been revealed or reported, other than in snippets. Here’s our best take: Unit 8200 predates Israel’s war of independence in 1948. Starting in the British Mandate period of the 1930s, what was then known as Shin Mem 2 (an acronym of the Hebrew phrase for information service) bugged phone lines of Arab tribes to learn about planned riots. In 1948 it was renamed 515–a random number so that it could be discussed without using words. In 1956, the year of the second war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the name was changed again, to 848.

Unit 8200′s turning point came when Israel’s did, in 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, when the country, which is surrounded by its enemies, was caught off guard by invasions from Egypt and Syria–the largest intelligence failure in its history. A Unit 848 intelligence officer was taken captive by the Syrians, providing his captors with significant information, says Yossi Melman, a veteran journalist on the intelligence and national security beat.

That moment, which led to national soul-searching, resulted in a reboot. The unit would then be known as another random number, 8200. And it would become completely departmentalized, so that various teams in the unit wouldn’t know what other teams were doing. Each squad, like a startup, was pretty much on its own.

More critically, Israel felt it could no longer risk depending on others–specifically, the American tech industry–to give it access to new technologies. So 8200 became the country’s internal R&D hub–the fuel for Startup Nation–with staffing numbers that grew apace and an expanding mission in an Internet-driven world. While Israel’s Mossad spy agency is as legendary as 8200 is anonymous, “90% of the intelligence material in Israel is coming from 8200,” says Yair Cohen, who served 33 years in 8200–the last five (from 2001-05) as its commander. “There isn’t a major operation, from the Mossad or any intelligence security agency, that 8200 is not involved in.” When Yasser Arafat claimed he had nothing to do with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985, which resulted in the murder of an American, 8200 provided an intercepted phone conversation that proved otherwise. When Israel bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, 8200 provided integral intelligence. The Stuxnet computer worm that destroyed nuclear centrifuges in Iran three years later? A CIA and 8200-driven coding masterpiece.

As 8200′s importance grew, so did its clout. While IDF service is compulsory for most Israelis at 18, everyone is screened by the IDF as he or she nears high school graduation–and 8200 gets to pick whomever it wants. Sometimes it begins tracking potential recruits when they’re younger, using an afterschool program for high school tech prodigies and hackers, called Magshimim, as a feeder. “The Harvard Business School has a great screening process, but it depends on who applies,” says Inbal Arieli, 40, who served in 8200 in the late 1990s and by 22 was leading the faculty for the Unit 8200 officer training school. “Unit 8200 can take the top 1% of the 1% of the country.”

True to its mission, even the recruiting is clandestine. “For the longest time I didn’t even know I was being screened,” she says. Once the unit identifies prospects, it puts them through rigorous interviews, tests and classes–covering everything from communications to electrical engineering to Arabic–that can take more than six months.

It’s essentially a boot camp for the mind. “You are put into small teams where you study, brainstorm, train, analyze, solve problems, from early in the morning to very late at night,” says Arieli. “It’s not a passive approach to information.”

The entrance interviews are conducted not by high-ranking officers but rather by 8200 soldiers in their early 20s, who seek those able enough to take over their jobs. References are then checked from each stage of these young lives.

What are they looking for? Math, computer and foreign language skills are big pluses, of course, but what 8200 really seeks is potential, as measured by the ability to learn quickly, adapt to change, succeed on a team and tackle what others see as impossible. Dor Skuler admits that he was “an awful student in high school, truly an awful student,” when Unit 8200 started looking at him in his junior year, but the people there saw untapped genius, and by focusing on what he could be rather than what he was, they discovered a great intelligence officer who wound up founding three startups.

“Even the screening process at the [U.S. National Security Agency] largely focuses on experience,” Arieli says. “But what does a 17-year-old know about intel challenges? Nothing. A high school kid is busy with movies, boys, girls, fashion, sports–that’s your world–and you’re not busy with terror in Syria or nuclear facilities in Iran, so experience and know-how are not relevant because they don’t exist.”

THE CULTURE

Former 8200 commander Yair Cohen remembers an assignment in the early 1980s, after he joined the unit.

“You need $300 million, but you have only $3 million,” his commander told him. “You cannot get ten people, you have only three people. And you need to look at the future and try to analyze what will be, before your enemy will start to purchase and to use this thing.”

After leaving Unit 8200, Cohen went on to establish the cyber division at Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest publicly traded defence electronics companies.

The startup mentality permeates the entire unit, not just the R&D teams who build products. Skuler, the terrible high school student, was eventually put in change of a team focused on collecting and analyzing signal traffic from Israel’s enemies in order to produce intelligence from that raw data. Skuler recalls threats that he needed to counter so quickly that he’d create a small team with a few engineers “and go into room and figure it out in five days.”

The lack of resources means “sometimes you are constrained to a degree that is almost mind-boggling–and it’s your decision which bet to take,” he says. “It’s like sitting in front of a roulette table, and you have one chip to put on the table.”

Usually, Skuler says, his young team came up with something of value. “I think about that sometimes. Why was that possible? It’s totally nuts. But we didn’t know any better. It didn’t need to be perfect. It could be buggy, it can crash–and you’d need to manually reset systems. But we actually had a working solution in the field in days or in weeks sometimes. Truly unique, magical moments.”

Combining intelligence with naiveté, it turns out, can be a weapon. So can a system that gives a stunning amount of freedom and responsibility to people who in America aren’t even legally allowed to drink.

“Nobody tells you exactly what to do,” says Skuler, now 39. “They tell you, ‘This is the problem, go figure it out.’ With a crazy deadline. So you’re inventing, being entrepreneurial and only understanding what you were doing after the fact. But you have to do it, because you don’t have any other choice to meet the mission you were given.”

Israelis relish arguing with one another; it creates a vibrant democracy and an outlet for blowing off steam. In the IDF’s combat units, as with virtually every military organization, discipline and the chain of command trump debate. But in 8200, if soldiers feel decisions by superiors are wrong, they can ignore rank and go as high as the commander of the entire unit. In that way they feel ownership.

The absence of the usual military hierarchy meant that Skuler once found himself alone in “the field” on a phone with “the most senior decision-makers in the country,” because they wanted his personal view on something he’d discovered.

“That’s when I was 19. While my friends in the States are doing their undergraduate work, you’re doing that. By far it was the period in my life where I had the most responsibility and the most impact to other people.”

Skuler now applies those lessons at Intuition Robotics, his third startup (not counting another two businesses he launched within Alcatel-Lucent). His latest sees him trying to build “a very complex social robot with a truly simple user experience, with the goal of improving people’s lives.” The interdisciplinary project involves hardware and software, machine learning and computer vision, psychology and design. And he’s doing it with a core team of eight people.

THE MOTIVATION

After Kira Radinsky did her initial months-long military training with 8200, she was moved to an even more classified group within the operation, Unit 81, which focuses on providing newly invented technology (typically integrated hardware-software products) to combat soldiers. It encompasses, as best we can guess, about a fifth of Unit 8200′s 5,000 soldiers. While you can find 8200 listed on the LinkedIn profiles of its alumni, Unit 81 is rarely mentioned publicly.

“The unit is like a workshop, like an intelligence-toy factory,” says Melman, the national security journalist and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. “They produce machines. If you need something, you describe to them what you need, and they do it for you. If you want to produce mines that will be disguised as rocks in the field, then that’s what they will do.”

Radinsky recalls working with peers who are “just insanely amazing–people just like me who started studying in universities at 15. People who did three degrees in parallel sometimes.” But at college, students have no responsibilities to anyone but themselves. In Israel, lives hinge on 8200 and 81 solutions. And that’s the kind of motivation tuition money can’t buy.

“The more people try to accomplish, the more there is a feeling of fighting together like a family,” recalls Radinsky, who spent 2004-07 in Unit 81. “Even more than that, we don’t have a choice–it has to be solved. We are given a problem that will either give or take life. And the moment you understand you don’t have a choice, every action you do has such implications. You just do it by the adrenaline.”

“It’s a hyper-stressed, hyper-worked technical environment,” Skuler says, “where you have to make real choices–always under the gun to make decisions in time to be meaningful to somebody.”

Radinsky, 29, remembers 24-to-48-hour shifts during “special operations”–when she and her comrades would take turns sleeping in the office–or while doing their tech work “in the field.” She remembers once watching a live video feed, waiting to find out whether something they had built would work or not. When it became clear that it would, the group burst into cheers–and headed to a pub.

After her service, Radinsky took her life-and-death expertise into the private sector. At Microsoft she developed algorithms that used historical data that enabled her to predict the first cholera outbreak in 130 years (in Cuba).

She’s now cofounded a company, SalesPredict, which provides predictive sales-retention analysis–and is staffed by 8200 alums, who feed off adrenaline and operate as a “family.” She remembers how, in her military days, her group “took joint blame in missions that failed without finger-pointing–because if we win, we win together, and if we lose, we all lose. It’s us against the world.”

“I found that motivating people in the corporate world is not much different,” Skuler adds. “What you’re after is for them to have a sense of ownership.”

SalesPredict operates the same way. “Either you win or you are dead,” she says. And while she knows that the stake here is bankruptcy versus lives lost, that difference motivates her, too. “It doesn’t look as scary to take a risk,” she says, “because I took much bigger risks before.”

THE SCREENING

Just as the existence of 8200 was barely acknowledged until a decade ago, its history has never been revealed or reported, other than in snippets. Here’s our best take: Unit 8200 predates Israel’s war of independence in 1948. Starting in the British Mandate period of the 1930s, what was then known as Shin Mem 2 (an acronym of the Hebrew phrase for information service) bugged phone lines of Arab tribes to learn about planned riots. In 1948 it was renamed 515–a random number so that it could be discussed without using words. In 1956, the year of the second war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the name was changed again, to 848.

Unit 8200′s turning point came when Israel’s did, in 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, when the country, which is surrounded by its enemies, was caught off guard by invasions from Egypt and Syria–the largest intelligence failure in its history. A Unit 848 intelligence officer was taken captive by the Syrians, providing his captors with significant information, says Yossi Melman, a veteran journalist on the intelligence and national security beat.

That moment, which led to national soul-searching, resulted in a reboot. The unit would then be known as another random number, 8200. And it would become completely departmentalized, so that various teams in the unit wouldn’t know what other teams were doing. Each squad, like a startup, was pretty much on its own.

More critically, Israel felt it could no longer risk depending on others–specifically, the American tech industry–to give it access to new technologies. So 8200 became the country’s internal R&D hub–the fuel for Startup Nation–with staffing numbers that grew apace and an expanding mission in an Internet-driven world. While Israel’s Mossad spy agency is as legendary as 8200 is anonymous, “90% of the intelligence material in Israel is coming from 8200,” says Yair Cohen, who served 33 years in 8200–the last five (from 2001-05) as its commander. “There isn’t a major operation, from the Mossad or any intelligence security agency, that 8200 is not involved in.” When Yasser Arafat claimed he had nothing to do with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985, which resulted in the murder of an American, 8200 provided an intercepted phone conversation that proved otherwise. When Israel bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, 8200 provided integral intelligence. The Stuxnet computer worm that destroyed nuclear centrifuges in Iran three years later? A CIA and 8200-driven coding masterpiece.

As 8200′s importance grew, so did its clout. While IDF service is compulsory for most Israelis at 18, everyone is screened by the IDF as he or she nears high school graduation–and 8200 gets to pick whomever it wants. Sometimes it begins tracking potential recruits when they’re younger, using an afterschool program for high school tech prodigies and hackers, called Magshimim, as a feeder. “The Harvard Business School has a great screening process, but it depends on who applies,” says Inbal Arieli, 40, who served in 8200 in the late 1990s and by 22 was leading the faculty for the Unit 8200 officer training school. “Unit 8200 can take the top 1% of the 1% of the country.”

True to its mission, even the recruiting is clandestine. “For the longest time I didn’t even know I was being screened,” she says. Once the unit identifies prospects, it puts them through rigorous interviews, tests and classes–covering everything from communications to electrical engineering to Arabic–that can take more than six months.

It’s essentially a boot camp for the mind. “You are put into small teams where you study, brainstorm, train, analyze, solve problems, from early in the morning to very late at night,” says Arieli. “It’s not a passive approach to information.”

The entrance interviews are conducted not by high-ranking officers but rather by 8200 soldiers in their early 20s, who seek those able enough to take over their jobs. References are then checked from each stage of these young lives.

What are they looking for? Math, computer and foreign language skills are big pluses, of course, but what 8200 really seeks is potential, as measured by the ability to learn quickly, adapt to change, succeed on a team and tackle what others see as impossible. Dor Skuler admits that he was “an awful student in high school, truly an awful student,” when Unit 8200 started looking at him in his junior year, but the people there saw untapped genius, and by focusing on what he could be rather than what he was, they discovered a great intelligence officer who wound up founding three startups.

“Even the screening process at the [U.S. National Security Agency] largely focuses on experience,” Arieli says. “But what does a 17-year-old know about intel challenges? Nothing. A high school kid is busy with movies, boys, girls, fashion, sports–that’s your world–and you’re not busy with terror in Syria or nuclear facilities in Iran, so experience and know-how are not relevant because they don’t exist.”

THE CULTURE

Former 8200 commander Yair Cohen remembers an assignment in the early 1980s, after he joined the unit.

“You need $300 million, but you have only $3 million,” his commander told him. “You cannot get ten people, you have only three people. And you need to look at the future and try to analyze what will be, before your enemy will start to purchase and to use this thing.”

After leaving Unit 8200, Cohen went on to establish the cyber division at Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest publicly traded defense electronics companies.

The startup mentality permeates the entire unit, not just the R&D teams who build products. Skuler, the terrible high school student, was eventually put in change of a team focused on collecting and analyzing signal traffic from Israel’s enemies in order to produce intelligence from that raw data. Skuler recalls threats that he needed to counter so quickly that he’d create a small team with a few engineers “and go into room and figure it out in five days.”

The lack of resources means “sometimes you are constrained to a degree that is almost mind-boggling–and it’s your decision which bet to take,” he says. “It’s like sitting in front of a roulette table, and you have one chip to put on the table.”

Usually, Skuler says, his young team came up with something of value. “I think about that sometimes. Why was that possible? It’s totally nuts. But we didn’t know any better. It didn’t need to be perfect. It could be buggy, it can crash–and you’d need to manually reset systems. But we actually had a working solution in the field in days or in weeks sometimes. Truly unique, magical moments.”

Combining intelligence with naiveté, it turns out, can be a weapon. So can a system that gives a stunning amount of freedom and responsibility to people who in America aren’t even legally allowed to drink.

“Nobody tells you exactly what to do,” says Skuler, now 39. “They tell you, ‘This is the problem, go figure it out.’ With a crazy deadline. So you’re inventing, being entrepreneurial and only understanding what you were doing after the fact. But you have to do it, because you don’t have any other choice to meet the mission you were given.”

Israelis relish arguing with one another; it creates a vibrant democracy and an outlet for blowing off steam. In the IDF’s combat units, as with virtually every military organization, discipline and the chain of command trump debate. But in 8200, if soldiers feel decisions by superiors are wrong, they can ignore rank and go as high as the commander of the entire unit. In that way they feel ownership.

The absence of the usual military hierarchy meant that Skuler once found himself alone in “the field” on a phone with “the most senior decision-makers in the country,” because they wanted his personal view on something he’d discovered.

“That’s when I was 19. While my friends in the States are doing their undergraduate work, you’re doing that. By far it was the period in my life where I had the most responsibility and the most impact to other people.”

Skuler now applies those lessons at Intuition Robotics, his third startup (not counting another two businesses he launched within Alcatel-Lucent). His latest sees him trying to build “a very complex social robot with a truly simple user experience, with the goal of improving people’s lives.” The interdisciplinary project involves hardware and software, machine learning and computer vision, psychology and design. And he’s doing it with a core team of eight people.

THE MOTIVATION

After Kira Radinsky did her initial months-long military training with 8200, she was moved to an even more classified group within the operation, Unit 81, which focuses on providing newly invented technology (typically integrated hardware-software products) to combat soldiers. It encompasses, as best we can guess, about a fifth of Unit 8200′s 5,000 soldiers. While you can find 8200 listed on the LinkedIn profiles of its alumni, Unit 81 is rarely mentioned publicly.

“The unit is like a workshop, like an intelligence-toy factory,” says Melman, the national security journalist and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. “They produce machines. If you need something, you describe to them what you need, and they do it for you. If you want to produce mines that will be disguised as rocks in the field, then that’s what they will do.”

Radinsky recalls working with peers who are “just insanely amazing–people just like me who started studying in universities at 15. People who did three degrees in parallel sometimes.” But at college, students have no responsibilities to anyone but themselves. In Israel, lives hinge on 8200 and 81 solutions. And that’s the kind of motivation tuition money can’t buy.

“The more people try to accomplish, the more there is a feeling of fighting together like a family,” recalls Radinsky, who spent 2004-07 in Unit 81. “Even more than that, we don’t have a choice–it has to be solved. We are given a problem that will either give or take life. And the moment you understand you don’t have a choice, every action you do has such implications. You just do it by the adrenaline.”

“It’s a hyper-stressed, hyper-worked technical environment,” Skuler says, “where you have to make real choices–always under the gun to make decisions in time to be meaningful to somebody.”

Radinsky, 29, remembers 24-to-48-hour shifts during “special operations”–when she and her comrades would take turns sleeping in the office–or while doing their tech work “in the field.” She remembers once watching a live video feed, waiting to find out whether something they had built would work or not. When it became clear that it would, the group burst into cheers–and headed to a pub.

After her service, Radinsky took her life-and-death expertise into the private sector. At Microsoft she developed algorithms that used historical data that enabled her to predict the first cholera outbreak in 130 years (in Cuba).

She’s now cofounded a company, SalesPredict, which provides predictive sales-retention analysis–and is staffed by 8200 alums, who feed off adrenaline and operate as a “family.” She remembers how, in her military days, her group “took joint blame in missions that failed without finger-pointing–because if we win, we win together, and if we lose, we all lose. It’s us against the world.”

“I found that motivating people in the corporate world is not much different,” Skuler adds. “What you’re after is for them to have a sense of ownership.”

SalesPredict operates the same way. “Either you win or you are dead,” she says. And while she knows that the stake here is bankruptcy versus lives lost, that difference motivates her, too. “It doesn’t look as scary to take a risk,” she says, “because I took much bigger risks before.”

THE CHURN

It stands to reason that the last person to leave the helm of Unit 8200 has already created arguably the world’s top cybersecurity syndicate. Nadav Zafrir, the 46-year-old CEO and cofounder of Team8, runs a private foundry that creates startups from scratch to solve some of the toughest problems in cybersecurity. He served as 8200′s commander for five years, leaving in 2013 after founding the IDF’s “Cyber Command,” an elite group of geeks that oversees the military’s online warfare.


The Leader: Nadav Zafrir joined Unit 8200 in 2005 and served as its commander from 2009 to 2013. He also founded the Israel Defence Forces’ “Cyber Command”. Zafrir is now co-founder and CEO of Team8, Israel’s leading cyber­security foundry, leveraging the talents of Israel’s cyberwar veterans. “Many young Israelis aim to serve in the most elite units,” he says. “Thirty years ago this might have meant serving in an elite combat unit. Today, if you are technically inclined, the dream is to serve in Unit 8200.” Photo by Ronen Goldman for Forbes

Along with his two co-founders, also high-level 8200 alums, Zafrir raised $40 million in seed money and an all-star lineup of research partners and investors that includes Alcatel-Lucent, Accenture, AT&T, Cisco, Nokia and Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors. Zafrir is an impregnable firewall when it comes to discussing anything specific he did in 8200. But he will talk about how the unit’s structure is perfectly suited for today’s global economy.

One thing he touts: 8200′s churn. With an average length of service in the neighborhood of four years, this very advanced technical operation has an annual turnover of 25%–a frightening number for most major corporations but a tremendous asset, Zafrir argues, in the fast-moving world of tech. “Every year, Unit 8200 gets this influx of young, smart, motivated and passionate men and women looking at problems from an entirely new perspective,” he says. This often allowed Zafrir to challenge new teams to tackle problems their predecessors had deemed impossible. “We don’t tell them that other people have tried to solve the same problem many times and failed,” he concedes.

The high turnover forces 8200 teams to exercise discipline in designing products and systems. Since many of the developers won’t be around to see their inventions become operational, they have to be built in ways that allow fresh recruits to work with them. And the churn goes both ways. Like all other IDF veterans, 8200 alums must serve as reserves for up to three weeks a year until they reach their early 40s. So for decades more, 8200 veterans get a peek into the latest technology developed by their younger successors–Israel’s cybersecurity as the ultimate in continuing education.

Occasionally, 8200 will lure its best and brightest to stay full-time by turning itself into an incubator. Barak Perelman, a former 8200 captain who served in the unit for six years, until 2013, had dreamed of building a business from scratch.

His IDF bosses had an idea to keep him in the unit: If he could figure out an innovative project that helped 8200, they’d invest in it with manpower. He did exactly that and eventually left to create Indegy, which provides cybersecurity for critical infrastructures such as chemical plants and was born with an assist from 8200. “A win-win,” says Perelman, who adds that this incubation model has been employed several times that he knows of by 8200.

It’s also a win for the Israeli economy, in terms of jobs and wealth created and in the message it sends to the country’s top tech talent. “They know the guy who sold his company for $300 million–they didn’t just read it in FORBES,” Zafrir says. “They think, ‘I know him–I can do $400 million.’ ”

THE NETWORK

Elad Benjamin’s father, Menashe, spent a quarter-century in Unit 8200, where he commanded a subdivision, and then launched a company that created medical imaging software. “Had he not come away with what he came away with from 8200, I think it would have been difficult for him to start his company,” says Elad, 41, who feels the same way about his own startup, also in the medical field. “So the thread kind of runs along.”

But it goes much deeper than that. When Menashe’s company was eventually sold to Kodak, it had 55 employees–one-third of whom were 8200 alums. Similarly, about half of Elad’s employees today are from 8200. His closest friends are as well.

One can’t underestimate the importance of the unit’s alumni network in fueling Startup Nation. “The way you do it is you get one of your buddies from the 8200 tech unit who is about to get released, and he has all the release dates of all the other folks from that tech unit–and we’d just pick ‘em off one by one,” Benjamin says. “We give them a phone call and say, ‘Your ex-team-leader is now here with us. Why don’t you come in and take a look?’”

Recruiting this way eliminates many steps. “You know you are getting a combination of confidence level and skill level with them,” he says. “These are 24-year-olds who’ve just spent the last five, six years dealing with live, real-world, mission-critical systems and products and scenarios. What they’ve done is real. It’s not theoretical.” And it will pay entrepreneurial dividends for decades to come.

THE FUTURE: Can 8200 launch a tech boom for Arabs, too?

There’s a downside to 8200′s otherworldly success. “The military is not the ideal way to produce people who are innovative in tech. This is not a prescription for the rest of the world, and it’s not something we want for ourselves,” says Saul Singer, whose 2009 book, Start-Up Nation, helped publicize the 8200 phenomenon. “We want this to end. So the question is, how do you do this without the military? Why can’t our education systems do this? Education has to be reinvented.”

Arabs constitute 20% of Israel’s citizenry but  less than 2% of the country’s tech workers; there is not a single Arab-led company on the Tel Aviv stock exchange

One hopeful sign: Israeli Arabs, who are not required to serve in the military (but can volunteer) and thus can’t tap into the 8200 alumni network, are beginning to benefit from it. The result offers some small hope of reduced tension between Jews and Arabs in Israel, not to mention the conflict with the Palestinians.

While they make up about 20% of Israel’s citizenry, less than 2% of the country’s tech workers are Arabs, and there is not a single Arab-led company on the Tel Aviv stock exchange. Part of that is because they don’t get the tech-based military training, and part is cultural: Arab parents often push kids toward safe and secure jobs rather than risk failure with startups. But Israeli-Arab entrepreneurs like Jafar Sabbah may be able to turn that around. Even one major Arab success story would indicate to other Arabs that it’s possible for them, too.

Sabbah, who studied computer science at the Technion and earned a law degree from Hebrew University, is a good bet to pull it off. He’s now started three companies. While working with three Israeli-Jewish entrepreneurs in 2000 on his first startup, an Arab Internet portal called Triple Vision, Sabbah noticed that one of them “always wrote the numbers ’8200′ next to his name on business plans.”

“I finally asked him why he does this.” His colleague laughed, “and told me the story that Unit 8200 is a big deal in high-tech.”

Sabbah now knows that big-time. Six years ago a Unit 8200 alumni group, run by Inbal Arieli of the nonprofit Start-Up Nation Central, started reaching out to Arab communities to encourage the best entrepreneurs to apply for a rigorous six-month program taught by current and former 8200 soldiers. “We were trying to bring the unit’s DNA to a bigger audience,” she says.

The idea was very controversial at first. “I was told by investors in venture capital firms here that for an Israeli Arab to join an 8200 program, even if it’s just a civil one, that’s too much to ask,” says Arieli. But she persisted.

This course is almost as hard to get into as 8200. Each year, over 300 Jewish-run startups in Israel apply and only 20 are accepted. Sabbah, whose third startup, Beam Riders, is building a cloud-based system to enhance cognitive and learning skills through neuro-feedback and neuro-stimulation methods, was the first Arab Israeli accepted, in 2014.

Sabbah says he learned a tremendous amount from the program, which covers everything from product design to marketing to fundraising. And, of course, his circle has widened. “Now I have many connections and also visibility,” he says. “And when I talk to investors as a graduate of this program, they say ‘Wow!’–and it’s good for me.”

With folks like Sabbah paving the way, it’s not too hard to imagine that someday Israel’s Arab citizens will even start finding their way into Unit 8200 itself. And the world will say “Wow!”–and that will be good for Israel, too.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017