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Former Shin Bet deputy chief who led fight on West Bank terror dies of COVID-19

Yitzhak Ilan, 64, oversaw hundreds of counterterrorism ops, and ‘many Israelis owe him their lives without knowing it,’ says agency director Nadav Argaman

Former Shin Bet deputy director Yitzhak Ilan (video screenshot)
Former Shin Bet deputy director Yitzhak Ilan (video screenshot)

Yitzhak Ilan, a former deputy director of the Shin Bet domestic security agency who oversaw hundreds of counterterrorism operations, died on Friday of COVID-19 at the age of 64.

Ilan, who underwent a lung transplant last year, will be buried Friday in the southern city of Ashdod. He is survived by his wife and three children.

Ilan spent 30 years in the Shin Bet security service, notably as the head of its West Bank division at the height of the Second Intifada in 2000-2003, a position in which he oversaw Israel’s efforts to curb Palestinian suicide bombings.

In a profile of Ilan in May, Maariv’s Ben Caspit wrote that he “is considered the living Israeli who interrogated the most terrorists and spent the most consecutive years in the Sisyphean and stubborn fight against terrorism.”

An immigrant to Israel from Georgia at the age of 17, Ilan began his Shin Bet career in 1982 in its division working to thwart Soviet spying in Israel, and climbing up the ranks, served as a senior interrogator, headed various divisions, and was said responsible for ordering numerous targeted killings of Palestinian terror leaders. His moniker in the service was “The Georgian,” a reference to his home country.

Paramedics and police at the scene of a Palestinian suicide-bombing that killed 19 and injuring 74 on a bus in Jerusalem, June 18, 2002. (Flash90/File)

“Yitzhak Ilan was one of the pillars of the service,” said Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman on Friday. “He was an excellent investigator and an intelligence agent of the highest caliber. Over the years, Itzhak managed hundreds of intelligence counterterrorism operations and interrogations, which saved the lives of many people. Many Israelis owe him their lives without knowing it.”

Argaman said Ilan was “an Israeli patriot who loved the state with his whole heart and did everything in his power to protect and fortify its security.”

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman outside his home on February 11, 2016. (Flash90)

“Even in his last days, he fought bravely and with the determination that so characterized him against the disease, until his strength left him,” added Argaman. “We mourn his untimely passing, share in the family’s grief and promise to commemorate him in the annals of the Shin Bet.”

Former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, a Likud lawmaker, mourned his former colleague, calling it a “sad day for the people of Israel and the security establishment.

“It’s doubtful that many know just how incredible his contribution to Israel’s security was, how many people who wake up in the morning for work are alive because of Yitzhak’s foiling of terrorism, how many people were prevented from being injured as a result of his knowledge in fighting terror.”

In 2010, Ilan was appointed deputy director of the agency. A year later, he vied for the top position in the security service but was beat out by Yoram Cohen, prompting his resignation. He was overlooked for the top position by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despite receiving the endorsement of the outgoing chief, Yuval Diskin.

Netanyahu also eulogized Ilan on Friday and sent condolences to his family.

“Many Israelis owe him [a debt of] gratitude for his actions for Israel’s security,” the prime minister tweeted.

Since leaving the agency, he made a Knesset run in 2019 as part of the Blue and White faction but failed to make it into parliament after being allotted the 39th slot on the party slate. Ilan was brought into the party by former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon. The party is home to a long roster of former generals, many of whom served alongside Ilan in the security services for decades.

His brief entry into politics left him embittered by his Blue and White colleagues, whom Ilan accused of shunting him down the party slate without cause. On the day of his lung transplant, he told Caspit in January, all were aware of the surgery but none but the party’s Chili Tropper sent him a message and no party members visited him in hospital during the recovery.

“I am their friend. It’s true friendship, spanning decades. How could they do such a thing to me? I can’t get over this issue. I saw a lot of things in my life. Nothing prepared me for this.”

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz on Friday mourned Ilan, calling him “one of the best people I’ve known.”

“Before the third election, I made the decision to change his place on the list. Yitzhak was deeply offended and I apologized to him in a meeting over how the decision was made,” Gantz added in a tweet.

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