In the early 1970s, four decades ago, a spate of attacks hit Israeli targets
around the world, the 1972 attack on the Israeli delegation to the Munich
Olympics being only one of many, many examples.
The situation was such
that prior to boarding flights, passengers going abroad were told not to
congregate in groups, and to remove all Hebrew from their luggage tags, not to
speak Hebrew in public and to treat anyone seated next to them on the plane as a
potential hijacker; every package as a could-be bomb. Saracen armored vehicles
appeared outside Israeli embassies and other potential terrorist targets,
including synagogues and Jewish schools, and multi-millions were spent on
security measures against the threat.
Munich, however, was the straw that
broke the camel’s back. It made the government realize that international terror
had become a strategic problem of major proportions, not just an irritant, one
that required a strategic response and not the low priority that had been given
to the subject until then.
The then-prime minister, Golda Meir, consulted
with her few trusted confidants. They agreed that the man to deal with
the issue was Aaron Yariv, a former head of Military Intelligence who had
achieved legendary status during his nine years as head of the
Slight, intense, short, bespectacled, Yariv was also a
close confidant of the prime minister who trusted him implicitly. Her orders to
Yariv, as he later recounted, were simple: Cut off the head of the snake, she
said, and the body will die soon after, and with that gave him a mandate to go
after the terrorist leadership wherever they may be, leaving no fingerprints and
showing no mercy.
Funds and resources were dispatched in Yariv’s
direction as he secretly pieced together a special unit out of an innocuous
office above a cinema off Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, designed to concentrate
on removing the leadership and operational capabilities of those behind the
attacks. Yariv’s strategy was to “pull the plug out of the socket” –
concentrate on removing those things that allowed the terrorists to operate
internationally, rather than a frontal attack against them.
“I see myself
as surgeon trying to eradicate the source problem,” he said, “not deal with its
symptoms.” And so it was.
Shortly, with systematic efficiency and in
silence, Yariv’s team surgically removed dozens of key international terror
operatives, often on the soil of countries friendly to Israel. Boats sank, cars
exploded, rifles fired backwards, grenades went off unexpectedly early, supposed
businessmen died getting into their limousines on the streets of Paris and
others fell onto the rails of oncoming subways.
The scope of this was
made evident in July 1973, when Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter, was
mistakenly assassinated in the Norwegian resort town of Lillehammer after being
wrongly identified as Ali Hassan Salameh, the Black September operative behind
the Munich Olympic massacre the year before.
His death, though mistaken,
was only the tip of the iceberg, however, one known face out of many others,
correctly identified as terrorists, and whose deaths on the surgeon’s table
saved many innocent lives.
Now we have yet another cycle of international
terror being directed against Israelis, this time as manifested on Wednesday,
when an Israeli tourist bus was attacked in the Bulgarian resort town of Burgas,
an extremely popular destination with Israeli youngsters in particular. Seven
people were killed and dozens injured, and both the prime minister and the
Israeli intelligence services were quick to finger the Iranians and Hezbollah as
behind the attack.
So it’s time for more surgery, not panic or
demonstrative responses. As Israelis we have lived with these problems for
years, and if it’s not the Palestinians, or the Red Brigades, so it’s the
Iranians and Hezbollah. The tools available to those who fight
international terror today are infinitely better than those available to Yariv
way back when, and as opposed to having to work behind the backs of friendly
countries, Israel now enjoys unprecedented international cooperation in the war
Many attempts to attack Israelis on foreign territory have
been foiled in recent months. This one “succeeded.” There will always be
holes in the net. Burgas was bound to happen.
The terrorists want
us to cancel our vacations, live in fear and not travel abroad. They want us not
to speak Hebrew, and to hide our identities and cower in fear. They want us to
panic and overreact, waste massive resources and behave as if we live in
inconstant fear of our lives, with death lurking behind every corner.
some degree attacks like these succeed in achieving all these goals, but mainly
because we allow them to. There have been casualties and no one is making light
of the deaths or the psychological consequences for the Israeli public of
feeling insecure, hounded and vulnerable.
That said, the perpetrators
would do well to remember the surgeons are on their way, better equipped, more
knowledgeable and better supported than those who preceded them. As opposed to
the early 1970s, terror is no longer a one-way street, but what has not changed
is the need for silence, calm nerves and precision in the way in which one deals
with it. The more we hear about Israel’s response, the less effective it
It is to be hoped today’s politicians will understand this
and not fall victim to populist demands for revenge. Go for the head, not the
headlines, and all of Israel will benefit from greater security. Terror,
unfortunately, is something we know a lot about. Let the professionals deal with
the problem and the surgeons do their work, and this patient too will
The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for
National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.