Fifteen years ago Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, its largest military operation in the West Bank since the 1967 Six Day War, calling up reservists and sending troops and heavy weaponry deep into the hearts of six major Palestinian cities, surrounding towns and refugee camps.
The second intifada, from September 2000 to mid-2005, saw close to 1,000 Israelis killed and thousands more wounded, as hundreds of Palestinian terrorists staged deadly attacks across the country.
At the time, Ariel Sharon was prime minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was the defense minister and Shaul Mofaz was IDF chief of staff. The government’s reactions, ranging from financial sanctions, prohibiting Palestinians from entering Israel and targeted assassinations, did not seem to have any real impact on the relentless and deadly attacks.
One-hundred-thirty-three Israelis lost their lives in terrorist attacks in March 2002 alone. On March 27, 2002, Hamas operative Abdel-Basset Odeh blew himself up at a Passover Seder in Netanya’s Park Hotel, in an attack that killed 29 people and wounded 64 more.
It was the catalyst for Sharon to launch the operation on March 29, despite misgivings by the army and intelligence officials that hundreds of soldiers would be killed. He gave the green light for the operation and authorized the Defense Ministry to call up 20,000 reservists in an emergency draft.
The goal of the operation? To stop the terrorist attacks plaguing Israel by regaining control of the West Bank, in particular the cities in Area A that are under the sole control of the Palestinian Authority.
Lt.-Col. Yair Pinto – a company commander in the Kfir Brigade at the time – was taking part in a drill when his unit received orders to enter Ramallah. They all knew the ground on which they would be fighting.
“While we understood that this would be a significant operation, we didn’t know exactly what it was going to be like. But we were prepared for war,” Pinto told The Jerusalem Post during a recent tour of the northern West Bank.
“It was the first time that we entered Palestinian cities with such heavy weaponry,” such as tanks and armored personnel carriers, he added.
After gaining control of Ramallah, Pinto and his soldiers were responsible for one of the operation’s first moves, placing a siege on the Mukata presidential compound. Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat never left it, until his hospitalization and death in 2004.
While the most intense fighting took place in Jenin and Nablus, Pinto said, he and his soldiers met almost no resistance and reached the center of Ramallah in less than 24 hours.
“Almost everyone who stood against us with their weapons just ran,” during the initial push into the city, Pinto recalled. It was only in the days following their entry into Ramallah that they faced armed opposition.
Nablus, which was considered the central hotbed of terrorism in the West Bank, with the city’s casbah the epicenter, took over a week to fully occupy. The most notorious battle occurred in Jenin 10 days into the operation, on April 9, 2002, where 13 reserve soldiers were ambushed and killed.
During the operation, the IDF seized massive quantities of weapons and uncovered 23 explosive laboratories.
In the process, 29 soldiers died and another 127 were wounded. Palestinians reported at least 250 fatalities among their own, with an additional 400 wounded and more that 5,000 arrested, including former Fatah secretary-general in the West Bank Marwan Barghouti, currently leading a hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners, who was captured by Pinto and his soldiers.
Although terrorist attacks resumed after the end of the operation, and its full impact was not apparent until the second intifada ended in 2005, according to official figures 32 terrorist attacks that were in their final stages of preparation were foiled or disrupted as a result of the operation, all in less than a month after the operation’s end.
The operation’s stated goal was achieved.
“The situation we had back then – with suicide bombers coming into the center of the country, blowing themselves up – we don’t have that now. Hamas suffered a death blow from the operation,” Pinto said.
He credits the relative quiet that resulted from that military action to several changes on the ground: the security barrier Israel began to construct shortly after the operation; Palestinian security officials who understand the need to crack down on terrorists; and opposition to a new popular uprising among the general Palestinian population.
“It’s an altogether different environment on the ground now as compared to 15 years ago,” Pinto said, adding that the 130 kilometers of the security barrier “wasn’t there 15 years ago. This is one of the changes on the ground that we can see with our eyes.”
According to Pinto, the challenges that the army faces in the current wave of violence in the West Bank and Israel are “completely different.” During the second intifada, he explained, they were fighting against Palestinians who were much older than the average attacker whom the army currently faces.
Today’s lone-wolf attacks are much harder to predict than the attacks planned during the second intifada by large terrorist organizations, such as Hamas. Intelligence gathering when faced with a terrorist organization is one thing; gathering intelligence to preempt a lone wolf is another.
The security situation in the West Bank has also changed dramatically in the 15 years since Operation Defensive Shield. Settlements are better protected, there are dozens of new pillboxes around the West Bank, and an entire field intelligence battalion has been added. The number of battalions now deployed to the West Bank is half the number of battalions that were there prior to the operation. According to Pinto, because of the current situation on the ground, “they are not needed.”
The addition of the field intelligence battalion has greatly added to the IDF’s success in uncovering unofficial workshops producing illegal weapons, which are raided and shut down almost nightly by Israeli security forces, including the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) IDF and police. These raids have significantly raised the price of locally made weapons, such as the Carl Gustav m/45 submachine gun, and greatly reduced the number of bombs and other weapons available to would-be attackers.
While raids were a common occurrence during the second intifada as well, “they did not occur to the same extent as today. Despite the fact that nothing can ever be 100%, especially against lone wolves, our intelligence is much better than it was then,” Pinto said.
Another change that’s less apparent but just as important is the increased communication between the two sides, which did not exist before the operation, Pinto said.
Security cooperation and coordination between Israel and the PA began with the Oslo I Accord, signed on September 13, 1993, and both the PA and IDF see the security cooperation as a critical aspect to maintaining stability in the West Bank.
Cooperation between the two sides has broken down before, including during the second intifada, and the PA has repeatedly threatened to end the security cooperation with Israel in the past couple of years, most recently in February, following the Knesset’s passage of the Settlement Regulation Law, which retroactively legalized about 4,000 settler homes built on privately owned Palestinian land in the West Bank.
Israel and the PA have many shared interests in continuing the security coordination, but none are as important as the threat of Hamas wresting power from the PA in the West Bank. The two Palestinian groups have vied for power since the first intifada in 1987, and Hamas has repeatedly bashed the PA for its cooperation with Israel, accusing its security services of collaborating with Israel to perpetuate the occupation.
Palestinian security forces have also foiled hundreds of attacks against Israeli civilians and IDF troops, such as in November, when they received intelligence about a bomb attached to a barrier that separates the Israeli side of Hebron from the Palestinian side. Palestinian security forces immediately informed the IDF and Israeli police, and the bomb was safely detonated, thwarting a potentially deadly terrorist attack.
While peace between Israel and the Palestinians any time soon seems unlikely, Pinto, nearly 18 years after serving in the West Bank, said the current situation is “the best situation I’ve ever seen.
“I don’t see another operation like Defensive Shield happening again. The Palestinians saw what happened and see that now their economy is growing; so is the cultural aspect. There is also more freedom of movement in the West Bank, there are fewer checkpoints, and it’s easier to get from one place to another,” he continued, explaining that the IDF understands that “this type of freedom and access equals less terrorism.”
But he was quick to warn, “It’s when it’s quiet that soldiers ask why we are still here and let their guard down. Terrorists will always look for where we are not prepared, so we must remain alert at all times. We know that, under the radar, there are those who still want to carry out an attack.”