PostScript: Stay calm. The procedure is well-known

It’s time for more surgery, not panic or demonstrative responses. There will always be holes in the net. Burgas was bound to happen.

July 20, 2012 08:25
4 minute read.
Smoke in Bulgaria bombing

Smoke in Bulgaria bombing 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

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 organization.

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 on terror.

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.

To 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 probably is.

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 expire.

The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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