How Operation Defensive Shield changed Israel’s security reality

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: “Many Palestinian leaders during that period will tell today you that it was a mistake to strike against Israel with suicide bombers and guns to achieve diplomatic aims," Mofaz said

 THE SCENE after a terrorist blew himself up at the Matza restaurant in Haifa in March 31, 2002, two days after Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield. (photo credit: IDF/Reuters)
THE SCENE after a terrorist blew himself up at the Matza restaurant in Haifa in March 31, 2002, two days after Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield.
(photo credit: IDF/Reuters)

It was a horrid month, March 2002, a month of random death at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers, snipers and home infiltrators.

One hundred and thirty-five people were murdered by terrorists in one month. One hundred and thirty-five. There was a suicide bombing attack about once every two days. It has become known as Black March.

It was the month when 10 people were killed in a suicide attack on a Saturday evening near a yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood, and on the next day 10 others were killed at an IDF roadblock near Ofra.

It was the month of the attack on the Atzmona premilitary academy in Gush Katif, Cafe Moment in Jerusalem, Bus No. 823 in Wadi Ara... and many, many more.

All of this was taking place under the orchestration of Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat in Ramallah; that same Arafat who, in the summer of 2000, ostensibly went to talk peace with Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton at Camp David, even as he was ordering tons of weapons and explosives from Iran and Hezbollah that were to be used in a terrorist campaign against Israel.

Then-IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz briefs soldiers during the operation.  (credit: IDF/Reuters)Then-IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz briefs soldiers during the operation. (credit: IDF/Reuters)

March 2002 was also the month of the Passover eve massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya, where a 25-year-old terrorist from Tulkarm disguised as a religious woman walked into a dining room full of guests celebrating the Seder and murdered 30 people.

This was the deadliest attack of the Second Intifada, and that horror finally persuaded the government to buck US and European opposition, set aside commitments it signed onto under the Oslo Accords, and launch a widespread military campaign in Judea and Samaria called Operation Defensive Shield aimed at significantly downgrading the terrorist capabilities that had developed there since Israel withdrew from the Palestinian cities and refugee camps under those accords.

Shaul Mofaz was the chief of staff at the time. Interviewed even as Israel was once again dealing with a wave of terrorism, though one thankfully not nearly as deadly as the one it experienced back then, Mofaz said that the reality now is not at all similar to what it was 20 years ago.

“Then the terror was directed by Arafat, and most of the Palestinians – 70% to 80% – joined in the confrontation and supported it,” he said, noting that today the terrorism is not being directed by the PA leadership, nor does it have the same level of popular participation and support.

Arafat, together with Tanzim head Marwan Barghouti, succeeded in building a terrorist army, which was joined in its fight by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP. This terrorist war, the Second Intifada, “was meant to achieve what Arafat defined as the Palestinian national aspirations: a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as its capital and the right of refugees to return to Israel,” Mofaz said. “When he understood at Camp David that he would not get this, he turned toward confrontation. It was directed by Arafat.”

From the time the Palestinians launched the Second Intifada in September 2000, a little over a month after the failure at Camp David and some four months after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, to the time when the IDF went back into the Palestinian cities during Operation Defensive Shield, some 400 people – civilians and soldiers – were killed in dozens of attacks that traumatized the nation.

The IDF’s 1999 intelligence assessment, Mofaz said, predicted that there would be an armed confrontation with the Palestinians in 2000. The political echelon, however, rejected that assessment and continued negotiations with Arafat.

According to Mofaz, the IDF estimate said that this confrontation would not be one of stones and petrol bombs, like the First Intifada, but, rather, one where “guns and bombs would be used against us.”

What they didn’t see, he said, were the suicide bombings, which emerged as the Palestinians’ most deadly weapon. During the Second Intifada, suicide bombings accounted for less than 1% of the attacks but caused 50% of the fatalities.

“They had no problem recruiting suicide bombers,” Mofaz said. “Hundreds of them were waiting in line ready to blow themselves up in Israel because of the incitement and brainwashing.”

Even with labs they built to manufacture explosives, the Palestinians did not have enough explosives to meet the demand. Mofaz noted that the Karin A arms-bearing ship that the IDF intercepted on the way to Gaza in January 2002 carried 50 tons of weapons, including 2.2 tons of the most lethal TNT available, which was to be used for suicide bombers.

“Think about 2.2 tons of explosives,” he said, “that’s something like 450-500 suicide bombers.”

IF SO many people had already been killed during the Second Intifada by March 2020, if there were so many attacks, why did it take the IDF nearly a year and a half to launch Operation Defensive Shield?

Mofaz said it was difficult for the government of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to make the decision. Sharon’s was a national-unity government that included the Labor Party, whose leader at the time, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was the defense minister, and Shimon Peres was deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

Mofaz, who noted that in 1978 Israel launched Operation Litani and took control of southern Lebanon up to the Litani River in response to the Coastal Road massacre that killed 38 people, ticked off several reasons for the government’s hesitance – until Passover of 2002 – to take widespread military action.

“The first was because the outlook of many Israelis was that we were the occupiers, who had occupied a land not our own,” he said.

Another reason was that Israel was committed under the Oslo Accords to give control of some 40% of the territory to the Palestinians (Areas A and B), and under the terms of the agreement, the IDF could not operate there.

Another difficulty, he said, was that “the US did not agree” to a major operation. At the time the US was on its way into Afghanistan and Iraq and wanted to build an international coalition – including Mideast countries – for its post-9/11 military response.

And finally, he said, there were disagreements withing the government itself.

The way Mofaz described it, Sharon was more willing to go into Area A – the IDF had been ready and prepared to do so since the Dolphinarium attack in Tel Aviv the previous June – but Ben-Eliezer “still believed there was a chance for negotiations and an agreement with the Palestinians. He wasn’t in favor of going into Area A. Up until a month before the Park Hotel [attack], he was still opposed to taking control of Area A. When the army said there would be no end to the carnage until we go in, he said he was not in favor and wanted to see through any chance for negotiations.”

But then the Park Hotel massacre happened on March 27, and everyone – including Ben-Eliezer and Peres – realized “there was no choice” but to launch the operation.

“The IDF was ready,” Mofaz said. “In less than 24 hours we received permission and mobilized the reserves. That was the first success of the operation – there was 130% mobilization.”

The number exceeded 100% because it included soldiers just released from the army and not yet attached to reserve units, as well as those recently released from reserves, who turned up for duty.

“That spoke for itself,” Mofaz said. “Israel understood that it had no choice; the reservists understood that the country had no choice.”

Mofaz quoted those close to Sharon as saying that – burned by the traumas of acting without a national consensus during the First Lebanon War – he wanted to make sure that he had national legitimacy and consensus this time for a major military operation.

“He understood firsthand what it was to go to an operation when there is no consensus, and said he would wait until there was a consensus, until he felt that the nation was with him,” Mofaz said.

“Unfortunately, this [waiting] cost us in blood, but I’m not sure that any other leader would have taken the decision. Even if it was taken late, I’m not sure any other leader would have been willing to break the international agreements and move back into the Palestinian territory, among the most crowded areas in the world.

“Close your eyes for a second and imagine 45,000 soldiers, half of them reservists, going into all the refugee camps, 15 in all, all eight of the cities, all of the tunnels, going into the casbahs and going house to house to take out weapons,” he said.

The trauma that the country felt as a result of the seemingly endless terrorism created the consensus that led to the operation. And that operation, he argued, fundamentally changed the country’s security reality.

“That the IDF today operates freely in the area is thanks to Defensive Shield,” he said.

Mofaz, who last month published a memoir in Hebrew called Hamasa Hayisraeli Sheli (My Israeli journey), said that the operation achieved its strategic goal of significantly downgrading the “monstrous” terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank and created a new security reality for Israel.

The operation did not completely stop the terrorism and the suicide bombers – it took another few years to do that – but it hit the terrorist infrastructure very hard and habituated the world to the notion that Israel would continue to operate inside the territories, despite the Oslo Accords, because of the terrorist kingdom that had arisen there.

But it was not only the security situation that changed as a result of the operation. The Second Intifada, Mofaz said, changed public opinion in Israel, with a large part of Israelis no longer believing that it was possible to trust Arafat or the PA, and a large part of Israelis coming to the conclusion that the Oslo Accords were simply no good.

Asked whether he thought that with the current tension and terrorism, Israel was on the cusp of yet another intifada, Mofaz said he did not see the support of 70%-80% of the Palestinian population for an armed confrontation with Israel.

“Something happened to Palestinian society as well,” he said. “Palestinian society, and a good part of our enemies, understand that they won’t get achievements through violence and terror.

“Many of the Palestinian leaders during that period will tell you today that it was a mistake to strike out against Israel with suicide bombers and guns to kill Israelis to achieve diplomatic aims. They will say it was a mistake because while Israelis were obviously hurt, those who paid a higher price were the Palestinians.”