Since March 22, 2022, when a terrorist brutally murdered four Israelis in a stabbing attack in Beersheba, Israel has been in the throes of a vicious mini-wave of terror.
Nearly 60 people have been killed in terrorist attacks since those murders. These included an attack in Bnei Brak that killed five, an attack in Tel Aviv that killed three, an attack in Elad that killed four, an attack in Ariel that killed three, an attack in Jerusalem’s Neveh Ya’acov neighborhood that killed seven, and on and on.
Since March 22, 2022, a relentless drumbeat of attacks has persisted – an unnerving beat that began when the government was made up of a mix of left- and right-wing factions and has persisted relentlessly under a hard-right administration.
Yet something seemed to change this week.
The murder of four Israelis at a hummus restaurant just outside of Eli on Tuesday evoked memories of Israelis gunned down at restaurants during the Second Intifada. Additionally, a powerful roadside bomb detonation and an eight-hour firefight in Jenin the day before recalled Israel’s past involvement in southern Lebanon. These back-to-back events left many with a feeling that something must be done, that urgent action is required because the current situation is simply untenable and unsustainable.
Israel has faced similar crossroads before, such as on March 29, 2002.
By then, Israel had already faced 18 months of unrelenting terrorism during the Second Intifada, resulting in some 400 killed in terrorist attacks. However, when a 25-year-old terrorist disguised as a religious woman entered a dining room at Netanya’s Park Hotel during a Passover Seder and killed 30 people, a tipping point had been reached. This led to the decision to launch Operation Defensive Shield two days later.
Today, some figures – such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, as well as representatives of those living in Judea and Samara who feel their lives are at risk whenever they travel to and from their homes – are arguing that a similar tipping point has been reached today. They are calling for the launch of an updated version of Defensive Shield – Defensive Shield 2.0.
While the sentiment is understandable, overly romanticizing Defensive Shield could lead to unrealistic expectations. Defensive Shield did not lead to an immediate reduction of terrorism – it took another two years before the number of attacks began to taper off significantly – and it was but one step, albeit the most critical, in bringing the terrorism down.
It was not a magic wand.
Defensive Shield didn't magically give Israel security in the West Bank against terrorism
Before embarking on a similar operation today, Israel should recognize that the situations are different. Much has changed in the intervening 21 years, and it is never good, as military leaders throughout the generations have said, to fight the next war as if it were the last one.
One key difference is that by March 2002, Israel had withdrawn militarily from Areas A and B in the West Bank under the Oslo Accords. It had no troops stationed there and limited intelligence capabilities. The commitments at that time prevented the IDF from going into Palestinian cities and villages to make arrests. Consequently, a significant terrorist infrastructure was developed, including labs for manufacturing explosives and suicide vests.
This is not the case today. Israel now has mind-boggling intelligence capabilities within the West Bank and regularly conducts counterterror operations to arrest terror suspects, venturing into Palestinian towns and villages day and night.
Israel launched Defensive Shield because it had not been actively present in the area. Today, Israel has the freedom to enter and exit the area at will and has done so for years. There are certain areas, however, where it was always hesitant to enter, hoping that the Palestinian security apparatus would handle the situation there.
The refugee camps in Jenin and Nablus are two such areas.
Following the attacks in March and April of 2022, some of which originated from the northern West Bank, the IDF launched Operation Break the Wave. One of the distinguishing characteristics of this operation was that the IDF would operate in Jenin and Nablus. And, indeed, it has.
However, Monday’s operation in Jenin, where troops encountered a sophisticated explosive device, revealed that perhaps they had not done this enough. Even though the IDF has fewer compunctions than in the past about entering these areas, a significant terrorist infrastructure emerged there – evidenced by this roadside bomb and by remarks made last month by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Ronen Bar, who said the IDF recently thwarted efforts to manufacture rockets in the Jenin refugee camp.
The question now is whether a Defensive Shield 2-style operation is needed to hit that infrastructure, or whether it could be done through more intensive daily operations with improved tactics.
Is Defense Shield 2 needed to hit terrorist infrastructure?
A change in tactics was evident on Wednesday night when the IDF targeted a terrorist cell from the air in the area, marking the first time this has happened since the Second Intifada.
Another notable difference between 2002 and today is that in 2002, the Second Intifada was orchestrated and directed by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.
That is not the case today. While PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his security apparatus are not doing enough today or living up to their commitments to fight terrorism, they are not directly orchestrating it – that is being done by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even Iran.
A widespread operation in the West Bank would likely lead to the collapse of the PA. At the same time, Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders would, with Iran’s assistance, continue to direct attacks from places like Qatar and Turkey. Such an operation should be undertaken only if there are answers to two key questions: What are the plans for the day after the PA collapses? Who will assume control?
If the government has answers to those questions, it has yet to share them with the public.
What would be bad about a major IDF operation in the West Bank?
Another significant difference in the two periods relates to national legitimacy and consensus for a major military operation.
Because of the nonstop terrorism at the time and because then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government in 2002 was a unity government that included figures like Shimon Peres and Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer, it benefited from a large degree of national consensus and legitimacy. There was a prevailing sense that Israel had made rejected gestures to the Palestinians and was left with no choice but to launch an offensive operation to save lives. The fact that there was 130% mobilization among reservists, including recently demobilized soldiers who were not yet attached to reserve units, attests to that sense of consensus and legitimacy.
The current government, however, suffers from a significant internal and external legitimacy deficit. An op-ed in Haaretz by far-left columnist Uri Misgav indicates the challenges the government would face if it were to launch a massive incursion into northern Samaria. The headline reads, “Is it worth dying for Israel’s far Right?”
Although Misgav represents the fringes, if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were to initiate a widespread military campaign, multiple voices would question why their sons and daughters should risk their lives in a war pushed by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.
Acts of revenge, such as the deplorable rampage carried out by a Jewish extremist Wednesday night in Turmus Aiya, only exacerbate matters, feed the image of settlers as violent extremists, and help the arguments of those like Misgav who say these are not people for whom it is worth fighting.
Over the past six months, this country’s solidarity – which includes a willingness to sacrifice for those in the country, even those one does not agree with – has been gradually undermined. The ongoing judicial reform debate has contributed to the erosion of this solidarity, as has the makeup of the government.
One of the reasons Sharon waited until March 2002 to launch Defensive Shield – 18 months after the Second Intifada started — was that, up until then, he did not feel he had the country’s full backing for a military incursion, or that there was a national consensus on the matter. Having experienced the consequences of expanding the war in Lebanon in 1982 without a wide national consensus, he understood the importance of consensus. Currently, that sense of consensus and solidarity simply does not exist.
Additionally, if Netanyahu decides to embark on a widespread campaign, a significant part of the country will ask whether this is being done because such a move is necessary or to deflect attention from the judicial overhaul debate and to increase his popularity in the polls.
There is also an external dimension to consider. Sharon launched Defensive Shield even against the wishes of the United States and Europe because he believed he had strong backing from the Israeli public. The US and EU will be opposed to any such move this time as well. Without solid internal backing, it is more challenging to buck Washington.
Furthermore, six months of opposition figures and anti-reform protesters, including former prime ministers and former chiefs of staff, shouting that Israel’s democracy is under threat and that the country is marching toward dictatorship have an impact. When Israel’s leaders are called fascists by their Israeli opponents, including on the streets and in television studios of foreign capitals, then some abroad might ask whether any military operation by this government is not just an attempt to fill the rapacious appetite of “fascists”?
Another element to keep in mind in 2023, which was not the case in 2002, is Israel’s agreements with the Abraham Accords countries.
A widespread operation in the West Bank will not play well in the Arab world, where the Palestinian cause has tremendous support. There will be public pressure on the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco to cancel the accords. Although this is unlikely, because of the benefits that accrue to those countries due to these agreements, it would also have a chilling effect on current efforts to bring about an accord with Saudi Arabia.
Something changed this week. But it is unlikely that change will hurtle Israel back to the type of operation the country carried out in 2002. What is more likely is that localized operations will increase, and that counterterrorism tactics will be changed to better deal with the uptick in terrorism in a way that reflects the reality of this country and this region in 2023.