This, too, shall pass.
It will, unfortunately, take additional blood, tears and sweat, but the current swell of terrorism will be beaten back. It always is, it always has been.
Israel beat back the “knife intifada” in 2015-2016, when almost daily lone-wolf attackers stabbed, shot or rammed their cars into groups of Israelis. It beat back the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2005, which saw 135 people killed in one month alone (March 2022); it beat back a spate of post-Oslo suicide bombing attacks between 1994 and 1997; it beat back the First Intifada, from 1987 to 1993.
Israel knows from terrorism; it also knows how to defend itself against it. Terrorism morphs: from cross-border raids to airplane hijackings to hostage-taking to the commandeering of buses to refrigerator bombs and suicide bombs and rocks and slingshots and petrol bombings and stabbings and car-rammings and lone-wolf shooting rampages.
And as the terrorism morphs from one deadly form to the next, the country figures out a way to deal with it, to prevent it. There’s obviously a learning curve. It takes some time to adjust. That’s the painful part. But Israel’s strength is its ability to adjust and learn, and to put what it has learned into practice.
While standing in a pit, it is tough to imagine how that pit can be drained, it is difficult to see a way out. But a way out will be found.
When the Second Intifada hit in September 2000, and the country was pummeled by murderous attacks and suicide bombings week after week after week, many looked at the situation and saw a bottomless pit. There seemed to be an endless reservoir of Palestinian fanatics willing to blow themselves up, as long as they could take as many innocent Israelis as possible with them.
When the Second Intifada hit, the country could have thrown up its hands and said, “There is nothing we can do, there’s no way to stop the terrorism, no way to drain the swamp.”
But Israel did not have the luxury to throw up its hands; it couldn’t say, “We can’t deal with it.” Rather, it had to find a way to deal with it.
And it did. The country found a way to beat the Second Intifada. There was no one magic wand to wave, no one silver bullet to fire, but the country came up with various steps that significantly brought down the level of terrorism over time, from a high of 457 people killed in 2002, to 29 people murdered by terrorists in 2006.
It’s not as if the terrorists stopped wanting to blow up Israelis; it is just that Israel – over time – found ways to prevent them from doing it.
What were the ways?
It built the security fence; it carried out targeted killings; it sent the IDF back into the Palestinian cities; it developed technology that would make it much more difficult to smuggle explosives into the country; it upgraded its surveillance techniques; it carried out raids and arrests night after night inside the Palestinian cities, which enabled it to piece together an incomparable intelligence picture.
And it brought down the terrorism because it had to, because the country had no other choice.
And it will do the same this time as well.
IN THE thick of the current events, amid the terrorist wave, feeling as though we are standing at the bottom of the pit again staring straight up, it may look like an impossible task.
How do you stop a lone-wolf murderer? How do you keep someone – who is not getting instructions or orders from any organization – from waking up in the morning, deciding he wants to go kill some Jews, and then acting on that intent?
It won’t be done with one step, but, rather, through an accumulation of several different steps.
To a startling degree, we’ve been there before, and not that long ago. During the “knife intifada,” from September 2015 to June 2016, there were hundreds of attacks – stabbings, shootings and car-rammings – which killed 32 people. That wave bore certain characteristics of this current wave of terrorism, mainly that the attacks were carried out by people who spontaneously stabbed and shot people, or rammed their cars into them. There was no organization or guiding hand behind it.
It is worth, therefore, looking at the steps taken to quell the “knife intifada,” and drawing the necessary conclusions.
One of the main sources contributing to bringing that wave of violence to an end was its limited “success”: if potential attackers know that they will likely be killed during their murderous acts, it may have a chilling effect on copycats. From a Palestinian perspective, the “knife intifada” was a failure in that it led to many more Palestinian deaths than Jewish ones – not a great recruiting tool.
Thwarting terrorism relies on intelligence, either human intel or communications intel. But if someone wakes up one morning and resolves to go out and kill an Israeli, it is difficult for even the best intelligence service in the world to know about that in advance. It is impossible to put a chip in everyone’s brain.
What can be done, what Israel has spent a lot of resources on in the past and will surely do going forward, is develop a faster and better capacity to deal with what is called open-source intelligence. Lone-wolf attackers do post on Facebook and TikTok, and the technology to flag potential suspects by surveying their posts will continue to develop.
During 2015-2016 Israel took many operative steps to ensure that if a terrorist went out to commit murder, he would fail. These included making it easier to get gun licenses, so there would be more weapons on the streets enabling citizens to stop the terrorists in real time; increasing police deployment in various areas; imposing restrictions on Palestinian movement into Israel and enforcing stricter penalties on employers of illegal workers.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have already discussed taking similar measures this time. For instance, on Wednesday Bennett called on citizens to carry their weapons, even as Gantz said that thousands of soldiers and Border Police officers will be fanned out across the country. This serves the triple purpose of giving people a sense of security, deterring would-be attackers, and making sure that there will be trained personnel nearby to swiftly respond.
Bennett’s call for citizens to carry their weapons illustrates the unique reality in Israel, where seeing people armed on the street is less a threat, more a comfort. And this is a huge difference between Israel and the United States, for instance. In the US the authorities are trying to get weapons off the streets to provide citizens with a sense of security. In Israel, Bennett is keen now on getting them onto the streets in the hands of civilians who know how to use them, to provide people with a greater sense of security.
Then there are deterrent measures that were used during the “knife intifada”: these included destroying the homes of terrorists and stiffer prison sentences. The deterrent measures being discussed now include mandating minimum prison sentences for people holding weapons illegally, carrying out massive searches for illegal arms in the Arab sector, and using administrative arrests against Israeli-Arabs suspected of ties with Islamic State. Also, expect greater use of surveillance technology – such as NSO’s Pegasus – against Israelis suspected of terrorist ties.
WHAT WAS not on the menu in 2015-2016 to defeat the wave of violence then, nor is it on the table now, was a plan to launch some kind of diplomatic initiative with the Palestinians. Some may argue that the lack of a diplomatic horizon is the cause of all the problems, and if only there was some serious diplomacy going on – some kind of negotiations, some kind of two-state horizon – then the terrorism would flicker out.
The problem is that this is not borne out by history. Periods of intense diplomacy with concomitant promises of Israeli concessions have not been met by a decrease in terrorism, but – paradoxically – by an increase in terrorism. It is not as though the two terrorists affiliated with ISIS who carried out the attack in Hadera this week would not have struck, were negotiations taking place between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. That type of terrorism is completely divorced from anything happening on the diplomatic front.
Some 20 years ago, in a memorable column in Haaretz during the heat of the Second Intifada titled “Lessons of the blood curve,” the journalist Ari Shavit divided the 16 years going back to 1986 and the First Intifada into four distinct periods.
“Between 1986 and 1991, when the peace process was in a state of utter stagnation, an average of about 29 Israelis were killed each year in hostile actions,” he wrote. “From 1992 to 1996, the years of the Oslo paradigm, about 86 Israelis were killed each year.
“From 1997 to the middle of 2000 – the three-and-a-half years during which former prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak tried to carry out various revisions in the Oslo process – about 40 Israelis were killed each year. Since the withdrawal from Lebanon and since the Camp David and Taba concessions were offered to the Palestinians, nearly 300 people a year have been killed in hostile actions.”
Shavit wrote that the significance of those figures was clear: “An Israeli withdrawal or a promise of a withdrawal does not lead to an end of the bloodshed. On the contrary, every time Israel withdraws, the hostilities increase. Every time Israel promises a withdrawal, the killing curve rises,” he wrote.
In other words, intense diplomacy and the possibility of Israeli concessions have not historically brought terrorism down, but, rather, have led it to spike upward. The 20 years since that column was written have in no way proven to be an exception.
None of that is to suggest that diplomacy should be shelved; only that people should have a realistic view of it, and waves of terrorism.
Will this current wave eventually wan and disappear? Yes. Will it be the last one we face? No.
Will it cause pain, angst and depression? Yes. Will it lead the Israeli public to want to be more accommodating toward the Palestinians? No.
And will it bring the country to its knees? Absolutely not.