Tackling terror

A comprehensive and wide-ranging analysis of Israel’s response to the scourge of terror.

Terror Attack 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Terror Attack 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In October 1953, the commander of special forces Unit 101, Major Ariel Sharon, later Israel’s 11th prime minister, was sent together with paratroopers to raid the village of Qibya in the West Bank, then occupied by Jordan.
The operation’s prime goal was to retaliate for the deaths of Israeli citizens killed in recent terror attacks, in particular, the murders of Suzanne Kinyas and her two children that month in a grenade attack on their Yehud home.
Prior to the force’s departure, prime minister David Ben-Gurion was overheard saying to Sharon: “The only thing that matters is that we can exist here on the land of our forefathers. And unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won’t survive.” But the operation resulted in the deaths of 69 people, including women and children, and it sparked controversy about how to respond to terror attacks and the ethical and moral boundaries that should guide such a response. Moreover, the “Qibya incident” was universally condemned abroad, and served as a milestone in the development of the concept of proportionality in responding to terror.
“A High Price: The triumphs & failures of Israeli counter terrorism’’ is Daniel Byman’s latest book, his sixth, which has been gestating for nine years since his visit to Israel in 2002 as a staff member of the 9/11 Commission.
The book, a comprehensive and wide-ranging analysis of Israel’s response to the scourge of terror since its foundation, draws on dozens of articles by Dr. Byman, a professor in the School of Foreign Studies at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, dealing with contemporary security issues and challenges.
An adept and thorough analyst, Byman demonstrates unusually wide knowledge and conveys it coherently to the reader. He has interviewed key officials, journalists and experts on all sides of the conflict, thus presenting a detailed picture with many different perspectives. He quotes a Fatah member who compliments the accuracy of Israeli snipers in the city of Nablus during the 2002 operation “Defensive Shield,’’ and cites former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer admitting to “the biggest mistake I made during my time in office,’’ which was approving the targeted killing of Raed Karmi, a leading member of a murderous Tanzim cell in the Tulkarm area, 23 days into a cease-fire that same year. In addition Byman underpins his arguments with numerous polls and statistics.
Byman underscores the prominent internal struggles among Palestinian organizations for supremacy. These struggles frequently resulted in violent clashes, such as the dissensions between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza during the first intifada. Still, such conflicts were papered over when one or more groups felt it in their interest to do so.
This happened when, during the mid-1990s, Hamas operatives and high-profile activists, such as Mahmoud al-Zahar (Hamas leader in Gaza after Israel jailed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin) were being imprisoned, humiliated and tortured on Arafat’s direct orders, due to cooperation between Israeli and PA security services, according to Byman. But the Islamic fundamentalist organization avoided open conflict with Fatah. Yassin and other Hamas leaders justified their mild response as a way of preventing “internecine fighting,’’ as exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal explained in a 1995 interview. Byman attributes Hamas’s moderate approach mainly to Yassin’s fear of finta or strife among Muslim believers, as well as his fear of committing political suicide by openly challenging Arafat.
Byman stresses that violence against Israel is a key weapon that Palestinian factions use in their struggle to win Palestinian hearts and minds. In consequence, violent and frequently unscrupulous attacks have dogged Israel since its foundation in 1948, when states such as Jordan and Egypt attacked Israel partly to improve their power and prestige in the Arab world.
Nowadays various terror organizations, rather than nations, aspire to play the role of the resistance front’s activists, something that has presented Israel with awkward legal and ethical choices.
Byman spends much of the book analyzing the historical development of various Israeli counter-terror policies, paying particular attention to targeted killing. In the aftermath of the murders of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972, prime minister Golda Meir told her advisor on counter terrorism Aharon Yariv and Mossad head Zvi Zamir to “send forth the boys.” She thus sparked an all-out campaign targeting individual members of Black September, the Palestinian terror organization responsible for the Munich attack.
Byman deals with the claimed purpose of these targeted killings – to terrify the enemy; “killing him today prevented terrorism tomorrow.” He analyzes its evolution over the years, and notes that “in the second intifada targeted killing became a near-constant tool.” He compares it to the US campaign against Al-Qaeda, which has also made use of this tactic, and investigates its political, military, and moral implications. In addition, he investigates the ramifications of its use.
Byman stresses that targeted killings have a profound impact on terrorist individuals and organizations and that they are a necessary tool of Israeli counter terrorism, yet in his opinion, from a strictly counter-terror point of view, arrests of wanted individuals are almost always more productive. Prisoners may talk: dead men tell no tales.
Another chapter is dedicated to the Security Barrier and deals with yet another way of countering terrorism. Byman states that the barrier is another layer of defense. Its effectiveness can best be seen when its role is understood in conjunction with arrests and targeted killings. However, the barrier’s political and social impacts are problematic, he avers: it solves the terror problem but, by inconveniencing Palestinians, complicates peace efforts.
Byman is a shrewd analyst and displays an understanding of Israeli society and its differing political views. He vividly portrays how Israelis withstood suicide bombers during the second intifada. Moreover, he elaborately analyzes and appreciates prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s approach, who was able to advance the peace process even while burying the casualties of terror attacks. However, he manages to sympathize with Sharon’s acute reluctance to follow this precedent when he was prime minister.
Despite his experience in US government service and his current academic position, Byman’s attempt to define the acceptability of anti-terror tactics as those in accordance with the agreed standards of Western society is problematic, as the contemporary battlefield carries new challenges little appreciated by most people. Nowadays soldiers, trained to fight opposing armies, are forced to face civilians, requiring them to apply the doctrine of purity of arms and other combat ethics in difficult situations. For example, what can armies do when terrorists use old people, women and children as human shields in battle? This sort of abuse of civilians is a relatively common terrorist tactic, though the extent of this abuse is not well-known in Western countries.
In analyzing Israel’s response, Byman does not hesitate to find fault with its failure to recognize public relations as part of the tactical plan. In his opinion, at times, the Israeli government disregards the profound impact of getting this wrong. However, Byman believes that Israel is learning from its mistakes. He contrasts Israel’s hostile approach towards the media in Operation Defensive Shield with its almost completely opposite attitude in the 2006 Second Lebanese War, which resulted in leaks of information about ongoing operations. Operation Cast Lead two years later was managed better because the Israeli government finally understood that “the camera and the computer have become weapons of war.” It banned most reporters, but allowed a few to embed with IDF units.
The core of Byman’s critique is that, as far as the media are concerned, timing is everything, but convincing a prejudiced international audience is all but impossible. As opposed to Hizballah and Al-Qaeda who integrate PR strategies in their plans, Israel is “a PR disaster,” Byman asserts. He specifically cites the effect of Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s bold proclamation that elite IDF forces were totally defeated in the Second Lebanese War, and his ruthless exploitation of Israelis’ public aversion to suffering casualties.
Byman concentrates on two incidents in particular that depict the prominent role the media has played: the 2002 “Jenin massacre’’ during Operation Defensive Shield and the 2000 alleged Israeli killing of 12-year-old Mohammed Al-Dura in Gaza. In Jenin, the IDF “didn’t want the cameraman under the warrior’s leg.’’ However, “if you don’t fill in the information vacuum, others will do it for you,’’ Byman quotes analyst and former Jerusalem Report editor Hirsh Goodman as saying. That was exactly what happened; Palestinian propagandists exploited Israel’s negligence. Thus, European audiences as well as Arab voices criticized the Jenin campaign.
European coverage was influenced by early and distorted Palestinian statements. As a result, the IDF campaign was called “every bit as repellent’’ as the 9/11 attacks by the British “Guardian” newspaper and “staining the Star of David with blood’’ by Gerald Kaufman, a Jewish member of the British Parliament.
It wasn’t: these and similar reports did not reflect what really happened, as even UN reports acknowledged. Regardless of the truth, the “Jenin massacre,’’ and many other such incidents, are now part of the Palestinian and world narrative of suffering and brutality at the hands of the Israelis. In the aftermath of the Jenin case and in other incidents too, the need for immediate IDF spokesmanʼs reaction became obvious though little was done.
By contrast, in October 2000, two IDF reserve soldiers accidentally drove into the city of Ramallah in the West Bank. After Palestinian Authority security personnel took them as captives to the police station, hundreds of Palestinians stormed the building and murdered them. Aziz Salha, one of the rioters recently released in the Schalit prisoner exchange, is remembered thanks to a well-known photo showing him displaying his bloody hands from an upper window of the police station. That picture became the symbol of the lynch, which attracted international condemnation. Perhaps by the quick dissemination of this picture, the IDF managed to achieve its “own counter-narrative.”
The book’s main flaw is that Byman tends to render judgements too much from hindsight, without trying to take into account what decision makers knew at the time.
This point was made by Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, former IDF chief of staff, commenting on Byman’s book during a talk at the Brookings Institution in June. Admitting “we may have made some mistakes, but we do our utmost to reduce the casualties,” Ashkenazi criticized Byman by saying that not everyone has the privilege of analyzing decisions in retrospect.
I personally find it hard to believe that the solutions to such complex matters lie in some of Byman’s simplistic suggestions. He states that the Israeli government should have negotiated the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 with moderate Palestinian leaders in order to bolster their political status, disregarding the Israeli domestic repercussions of such an act. In addition, he highlights the need for peace and the obvious disadvantages of long-term occupation, yet some of the solutions he offers are far from pragmatic. He seems to be too sure of his own ideas in dealing with this complex conflict, one that heads of states and governments have been trying to solve for over six decades without success.
However, Byman has a keen eye, understanding that demography works against Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. He appreciates that that is Israel’s true existential threat. Terrorism in Byman’s words is, as he stated at the Brookings in June, “… a serious problem… a tremendous, tremendous problem” but not an existential one. He believes that if Israel wants to maintain its identity as a Jewish and democratic state: “… it needs peace to survive.” Israel has to “arrest and kill those who would kill its citizens, but it must foster the development of partners with the will and strength to negotiate.”
Daniel Cohen is a recently discharged IDF officer, living in Jerusalem.