Going through walls: The operation that ended the second intifada

Fourteen years on, a look at the origin, planning and execution of Operation Defensive Shield that ended the second intifada, the Oslo Accords and Yasser Arafat’s rule.

IDF soldiers maneuver in Ramallah during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
IDF soldiers maneuver in Ramallah during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
It was Seder night, March 27, 2002, at the Park Hotel in Netanya. A suicide bomber had detonated his explosive belt just after entering the dining hall, brutally murdering 30 people and wounding 140. It was more gruesome than all the other attacks that had taken place during that bloody month.
The moment prime minister Ariel Sharon heard the news about the attack, he decided to in effect nullify the Oslo Accords, a mere eight years after the Rabin government had approved them. The very next day, more Israelis were murdered when terrorists infiltrated the Eilon Moreh settlement. By then, over 20,000 IDF reserve soldiers had been called up, and the next morning the most extensive military operation since the Six Day War was launched in Judea and Samaria: Operation Defensive Shield.
Sharon, of course, had the full support of US president George W. Bush when he called for the Oslo Accords to be nullified. Only six months had passed since the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, and the Israelis had hard evidence that would prove to the Americans that Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat was directly involved in terrorist activity. “For the first half of 2001, we had been watching Arafat’s every move in order to catch him red-handed trying to acquire weapons from the Iranians,” said former defense minister Lt.-Gen. (res.) Shaul Mofaz, who was the IDF chief of staff at the time.
“Arafat had compiled an extremely detailed list of more than 50 tons of weapons, including antitank missiles. The list also included two tons of the most advanced explosives available in the world. All of this was loaded onto a freighter called Karine-A at the Iranian port of Kish. In return, Arafat promised the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a foothold in the West Bank.
“We captured the freighter in the Red Sea on January 3, 2002, in an operation called Noah’s Ark and immediately exposed all of the weapons. Sharon ordered that we hand over all of the intelligence information regarding the dramatic affair to the Americans. An Israeli delegation, led by the head of research in Military Intelligence, Brig.- Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, immediately left for Washington.
“After two days,” Mofaz continued, “Sharon told me, ‘We tried to explain the situation to the Americans, but they just don’t get it. Put on your dress uniform, fly to the US with all of the top-secret intelligence connected with this case and tell them everything. Show them the material and tell them absolutely everything they want to know.
And leave the documents with them.’ So I told Sharon, ‘Why don’t you send one of your cabinet ministers?’ But Sharon replied, ‘No, I want you to go. You sat in the war room and personally oversaw the entire operation. I want them to hear it all from you.’” And so, how did it end? “I flew to Washington. It was the first time I’d ever met with Condoleezza Rice, the US national security adviser. I showed her all the intel we’d gathered – all of the charts, the video of how we’d captured the freighter – and she was very impressed. She asked me to excuse her for a few minutes so she could show them to the president. I waited there another hour. When Rice returned, she told me that they would like to hold on to the materials I’d shown her, and I had been directed to leave them there, so of course I complied. These materials formed the basis of the declaration that Bush made shortly afterward, in which he said, ‘The Palestinian leadership needs to be replaced.’ This speech had a tremendous impact. Arafat was finally considered a criminal not just in our eyes but also in the Americans’. The Israelis and the Americans were in total agreement that Arafat was the leader of a terrorist organization.”
Mofaz was appointed chief of staff in 1998. “The joint assessment in 1999 by Military Intelligence, Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] and Mossad was that a second intifada was brewing. I declared that 2000 would be a year of preparation, so I gave the command that all units should prepare for the next intifada,” he said.
In February 2001, elections were held and Sharon was elected prime minister.
From that moment, Sharon began touring the area seriously, reviewing all the different scenarios, and preparing a number of game plans. “If the security situation becomes intolerable, we will reenter all the territories.”
In July 2001, Brig.-Gen. Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon was appointed commander of the Judea and Samaria Division.
“We worked in conjunction with the Shin Bet,” said Gershon. “Under the command of Eyal Weiss, the Duvdevan Unit entered the Balata refugee camp in Nablus, as well as other refugee camps. On February 27, 2002, the Paratroop Brigade, under the command of Aviv Kochavi, launched an operation into the Balata refugee camp called Masa Tzva’im. In this operation, Kochavi demonstrated the IDF’s incredible creativity, initiative and clever strategy.”
Kochavi wrapped up the operation in just two days.
He followed a concept of urban operations called swarming, which is a coordinated joint action carried out by a network of units that operate semi-autonomously but in synergy with each other. In other words, the troops move through walls.
“There’s almost no place in the camp on which our feet didn’t walk,” Kochavi said. “Our message was very clear: We will find every terrorist, no matter where you are. Even if we have to go through the walls. Soldiers avoided streets, doors and windows where they knew the enemy would be expecting them. Instead, they blasted holes in walls, ceilings and floors, and in this way they moved through the entire camp. The intelligence the IDF gathered during that operation in the Balata refugee camp helped the IDF later on during Operation Defensive Shield.”
The success of Kochavi’s operation stunned everyone in the IDF. In 2005, Brig-Gen. (res.) Dr. Shimon Naveh presented a model for urban warfare in the postmodern age at a conference of European philosophers and architects in Barcelona. He spoke about how Kochavi had led the operation in Balata and everyone was amazed.
“Kochavi thought through every potential problem ahead of the operation,” said Naveh. “His ability to conceptualize the tactical and strategic aspects of the operation was incredibly developed. He understood that military strategies that had been implemented up until then would not work in this situation, and so it was up to him to come up with something new.
“Passing through walls was not a new strategy. The paratroopers used nonlinear swarming to create apparent chaos, but which actually has a high degree of order. Space was no longer four-directional, but six-directional.
The soldiers moved about like bees. Kochavi split the division into 13 teams, which all entered the camp simultaneously like a swarm. In this way, residents were forced out into the streets and were either killed or captured. IDF forces sustained only one single fatality, and that was from friendly fire,” Naveh continued.
When Kochavi described the operation to US military officials, they were incredibly impressed.
“After the January 16, 2002, terrorist attack in Hadera, in which the terrorist entered a bat-mitzva party at the Armon David hall and, with an automatic weapon, shot the guard and then opened fire on guests, killing six of them and wounding dozens,” Brig.-Gen.
(res.) Gal Hirsch said, “I decided to approach the chief of staff to ask for approval of my plan. Itzik Eitan told me that I was wasting my time, that they’d never approve my idea, but I went anyway. I stormed into the operations room, spread my maps and plans on the table and demanded that they approve the plan to take over the city the terrorist was from.
“I told them, ‘This is what needs to be done when civilians are murdered. We need to raise the level of our activity up one notch.’ Amos Gilad, Dan Harel and Giora Eiland were opposed to my plan and a lively debate ensued. They asked what would come of taking over the city. I was more furious at that moment than I’d ever been in my life. Mofaz approved the plan. I left the room and felt like I was going to faint. Eiland followed me out and said, ‘What’s gotten into you, Gal? Everyone was in agreement, and then you came in and ruined everything.’ I called Itzik and told him that I’d received approval for the operation and that they’d better succeed or I’d never get approval again for anything. And in the end they succeeded big time.”
Less than a month later, Sharon was elected prime minister, and shortly thereafter Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was appointed defense minister. Mofaz was chief of staff, Eitan headed Central Command, Gershon was commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, and Hirsch commanded Battalion 202. Everyone knew everyone.
Everyone had been someone else’s commander at some point and they all understood each other without having to use many words. For 12 months they prepared themselves, and then in March 2002 the time finally came.
Although the Americans believed in the legitimacy of the Israeli claim about Arafat following the Karine-A incident, Sharon was still smarting from his bitter experience during the First Lebanon War, so he needed the political support of the Israeli Left. This came following the Seder night massacre at the Park Hotel.
Ben-Eliezer and Eitan had been celebrating that evening with Battalion 890 at Midreshet Gilo near Bethlehem. “We were about 15 minutes into the Seder,” Ben-Eliezer recalled, “when my military secretary came in with a note that read “30 killed.” I thought to myself, they’ve just crossed the line. I drove my wife and kids home and sped off to the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. I convened a meeting of all the senior IDF leaders. Everyone arrived in civilian clothing and agreed that we could not continue with the status quo.
The question remained, though, how we should proceed.
“I spoke on the phone with Sharon, who was at his ranch. He was in a total frenzy. Even before the Seder night attack, Sharon had been toying with the idea of destroying the Mukata [presidential compound], where Arafat lived. Sharon was accustomed to responding to attacks with action, and up until now the conditions had not been ripe enough to destroy the Mukata. We reached the conclusion that now we had no other choice but to go back in and take control of Judea and Samaria.
“That was the catalyst for Operation Defensive Shield. The next day, I held two meetings – the first to approve of the idea in general, and the second in the evening to pick team leaders and set a schedule. From there, I quickly went to Arik [Sharon] and Saturday night the cabinet held a stormy all-night session during which Arik demanded that we expel Arafat. I objected, since I didn’t see what the point was. The debate became very heated, and Arik began to see my point of view after hearing the argument pushed forward by Amos Gilad, who supported me. We discussed whether the Mukata should be destroyed, or whether we should just knock down a few walls. In the end, the operation was approved, even with abstentions from Shimon Peres and Matan Vilna’i.”
The operation took place on March 29, 2002. Nablus was considered the central hotbed of terrorism in Judea and Samaria, and the casbah was the epicenter of terrorist activity. We all knew that trying to wrest control of the casbah could cost us hundreds of lives.
“I had been planning to first take over Ramallah,” said Gershon, “and not to attack Nablus in order to make the terrorists believe that we were afraid of attacking Nablus, and thus give them time to try to escape. And that’s exactly what happened. After three days, I set up ambushes surrounding the city, and I gave the order that every terrorist who tried to escape should be shot. After three more days, I went in with three infantry divisions and one armored brigade of reserve soldiers. The city emptied out almost completely and the terrorists ran into the casbah, which had been split into two sections, with Kochavi and [Moshe] “Chico” [Tamir] each being in charge of half. Chico attacked during the day with tanks and then Kochavi continued at night using the swarming method he’d used in the Balata refugee camp.
“We took control of the casbah with only one casualty,” Gershon continued. “The fighting was pretty intense, but the terrorists were stunned and most of them surrendered. After that, we easily wrested control over the three refugee camps in the city.
“Even before we had finished the operation, Mofaz and Eitan approached me, and the chief of staff told me that they were having problems gaining control of Jenin, and he wanted to hear what steps I recommended taking. He was considering extracting the IDF forces from the city and reorganizing, but I told him I thought that was a really bad idea. Instead, I sent the Golani 51st Battalion under the command of Ofek Buchris, which helped the forces already there to conquer the city.
“It took an entire week to occupy Nablus. Then we went house to house in the casbah, which took an entire month. We uncovered dozens of explosives laboratories and a huge amount of weapons.
“For years I’ve been giving lectures to senior military personnel all over the world about the takeover of Nablus. They are always shocked that we were able to operate in this fashion without incurring any friendly- fire casualties.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.