Israel’s Vulnerability to Air Attacks
During the Camp David Summit in the summer of 2000, American military experts raised the question of whether the Israeli demand for control of a unified airspace over all the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River was essential. Among the justifications provided by Israeli representatives were the dangers of aerial terrorism. The Israelis explained the need to be prepared in the event of a suicide attack – carried out by a civilian aircraft laden with explosives – over a major Israeli urban center. One of the Americans present responded to this with disdain, asserting that the Israelis had a vivid imagination when it came to implausible threats, which they employed to justify exaggerated security demands.
A year later, on September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda sent airliners plunging into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., causing the death of thousands of people and illustrating the importance of creative thinking in assessing terrorist and national-security threat scenarios.
Such thinking is especially crucial for Israel, whose geography puts it at high military risk, in general, and at a great disadvantage in terms of its ability to prevent or respond to attacks from the air, in particular.
Israel has a very narrow “waist” – the distance between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is approximately 40 nautical miles (approximately 70 km.). This means that a combat aircraft can fly across the country in less than four minutes. A plane could penetrate the country via the Jordan Valley and reach Jerusalem in less than two minutes.
This aerial threat creates a great defense challenge for Israel. It takes at least three minutes for a scramble takeoff of an interceptor aircraft that can identify such a potential enemy penetration – and this is without factoring in the flight time from the airbase until the interceptor engages the penetrating aircraft to identify it, or shoot it down if it is on a hostile mission.
In the event of an aerial attack aimed at Jerusalem, the hostile plane must be shot down at least 10 nautical miles east of the city – not directly over it. Otherwise, both the plane and its munitions would crash into population centers, with dire consequences.
In recent years, in addition to hostile planes, Israel must contend with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which pose more complex threats to Israel’s security. According to reports, Iran has been developing a fleet of UAVs. Iranian technology is continuously improving, so the threat of an unmanned aircraft being launched from Iran towards Israel must be taken into account. Moreover, Iran has supplied UAVs to its proxy ally – Hizbullah, which in a future scenario could launch unmanned aircraft toward Israel not only from Lebanon, but also via Jordan and a future Palestinian state. This new route would enable them to fly undetected until they penetrate Israel’s major cities and strategic infrastructure. Most troublesome yet, the rapid and continuous advances in technology in this field have already put small drones within the reach of any terrorist organization. A civilian drone, purchased for a few thousands of dollars online, can easily be converted into a lethal weapon by fitting it to carry explosives and shrapnel and crashing it into a crowded street. Such an aircraft, if launched from the Jordanian border, could reach Israel within minutes.
Because of their small size, their resemblance to other airborne objects (such as balloons or birds), and the great variance in shapes and types of UAVs currently on the market, when such an object is potentially detected, the IDF must scramble an interceptor in order to identify whether the object is indeed a UAV, and it must be able to do this far from population centers (both Israeli and Palestinian).
This explains why Israel lacks sufficient time and space to respond to and prevent an aerial attack on Jerusalem and other Israeli cities from the east, particularly if Israeli interceptor planes are not free to operate over the Jordan Valley.
Today, the IDF responds to such threats by scrambling interceptors at unidentified aerial targets while they are still in Jordanian airspace, to ensure that any encounter with a hostile plane will take place immediately after it crosses the Jordan River line. This still requires precious time, since the intentions of the aerial targets first have to be identified (as hostile, friendly, or merely a civilian plane that strayed from its flight path).
Scramble takeoffs of this type occur daily because it is impossible to obtain a precise aerial picture of potential threats coming from the direction of Jordan on a regular basis, despite ties and coordination between the military and civilian air traffic control centers in Jordan and Israel.
Access to Israeli airspace from the Mediterranean Sea to the west is permitted only to planes that have identified themselves and have been identified before they come within 100 km. of Israel.
The Role of Air Defenses
Surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft weapons are not the solution to Israel’s air defense problem. Unlike interceptor planes – which are equipped with comprehensive identification capabilities including the possibility of visual identification – anti-aircraft batteries cannot determine with certainty which aerial targets are hostile and need to be shot down. Anti-aircraft batteries also involve shooting down hostile planes far from the target of their attack – over non-Israeli territory.
Non-hostile aerial activity – both civilian and military – must also be taken into account. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which ground-to-air missiles would be launched at the airspace of a neighboring country without definite identification of targets as hostile aircraft on a mission to attack Israel.
This substantial defense limitation, therefore, does not allow for Israel’s complete and continuous protection from hostile air attacks. Thus, the deployment of missile batteries and anti-aircraft weapons, while complementing aerial interception, cannot replace it.
True, peaceful relations exist today between Israel and Jordan, which include mutual respect for both countries’ territorial airspace, civilian air links, and coordination of the passage of civilian planes through the international air corridor. However, there is no guarantee that such coordination will continue in the future. In light of the upheavals in the Arab world, we cannot rely on the assumption that the relationship between Israel and Jordan will retain their current format. In other words, despite the current relative calm, Israel cannot entrust its security to the goodwill of the Jordanians or the Palestinians in the future.
Defending Ben-Gurion International Airport
Israel faces another great challenge in defending Israel’s primary international airport – Ben-Gurion Airport – both from hostile fire at its runways and from possible attempts to shoot down civilian planes as they approach the airport. These threats, if carried out,would be especially lethal, since even a one-time failed attack would surely result in a severe decrease in international civil aviation traffic at Ben-Gurion Airport as civilians would refuse to take such risks during their travels. Specifically, these threats include:
- The launching of high trajectory weapons towards the airport.
- Shooting precision-guided weapons from Palestinian territory, which is situated topographically higher than the airport.
- Attempts by hostile elements, using shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, to target civilian airliners while they fly over or adjacent to Palestinian territory as they take off or land.
At the beginning of the year 2000, with the outbreak of the Palestinian terror war that came to be known as the Second Intifada, many commercial airlines canceled their flights to Israel. It should be expected that if Palestinian terrorists open fire toward Ben-Gurion Airport, even once, all foreign airlines would immediately halt their flights, effectively isolating the country.
Airspace Security Arrangements for Israel in any Israeli-Palestinian Agreement
During previous rounds of negotiations with Israel, the Palestinians agreed to limitations on their military air capabilities, acknowledging that they have no need for combat aircraft or attack helicopters and other offensive aerial weapons that could threaten Israel. A Palestinian state will not have any air defensive capabilities.
As part of any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, both sides will recognize each other’s sovereignty in the air, on land, and in the sea. That being said, in light of the assessment of the severe threat facing Israel, agreement will be required on the following points:
The Palestinians have demanded control over the Kalandia (Atarot) airfield in Jerusalem, to have it become the international airport of the Palestinian state. They also intend to establish additional airports for internal Palestinian air traffic. Israel opposes handing over Atarot airfield to the Palestinians since a Palestinian airport adjacent to Israel’s capital poses an unacceptable risk.
The operation of a Palestinian airport in the heart of the West Bank would also entail substantial risks – both in terms of security and in terms of flight safety. Israel would lack the sufficient response time required to intercept a hostile plane on a mission to attack an Israeli target. In addition, there is the danger of traffic overload in the international corridor between Israel and Jordan, and an overlap of activity (circling) involving Ben-Gurion and Israeli military airports.
In the event that Israel is prepared to take the security risks associated with the establishment of a Palestinian airport, its establishment should meet the following strict conditions:
- The airport must be located far from Israeli population centers, preferably in the Jordan Valley, in the Jericho area, near the Jordanian border. The airport and its staff will meet all international and regional security and safety norms and regulations.
- Since the airport will serve as an international crossing, all the arrangements for international crossings shall apply to it, including the capability to effectively inspect personal baggage and merchandise, and to prevent the smuggling of war materiel and illicit goods. In addition, measures will be required to prevent the infiltration of terrorist elements into the prospective Palestinian state, similar to those established at other Palestinian border-crossings.
- No equipment that could constitute a direct threat to Israel or abet parties hostile to Israel will be installed at the airport (such as radar detection capabilities, which could monitor sensitive aerial activity within Israel and relay this information to parties hostile to Israel).
- The new Palestinian international flight paths will not harm or affect current Israeli and Jordanian aviation routes, and all regional Palestinian traffic will be coordinated in real-time through the JACC.
Finally, an agreement between the parties would enable the opening of an Israeli international flight path that traverses the shared airspace, facilitating transport to the east. Israel can consider opening such an aerial corridor if Israeli commercial planes are permitted to use international flight paths that pass over Arab states. This would significantly shorten flights to India, China, and the Far East.
Control of the Electromagnetic Spectrum
Just as it is vital to Israel’s security to control a unified airspace if a Palestinian state is established, the topographical conditions and limited distance between the population and communication centers of the two entities do not allow for division of the electromagnetic spectrum. Since it largely occupies the central mountain ridge, the Palestinian Authority enjoys a topographical advantage – with its communication systems far less vulnerable to disruptions and jamming than those of largely coastal Israel. A small Palestinian transmitter station on Mount Eival, near Nablus, for example, could jam virtually the entire communication system in Israeli areas broadcasting on the same frequencies.
This problem of disruption is not new to Israel, which has suffered from a recurring problem of jammed civil aviation communication channels at Ben-Gurion Airport. At times it has been necessary to close the airport to landings. Generally, these disruptions are caused by unlicensed local radio stations broadcasting on the frequency ranges of the control tower.
When they originate from a radio station in the Palestinian territories, Israel demands that the PA halt the station’s activity. If the disturbances do not cease, forces are dispatched to impound the transmitter.
Since borders cannot stop the spread of electromagnetic waves, the electromagnetic spectrum must be managed jointly.
In the framework of the interim accords between Israel and the PA, a committee for electromagnetic coordination was established to allocate frequencies to both parties and prevent mutual jamming and disturbances. Indeed, throughout the world it is customary to maintain electromagnetic coordination between states in areas up to 80 km. from the border. This means the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including all of the Palestinian areas. It is thus clear to both parties that electromagnetic coordination is required. The question remains, however, whether one of the parties will have overriding responsibility and the final say.
Israel’s interest is to preserve the normal functioning of its public, private, and military communications systems. Equally crucial is guaranteeing that the Palestinians do not exploit their topographical advantage to block or neutralize Israel’s communication systems, or to gather intelligence on their own behalf or on behalf of hostile states.
Israel must guarantee that the Palestinians do not exploit their topographical advantage to block or neutralize Israel’s communication systems, or to gather intelligence on their own behalf or on behalf of hostile states.
This concern is well-founded. For example, when IDF forces entered Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, they discovered advanced Iranian intelligence-gathering systems whose coverage capability extended deep into Israel. In light of this, Israel’s position is that it must retain overriding control of the electromagnetic spectrum, and there must be an effective supervisory apparatus in place to guarantee that its decisions are implemented. The Palestinians, on the other hand, view this issue – as in the case of airspace – in the context of sovereignty. They demand full independence in managing the electromagnetic spectrum and consider Israel’s demands to be excessive and their own to be based on international conventions.
The way to bridge the gap between the parties is to establish a new Joint Committee for Electromagnetic Coordination whose tasks will be:
- Allocating frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum for use by the parties.
- Guaranteeing Israel’s security needs, and assuring the demilitarization of the Palestinian state’s military capabilities in the area of communications (for example, by prohibiting jamming and disruption equipment). For this purpose, effective inspection at international border crossings is required to prevent the introduction of equipment prohibited under the agreements.
- Upholding the understandings between the parties about limitations on Palestinian military capabilities, which means limiting frequency ranges allocated for military use.
- Imposing limitations on the operation of systems that damage the continuity and reliability of the communications of the other party. In this context, the Palestinians currently operate communications systems using antiquated technology that breaks into other frequencies and causes local communications disruptions.
- Preventing illegal broadcasts and ensuring enforcement capability in supervision, monitoring, and inspection in the Palestinian areas.
- Creating a mutual apparatus to terminate disruptive broadcasts and to reach agreements on the continued operation of communications systems.
- Supervising the installation of antennas and other equipment that could be exploited for use by hostile parties.
- Due to its topographical and technological vulnerability and its security needs – and in order to prevent damage to its existing communications capabilities – Israel must have overriding prerogatives on this committee.
The mutual lack of trust between the parties stems from contradictory interests, as well as differences in how they approach the issue. Israel views the electromagnetic spectrum from the perspective of security and the maintenance of normal functioning of communications systems, while the Palestinians are primarily concerned with demonstrating their sovereignty. In order to overcome this divide, a third party can be enlisted to supervise the honoring of agreements by both sides, and verify whether significant or deliberate harm has been done to the interests of either party.
The Palestinians repeatedly argue that they understand Israel’s security needs, but insist that peace will bring security. They therefore believe their own interests take precedence over Israel’s. Conversely, Israel views its security as a necessary condition for maintaining peace and stability, and cannot agree to proposals that would base its vital security needs solely on diplomatic agreements.
It is only through mutual understanding of the other party’s needs – and by building an effective coordination apparatus to provide fitting solutions to demands on both sides – that a stable and viable agreement can be implemented. In light of the stringent time, space, and topographical conditions of the area, it is not possible to divide the airspace and the electromagnetic spectrum between Israel and a future Palestinian state. For both of these, unified solutions are required. In this context, the brunt of responsibility for making decisions and implementing them must be in the hands of one of the parties. Given Israel’s complex security needs, including the need to maintain stability and security following the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, overriding responsibility must be in Israel’s hands. At the same time, the Palestinian need to exhibit elements of sovereignty in the realms of airspace and the electromagnetic spectrum should be respected. This can be accomplished through joint apparatuses for coordination, management, and problem-solving.