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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Towards Aqaba: Challenges Facing Israel

Filed under: Iranian Terrorism, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Radical Islam, Terrorism
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 2, No. 29    June 3, 2003

  • There are five dimensions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all taking place simultaneously: the military activity on the ground; the narrative; the legitimacy of the tactics, methods, and means; the legitimacy of the leadership; and the capabilities of both societies to sustain the conflict.

  • I told General Zinni on the night of the Passover bombing in Netanya that if there was no change in the Palestinian leadership, it was useless to continue with our efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation.

  • If the Palestinian Authority wants to be a legitimate and reliable political entity, there is only one option: to dismantle the military capability of the Popular Front, Tanzim, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and many others. Israel will not repeat the mistakes made in the past when we were too forgiving regarding this crucial point.

  • Some people make a naive distinction between the political leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their military wings. This is a mistake. After a young Palestinian visits some very innocent cultural center or mosque, financed and managed by Hamas, he is sent to the military wing, which gets someone who already has all the necessary education and motivation. This entire chain of production of terrorists must be either dismantled or at least significantly transformed.


Since the end of World War II, there has been a transformation in the nature of armed conflict, with fewer total wars between countries and more low-intensity conflicts between countries and organizations. Yet the political consequences of these low-intensity conflicts are often more significant than the outcome of ordinary wars.

One example of the difference between the old wars and current armed conflicts is the difficulty in defining the strategic goal for a certain situation or a certain military activity. It used to be quite simple because everything was explained in physical terms. It was necessary to destroy certain capabilities of the armed forces of the other side, destroy the infrastructure, capture a piece of land, or conquer the land of the other side.

However, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what exactly are the instructions that are given to the army? Can we explain them in simple physical terms? The answer is, no. There are many restrictions, many limitations, and many other dimensions. It is much more complicated than: “Here is the enemy, go and kill the enemy and bring us victory.”

When the latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began about two and a half years ago, the first meetings between Israel’s political and military echelons were conducted in the traditional way. The political leadership would ask the IDF: “We are considering how to respond to a terrorist attack. What targets do you recommend to attack?” Later, as the crisis developed, the discussions became much more complicated and went beyond the nature of the military response to a certain attack.


A Five-Dimensional Conflict

We now realize that there are five dimensions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the confrontation takes place in all five dimensions simultaneously, with each dimension influencing the other.

The first dimension involves the military activity on the ground. From the Israeli perspective, the Palestinian side tries to carry out terrorist attacks against us, and we try to prevent it. Each side tries to be more successful than the other side.

The second dimension is about the narrative. What is the conflict all about? Why is there a conflict? What are we fighting for? What are they fighting for? The Palestinians say they fight against the Israeli occupation. The Israeli story is different and, in a very traditional Jewish way, it is much more complicated. We say that it is not a matter of occupation. It is a matter of whether or not we are accepted in this part of the world. Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and Hizballah believe that the State of Israel should be destroyed and that there is no legitimacy to our existence here. We also have good reason to believe that these organizations express out loud what many others think but, to be politically correct, understand they cannot say. We have good reason to believe that many Palestinians do not think only in terms of the West Bank and Gaza whenever they refer to a “Palestinian state.”

The third dimension is about the legitimacy of the tactics, methods, and means. Suppose we say that the Palestinians have some legitimate political ambitions that should be negotiated, but to try to achieve them by use of terrorism is something that is completely unacceptable. We don’t accept their way. The Palestinians say quite similar things about us. They say, maybe the Israelis have the right to defend themselves, but to destroy houses and to kill civilians, and to humiliate civilians at checkpoints is completely unacceptable. So there is a competition about the legitimacy of the tactics – who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? – not as part of the political interest, but in terms of the methods that are used.

The fourth dimension, that became quite crucial in the past year, is about the legitimacy of the leadership. We say that Yasser Arafat cannot be a real partner for any reliable agreement between Palestinians and Israelis because he does not want the State of Israel to exist. In his mind, the final agreement is going to be completely different. Arafat personally supports terrorism. We have thousands of pieces of hard evidence of this, but it was quite difficult to persuade not only the Americans and Europeans, but even Israeli public opinion that this was the case.

The turning point regarding Arafat’s legitimacy came on March 27, 2002, with the Passover Seder bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya when close to 30 Israelis were murdered. I spoke by phone that night with American General Anthony Zinni, who was in Israel at the time in his third attempt to try to resume Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. I told him that as long as this was the Palestinian leadership, there was no way even the moderate Palestinians who might be willing to fight terrorism will do it because the instructions are to do the complete opposite. If there was no change of leadership, it was useless to continue with our efforts to achieve certain agreements on the ground.

A second conversation I had that evening was with Terje Larsen, the UN special envoy. I told him that the time had come to decide what was more important to the world – to the Europeans, to the Arab world, and even to the Palestinians themselves: a continuation of the leadership of Yasser Arafat or a chance to resume reliable political negotiations. These two expectations cannot live together, and perhaps the time had come to make a decision about what was more important.

On the other hand, the Palestinian leadership tries to convince the world, and especially the United States, that the Israeli leadership is the obstacle to a solution. So there is a competition about the legitimacy of the leadership.

The fifth dimension, which may be the most important one, is about the capabilities of both societies, the Israeli and the Palestinian, to sustain the conflict, to continue the struggle and not give up their vital interests. The Palestinians had hoped they would easily achieve their goals because they expected that a rich and spoiled Israeli society would not be able to live under the threat of violence over a long time. At the beginning, they thought in terms of weeks or months, and they made a very simple comparison between the Israeli evacuation of Lebanon and the situation in the territories. In their perception, if Israel had made a decision to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon because it suffered 25 casualties a year there, then if the Palestinians could cause a greater number of casualties, the result would be quite similar and Israel would withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank and Gaza without any need for the Palestinians to make any compromise.


Four Options for Israel

For the first 20 months of the crisis, the government of Israel had not decided on which track to move in order to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. During this time there were four different theoretical options for trying to achieve a settlement.

The first was to try to resume political negotiations with the same Palestinian leadership and to do it while the violence continued, to negotiate “under fire.” Some Israelis suggested this was the right thing to do. The Europeans pressed very hard to persuade us that this was the only way to stop the violence. They said that when the political negotiations resumed, there would be no reason for the violence and it would disappear. The government of Israel felt this was quite a naive approach and did not accept it.

The second, opposite option was to try to crush the Palestinian Authority completely: to destroy whatever was left including the leadership itself, to re-conquer all the West Bank and Gaza, to destroy physically and philosophically whatever was left from the Oslo process, to return the situation to what existed before 1993, and then try and start something new from the beginning.

The third option was known as “unilateral separation.” It is based on the idea that we want to achieve a certain settlement; we even know the framework of this settlement. Unfortunately, we don’t have a partner. Let’s decide on the final settlement, draw it on the map, and implement it in a unilateral way. We will build a real wall along this line and evacuate the Israeli presence from the other side. At the end of the day we will be here and they will be there, and this will be the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The fourth option was based on the idea that the gap between the Israelis and the Palestinians is so big that there is almost no way to reach an understanding between the two parties. So the only way is to have a certain international solution enforced on both sides and they will have to accept it because there is no other choice.


The Fifth Solution

For obvious reasons, the government of Israel rejected each of these four solutions. Then on June 24, 2002, President Bush explained his vision of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, there are certain elements that are better for us, and certain ones that we probably don’t enjoy. But the leaders of Israel said that we can accept the president’s vision as a framework for the implementation of a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Then the “Road Map” was introduced. Initially, it was supposed to be an interpretation of the president’s intent, but there is a significant difference between the original intent as expressed by the president and the written document known as the Road Map.


Conditions for Reducing the Violence

What is the chance that we will be able to solve this current cycle of violence? About eight months ago we saw that if certain preconditions were met, there was a good chance that during 2003 we would be able to reduce the violence significantly and find a way to bring the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians to a much more normal status.

The first condition was a successful American operation in Iraq. So far, the American operation in Iraq has been perceived as successful from the Arab point of view. The Arabs understand well the consequences of such an event. We knew that something like this would encourage the more moderate elements in the Arab world and, in a way, it would decrease the power of the extremists.

The second condition was if the Palestinians would conclude that violence and terror cannot bring them what they want and are counterproductive, and that a change in the leadership is needed. In a way, this is an internal Palestinian problem. But we had reasons to believe that sooner or later they might reach these conclusions.

The first signs appeared about 10 months ago when discussion began of the nomination of Abu Mazen to become prime minister. Unlike the other Palestinian leader, Abu Mazen doesn’t want to see the use of terror and violence in order to promote his political goals. He intends to try to achieve his interests in a different way, but for the first time, there is a partner who does not want to use terror as the main tool to achieve political goals.

There were also two preconditions from the Israeli side for a reduction in violence, one military and the other political. We knew that in order to create a better atmosphere, we would have to be much more successful in our military operations against Palestinian terrorists and there has indeed been a dramatic change over the past year. In March 2002 there were 17 successful terrorist suicide attacks inside Israel, as well as many others in the West Bank and Gaza. A total of 135 Israelis were killed in that one month. Everybody who lived in Israel at that time could understand that the situation was completely unbearable. The situation now is not perfect but is much better, and is a direct result of Israel’s Operation “Defensive Shield” when we entered all the Palestinian cities. We formally and practically decided that we could not count on the Palestinian security organizations to stop terrorism and took the responsibility upon ourselves.

On the political side, the government of Israel had to find the right formula for negotiations with the Palestinians. President Bush’s speech appeared to be the right formula.


Dismantling the Terrorist Infrastructure

If the Palestinians had complete freedom to move freely within the cities, between the cities, between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and from Gaza and the West Bank to Israel, 50 percent of the Palestinians’ economic problems and 80 percent of their humanitarian problems could be solved. But giving freedom of movement to terrorists could bring Israel back to a situation of terrorism similar to March 2002. It would become very easy for two Palestinians from Nablus with Kalachnikov rifles to ride along some road, randomly choose an Israeli car, and shoot to kill whoever is inside. We experienced dozens of such cases at the beginning of this crisis.

In order to ease the pressure on the Palestinian people – most of whom are innocent people – we need to see something different on the ground on the Palestinian side.

In 1996 the Palestinians decided to initiate violence. They tried it again in May 2000 and then in September 2000. They could do this each time because none of the terrorist organizations were dismantled. They were preserved in order to be used at the right time.

This is something that Israel cannot accept in the future. If the Palestinian Authority wants to be a legitimate and reliable political entity, there is only one option: to dismantle the military capability of the Popular Front, Tanzim, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and many others. This does not have to be achieved in one day, but there should be a real, determined decision and effort. Israel will not repeat the mistakes made in the past when we were too forgiving regarding this crucial point.

Some people make a naive distinction between the political leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their military wings. Yet this is a mistake. How does someone become a suicide bomber? It works like this: A young Palestinian visits some very innocent civilian institute such as a cultural center, a mosque, a medical center, or a school that is financed and managed by Hamas. Here he is exposed to all the incitement, and at the same time people observe him. If he is identified as someone who expresses a commitment to the violent struggle, then he is sent by this so-called innocent, civilian, religious, or political institute to one of the representatives of the military wing. The military wing gets someone who already has all the necessary education and motivation. Then they give him an explosive belt and send him to carry out a suicide attack.

So who are the terrorists? Those who carry out suicide attacks in shopping malls and on busses, or all the others at the so-called political level? Whenever we talk about the infrastructure of organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, we mean the organization in its entirety. We don’t mean only those with the weapons. We talk about the simple fact that the entire chain of production of terrorists must be either dismantled or at least significantly transformed into something else.


Lebanon and Syria

Some people have a perception that Hizballah is a guerrilla organization deployed along the Israeli-Lebanese border that sometimes carries out certain attacks. At worst, they might even hit Israeli settlements located close to the border with Katyusha rockets. This might have been the situation years ago, but in the past three years, Hizballah, with the very deliberate and consistent assistance of Iran and Syria, has built up a real military capacity that now consists of about 12,000 rockets of different types and different effective ranges. Hundreds of these rockets can reach the northern third of Israel, including Haifa and other cities. Their military readiness is very high, so it may only be a matter of hours between a decision to strike and full deployment of this capacity. And this capacity is in the hands of Hassan Nasrallah, who is considered by the U.S. to be the leader of a terrorist organization.

Before the war in Iraq there was concern about what might happen if Iraq attacked Israel with Scud missiles. For the people who live in Haifa there is no great difference between being attacked by Scud missiles from Iraq or rockets from Lebanon, and the number of rockets in Lebanon is significantly higher. It is unacceptable for Israel to live under a continuous threat from a terrorist organization with such a capacity. Hizballah says openly that the fight for Lebanon was only the first phase, and that the final phase should be the fight for Jerusalem. They are simply waiting for the right opportunity. Is Israel to wait until they find the right opportunity? Suppose they make use of these weapons. Israel will have to respond in order to defend itself. The result might be that Israel and Syria will find themselves dragged into a real military confrontation that neither really wants, simply because of a terrorist organization which operates freely on Israel’s northern border.


Iran’s Unique Threat

Iran represents a type of threat to Israel that does not exist in any other part of the region, due to a unique combination of four elements. First, the Iranian hatred of Israel is a religious hatred. They say that religiously they cannot accept the simple fact that the State of Israel exists. There is very little that can be done to try to solve this since it is not a political dispute that might have a solution; it is something much deeper. In this regard, Iran has had a huge impact on organizations such as Islamic Jihad and Hizballah. Second, the Iranians are trying to spread what they call “the Islamic revolution” to other countries. They have partially succeeded in Lebanon, continue to try in other countries, and are now looking to try to increase their influence in Iraq. The third element is that Iran, perhaps more than any other country, has been successful in supporting terrorist activities in the Palestinian areas, in the region, and in other parts of the world. So far, we have seen no reduction in this activity. Finally, Iran has an ambition to achieve a nuclear capability and, if not stopped, they will reach this capability in a few years. Everyone should be able to understand the nature of the conflict in the Middle East when there is an Iranian nuclear threat.

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Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland serves as Head of the IDF’s Planning and Policy Division. Prior to his appointment, he served as head of the IDF’s Operations Branch and commander of the Infantry and Paratroopers Brigades. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on 13 May 2003.