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

The National Security Aspect of Fighting Terror
– The Israeli Experience

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser

Israel’s long experience of fighting terror has led to an understanding that terror is a strategy that presents a significant threat to Israel’s national security, even if most of the time it appears as a low-intensity action with limited damage and impact. This understanding was adopted gradually, after a long period of time, during which Israel acted against the threat as if it were a strategic threat but tried to convince itself that it was not. For many years, especially as long as the conventional military threat from Arab armies loomed over its survival, Israel referred to terror as a lesser menace and used the euphemistic term “current security threat” to conceptualize it.

From a national security point of view, the battle against terror is first and foremost a battle of learning. The results of this battle depend on the quality of learning on both sides. The faster we understand the other side’s way of thinking and the operational and tactical derivatives of the changes he may adopt as a result of the changes in the framework in which the battle takes place and his understanding of the changes in our strategy, the better. That learning provides a greater chance that we shall be able to change our behavior in a way that will minimize the enemy’s expectations to make progress on the strategic level and ultimately convince him to give up terror as a way of achieving his strategic goals. It may even lead the enemy to reassess the validity of those goals. These are our strategic goals in the fight against terror.

Anti-Zionist demonstration in Jerusalem 1920
Anti-Zionist demonstration in Jerusalem, 1920. Signs denounced Jewish immigration and proclaimed “Palestine is part of Syria.” (Library of Congress)

Obviously, conflicts in which one of the sides chooses to employ terror as a way of action are long and protracted, and changes in strategy and strategic goals are last choices. Nevertheless, it is possible to convince the enemy to change its policy and maybe even its strategic goals. Israel managed several times to bring the Palestinians to the conclusion that they should change their policy regarding terror, but has not been successful yet in its attempt to convince them to give it up as a preferred way of action and to change their strategic goals.

Studying Palestinian terror against Zionism allows us to clarify its goals, nature, and strategy. Palestinian terror started in the early twentieth century and was based on the total rejection of the existence of a Jewish “people” and its historical relations with the Holy Land. The goal was and remained the demise of Zionism (Abu Mazen himself wrote a book entitled “Zionism – from Inception to Demise”) by sowing fear in the hearts of the Zionists. Arab objectives were to show how insecure the Jews were in this disputed land, in order to convince them that their endeavor is doomed and to plant doubts in the minds of the Zionists and their allies in the West regarding their rights and the justification of their narrative.

The terror effort against Zionism was presented both as a part of the cultural and civilizational Islamic war against Western culture and as a fight for freedom against a colonial entity. Both national and religious argumentations were used to justify the attempt to attack the Zionists, civilian and security, and to program the minds of the Palestinians to support terror and execute it when they are asked or expected to do so.

Based on this understanding, it becomes clear that the strategic answer to the threat of terror was and still is the ability to convince the terrorist that their way of action is futile. The Zionists/Israelis have to demonstrate to their adversaries that they are determined to continue building and protecting their project – the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people; that they deeply believe that Zionism is justified and just; that the values they stand for are noble and worth defending and fighting for; and that they enjoy international support for their cause. At the same time, the Zionists/Israelis have to show that they can find ways to minimize the damage inflicted on them through terror and in this context weaken the capabilities of the terrorists.

Remains of a burnt Jewish passenger bus
Remains of a burnt Jewish passenger bus at Balad-Esh-Sheikh outside Haifa. July 1938. (Library of Congress)

A Deeper and Evil Motive for Terror

The Palestinians do not just use terror as a major means of action in this battle, but its use is by itself a deliberate manifestation of the cultural difference they wish to emphasize. By using terror, its proponents and perpetrators try to convey the message that they won’t be deterred from this policy until they achieve their goal, because in their culture, in contrast to Western and Israeli culture, life is not a sacred value. Honor and sacrifice are, and, therefore, international law – based on Western values – does not apply to them.

This logic is translated into slogans such as, “We seek (honorable) death more than you seek life,” and to referring to Israel merely as a “spider web,” easily broken. In fact, while this rhetoric is supposed to represent the values of a culture that promotes terror as a sublime sacrifice for a noble cause, justifying the indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians, the reality is that the society that is expected to support this policy is much less determined to do so. When the public realizes that the consequences of this policy prevent the ability to achieve other goals, like better standards of living, questions are raised. These inherent tensions cause repeated frustration that can sometimes be translated into a change of policy, at least temporarily.

The effective learning by the Zionist movement and later by Israel, and the determined spirit of the Zionists made it possible for Israel to overcome the repetitive terror waves and often deny the Palestinians a strategic victory. On occasion, the Palestinians managed to achieve some interim goals when they faced weak Israeli leadership, a naïve and misinformed international community, and a mismatch between the Palestinian goal of eliminating Zionism and the impulsive Zionist wish of making peace prematurely with the Arabs including the Palestinians. 

As a result, the Palestinians still consider terror as a vital and successful tool to make progress towards their long and medium term goals. Nevertheless, whereas until 1974 Palestinian leadership presented terror as the only way for “liberating Palestine,” since then, some Palestinians were ready to add other ways of action, including diplomatic negotiations. They adopted a vocabulary of peace, usually for external use, in the context of their “Two-Phases Paradigm.”

The imbalance between terror groups and Israel (or any Western state terror target) is reflected, among other things, in the different ways they view operational and strategic success or failure. The terrorists may view success as the mere execution of a terror act that has an impact, regardless of the success of the attack in inflicting casualties on their enemy. Of course, they realize that more damage means greater impact and that if they manage to outsmart their enemy, they will gain extra strategic points. Israel (or any other Western state), on the other hand, has to set as its operational target the prevention of all terror attacks. This may distort the meaning of victory in the ongoing terror and counterterror wars Israel has fought. The mere success of the terrorists to harm Israel and survive the Israeli reaction is presented by the terrorists as a divine victory, while Israel treats the perpetration of any attack as a tactical or operational failure.

Israel judges results on the strategic level: did Israel force its will over the terrorists or vice versa, and did Israel achieve its goals in the specific confrontation? Success is gauged on whether Israel reestablished deterrence, reassured its citizens about their long-term security, gained a long lull between terror attacks, and sometimes whether the terrorists were forced to change their strategy altogether. In most cases, Israel was able to achieve the goals it set for itself and could consider itself victorious, even if it suffered numerous terror attacks. The “learning competition” is very relevant to the ever-changing operational tactics that Palestinian and Lebanese terror organizations use against Israel. Whenever a certain tactic is adopted by a terror group as its leading way of action, Israel seeks a way to defend itself against the specific challenge and force its enemies to give it up. As a rule, it takes the terrorists time to develop a new tactic, and it takes additional time for Israel to develop a counter move. To list some of the elements of this spiral phenomenon, one can point to the Arab gangs’ attacks on Jewish centers in 1929 and the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 against the British and Jews that led to the strengthening of the Zionist’s security forces; the Fedayeen attacks through the borders in the 1950s that led to the retaliation operations and the establishment of special operation units like Unit 101; the penetration of the Jordanian border in the late 1960s that led to operations beyond the border, which eventually forced the Jordanians to expel the PLO in September 1970; the attempts to infiltrate into Israel from the sea in the 1970s and 1980s that led to a major investment in the Israeli navy; and later the suicide bombers during the Second Intifada that were thwarted by “Operation Defensive Shield” and the erection of the security fence, and lately the launching of rockets from Gaza that led to the development of the “Iron Dome” system.

Hamas suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem, April 18, 2016.
Hamas suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem, April 18, 2016. (Israel Police)

Learning was also the way Israel developed its practice of fighting terror in a wide variety of aspects that together comprise the comprehensive strategy of fighting terror: preventing and thwarting terror attempts, deterrence, reaction, and resilience.

Prevention is based on the following elements:

  1. Intelligence – Israel has studied meticulously the behavior and logic that cultivates the terrorists thinking and their subsequent modus operandi. As a result, Israel developed various state of the art capabilities in all aspects of intelligence to follow the terrorists’ activities so that many terror attempts were prevented and foiled in advance. Israel also understood, relatively early on, that since terror disregards national boundaries, there is a need to develop cooperation between the different Israeli intelligence services (those that deal with local intelligence, those who collect intelligence internationally, and police intelligence) to enable fusion of all relative information necessary to prevent terror attacks. It also realized that this cooperation needs to go beyond the Israeli national intelligence services and extend to foreign ones, including those in countries with whom Israel does not have diplomatic relations. Intelligence collection is conducted according to the law, but with priority given to the need to prevent attacks that may threaten lives, over privacy when such contradiction of values appears.
  2. Protection – Israel has developed a very robust set of protection protocols, in most cases as a result of the learning process following failures to prevent attacks. For example, after attempts to hijack Israeli airplanes, Israel embarked on a high-profile protection plan for its airports and civilian aircraft that proves itself capable of deterring and foiling terror attacks. The same is true for protecting shopping centers, the coastline, Israeli and Jewish facilities around the world, and other strategic targets. Out of necessity, Israel does not shy away from profiling suspects.
  3. Military operations – Military operations play a major role in protection, in the form of checkpoints, barriers, and security fences, which enable the IDF to deny entry of terrorists. On top of that, when faced with a danger that cannot be thwarted otherwise, Israel takes military action to foil the terror attempt, based on the intelligence it gathers. This may take the form of arrests when possible, and targeted preventive attacks when arrests are not possible. For the performance of such military operations, Israel has developed various capabilities, such as light, precise munition, and units of disguised soldiers who look like Palestinians, when arrests are called for without giving the terrorists an early warning. One major lesson learned is that military presence or access to the areas where the terrorists prepare their attacks is necessary, and without it, prevention becomes much more difficult.
  4. Affecting force buildup attempts – Terrorists’ efforts to improve their capabilities cannot always be totally foiled, but Israel has adopted a policy of trying to slow down, as much as possible, these efforts by proactive intervention to deny the terrorist weapons and other capabilities. This has led to various operations in the territories and beyond, as well as the naval blockade on Gaza, which denied the terrorists advanced weaponry or prevented them from using such weapons.
  5. Public awareness – Every Israeli is always on high alert to notice potential terror threats and knows what must be done once the existence of such a threat is recognized. For example, unattended luggage will immediately catch someone’s attention.

Reaction is based on the following elements:

  1. Military operations – Israel is always on high alert to deal militarily or through its police force with any terror attack. Israeli security forces intervene almost immediately and are able in many cases to save lives. Israel has developed special units, capabilities, and techniques to ensure efficient intervention. But Israel also uses its intelligence and military capabilities to react in a precise manner against the perpetrators and those who send them or assist them from within its enemies; Israel has made it crystal clear that no terrorist is immune from punishment. At the same time, Israel goes to great lengths, more so than any other country, in trying to ensure that these military actions cause minimal, unintended damage to uninvolved people. (See Democracy Facing Terrorism: Human Rights and Military Ethics by Prof. Asa Kasher.)
  2. Defensive reaction – Israel has developed a variety of tools that enable it to react defensively once it is attacked by a terrorist organization. The most famous example is the Iron Dome, (anti-missile and rocket system) which intercepts incoming rockets and missiles.
  3. Legal activity – The Israeli law and legal system are adjusted to the need to fight terror and punish those who incite terror or perpetrate it. It also provides the legal basis for the military operations against terror. Among other things, the law, which is based to a large extent on the law which prevailed during the British Mandate, enables the government to outlaw organizations that are involved in terrorism. Israeli security agencies may temporarily hold suspects under administrative detention if showing evidence regarding their involvement in terror in court will damage intelligence capabilities. Israel, of course, adheres to the relevant international law of armed conflicts and the humanitarian law (for deeper analysis on this aspect see The Legal Response by Amb. Alan Baker).
  4. Resilience – The ability to withstand a terror attack or a terror campaign and recover rapidly is a well-known feature of Israeli society. With a long history of terror attacks, Israelis have sadly come to realize that terror is a part of their lives and that sometimes the prevention and the reaction to it fail to provide full security. But when such a situation occurs, the government and the population are well rehearsed and capable of maintaining order and reasonable daily routine. The education system, police, first-responders, and home-front command inside the Ministry of Defense have all developed special expertise in preparing the public, raising its resilience levels, and operating systems that support the public needs. This considerably erodes the strategic impact of terrorism.
  5. Deterrence – Shaping the thinking of the enemy about the expected response to the next terror attempt in a way that would convince the terrorists to refrain from carrying it out is always a critical goal of Israeli activity in fighting terror. Of course, all the elements mentioned above regarding prevention, reaction, and resilience contribute to the buildup of deterrence. But on top of these, the punishment system has a significant role in deterring the next terrorist. Recently, Israel resumed the practice of demolishing the houses of terrorists. Policy also plays a major role in building deterrence. The commitment not to allow terrorism to have any strategic gain is key in this respect, and with very few exceptions (especially in deals for the release of kidnapped Israelis) it was preserved by Israeli governments.

Another important element in the overall strategy is dealing with radicalization – both its prevention and the de-radicalization of those already indoctrinated. Israel tries to mobilize the international community to put pressure on the Palestinians to stop their hate indoctrination and the programming of Palestinian minds from very young ages to support and carry out terrorism. Israel tries from time to time to put such pressure directly on the Palestinian Authority. It is also trying to convince international social media corporations, such as Facebook and Google, to restrict the use of the Internet for incitement to terror and to cooperate with other Western countries in this context. So far the results of all these efforts are quite marginal. On top of that, Israel tries to enable the Palestinians to enjoy better living standards based on a questionable assumption that if they enjoy better lives, they will be less inclined to adopt radical positions and support terror; they may even adopt a better opinion about Israel.

 In fact, there is no proof that such a connection exists. The hatred indoctrination is much deeper and has less to do with what Israel does, but with its very existence and what it represents.

Nevertheless, recently Israel managed to stop radicalization of some Palestinian youngsters by approaching them after monitoring the beginning of the change in their behavior on social media and informing their family about it.

Israel force buildup for fighting terror is part and parcel of its overall strategy. On top of building specialized units that have developed special practices fit for their specific missions, a considerable component in Israel’s capability to cope with terror threats is based upon its ability to develop state-of-the-art technological solutions.

To sum up, Israel’s overall strategy of fighting terror is a comprehensive approach that was developed out of ongoing learning efforts. Understanding the goals and strategy of the enemy and the context in which it operates and being agile enough to rapidly adopt adequate responses that build on former solutions has enabled Israel to become a world leader in the fight against terror.