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

Resilience, the Israeli People’s Weapon against Terror

Dr. Fiamma Nirenstein

On the afternoon of March 7, 2002, Shlomi Harel, 23, a waiter looking to make a little money after completing his military service, saw a husky youth arguing with a guard at the door of Café Cafit on Emek Refaim, the main street of Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood. Shlomi had a tattoo on his arm, spiked hair, and an earring in his left ear and two studs in his right.

In the army he learned how to identify a suspicious person. First and foremost, he knew he must engage the person in conversation. Shlomi asked him everything that immediately came to mind: “Where are you going? Who are you? What do you want?” The guy responded in Hebrew simply stating, “I don’t speak Hebrew.” Shlomi said he then “pushed him towards the corner without violence but with all of my weight. I wasn’t thinking about anything.”

Israeli citizens’ defending themselves against terrorists.
Israeli caricature showing Israeli citizens defending themselves against terrorists. Caption: “Once again, the whole country is the front, the whole nation is the army.” (Shay Charka)

Shlomi told me that the young man sweated and stammered as onlookers watched, terrified. He said,

Like a machine, I removed his backpack from his shoulders. It dropped, popped open, and I saw wires… I was lucky it didn’t explode. I picked the backpack up off the ground; I threw it into the alley. I just thought: if it explodes right now I’ll be a fool because we’ll all die just the same. Between hero and fool, the boundary is almost non-existent. But I also thought: it’s better that only one person dies instead of many if I can manage it … there were dozens of people in that café.

This is Israel’s most important weapon against terrorism: its people, the citizens. Thirty percent of terrorists have been thwarted by civilians; bystanders of all ages and from all social backgrounds, from young men and women in blue jeans, shorts, or military uniforms, to Tel Aviv intellectuals and ultra-Orthodox with side curls. One Orthodox man went so far as to use his phylacteries – or tefillin – as a weapon to strike a stabber. On another occasion, a musician hurled his guitar, striking a terrorist in the head. A civilian with an umbrella struck another terrorist, and yet another was pummeled with a selfie stick. Some bystanders have thrown chairs on top of terrorists or have used pepper spray. There are even those who shot at terrorists. Very few citizens ran off scared, and almost all remained to save someone in danger, treat the wounded, or throw themselves into the fray to impede a terrorist.

To understand why Israelis act this way, we need to hear the second part of Shlomi’s story:

I immediately went home. My mother greeted me by calling me an idiot, a moron, and then slapped me. I reminded her that in the army I belong to a special unit and that I know what to do… She was proud of me but extremely angry. But really, it was the only logical thing to do, don’t you think? Here, you ask yourself a thousand times what you would do if you ever found yourself face to face with a terrorist. However, you are already prepared. You already know, you have already decided what to do … for me stopping that guy and pulling off his backpack with wires was natural … every morning since March my friends and I had organized surveillance rounds inside malls, around bars and garbage bins, and sought out those who appear suspicious. We organize ourselves, we train all year round, we think about it constantly, and we ask ourselves the following: “Will we succeed? Can we succeed?” The response is yes; this is life. We are always in danger, but we need to live. Yes, you just manage… I, in particular, residing in Gilo, have had bullets enter my home [from the Palestinian town of Beit Jala]. That situation is most frightening; if a bullet hits you, it hits you. But when you can act, you do.

Israeli Citizens’ Resilience

Shlomi’s case perhaps typifies the entire phenomenology of the Israeli fight against terrorism, which forms the basis of the “resilience” essential to the resistance and to the victory that, by now, the entire world needs.

Shlomi’s family is seen as the main source of approval and appreciation, with the assertive and omnipresent mother who worries but admires and supports her child, who places immense value on the survival of her children, yet participates in their dangerous lives. The family is the direct interlocutor. The mother – namely the family – has  grown accustomed to terrorism. She also has the determination and therefore, while nevertheless worrying, gives the approval to respond and defeat the terrorists in order to survive, and believes in the significance of collective responsibility. Therefore, society, and namely the family, accept their greater importance in relation to the life of the individual.

A Different Response in Europe

I encountered an opposing attitude while teaching a history course at LUISS University in Rome. I found myself asking the young students to raise their hands if they were willing to give their lives to defend their home. They responded with a deafening silence, without raising their hands. At least they were sincere.

By carefully reading the experiences of Shlomi and the other protagonists in the history of resistance against terrorism, we discover two basic aspects that can teach us how terrorism may be dealt with.

We find people like Shlomi throughout Israel’s entire history – from before the establishment of the State itself, to the first acts of fedayeen terrorism, up to those of the recent so-called “Knife Intifada.” The mentality of the average Israeli, like Shlomi, is the key to understanding how the people of Israel have such a great resistance to terrorism. They have responded skillfully to terrorism’s goals to destroy the social fabric from within, to bring society to its knees, to render normal life impossible and, finally, to create conflict between common people and the political elite.

For Shlomi, this was and is not possible. To understand why we must first consider certain deep psychological reasons that pertain to Jewish identity and to the national force found in Zionism. Secondly, we must consider that a wealth of attributes create a practical response that helps to keep the daily storm of terror in check.

Shlomi is an ancestral heir to the spirit that saves Israel from terror, from fleeing, and from living under the banner of fear. It is this spirit that allows him, in short, to survive and live happily. Shlomi is flexible, adaptable, and not spoiled. Why? Because what stirs him within is the resistance acquired over centuries that has enabled the survival of the most persecuted people in history. This resistance has saved him from depression, has made him creative, and, after all the pogroms and persecutions, has allowed him once again to place himself at the center of history with an attachment to the homeland of the Jewish people, rather than forcing him to see himself as a victim again.

The idea of valuing one’s country and one’s people is very rare in Europe, where self-flagellation about nationalism is commonplace. This notion – that the nation as the cradle of a people (but certainly not as something affirmatively aggressive) is something worth defending – allows Israel to be number one in the fight against terrorism. The spirit of discipline, taught to combat soldiers through austere military training and years of service, allows even the most spoiled, bon vivant, and pleasure-seeking young men and women (and there are many) to regain a kind of unity while perceiving the importance of self-defense. Many European youth are lacking in unity and survival tactics and could benefit from this instruction. This training in Israel, in turn, creates a sense of national unity that exists despite fierce disagreement between the various political and religious parties of Israel.

How was it that the soldiers and settlers in the Gaza Strip during the days of the disengagement in 2005, at such an acute point of disunity, did not slip into violence? Why instead did they hug each other, sometimes in tears, at the end of those tragic days of evacuation? What is it that makes a 23-year-old who picks up a bomb from the ground a silent hero? Or what makes a person enter by foot into Lebanon during the night alongside his military unit, as I have seen many do? Shlomi, like all of those “made in Israel” types who voluntarily risk death to save their fellow citizens, is like Uri, the protagonist of Moshe Shamir’s bestselling classic novel entitled, He Walked Through the Fields (1947). Despite his girlfriend being pregnant, Uri throws himself on a bomb to save a friend.

There are true occurrences where Israeli soldiers have thrown themselves on a grenade to save their fellow soldiers (for example, Roi Klein during the 2006 Second Lebanon War). A true hero is he who lives with the ideals of having a peaceful life and is ready to fight while ridiculing the pomp and the rhetoric of heroism: if Shlomi had not been ready to grab the bomb, as hundreds, even thousands of other silent heroes would have done, Israel would no longer exist. Neither Shlomi’s mother nor his family would exist. And not just that: if Shlomi weren’t willing to sacrifice his beautiful life for Israel, or for his people, the memory of the Holocaust would erase the idea of gevurah, meaning heroism, upon which the State of Israel was built. In front of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum stands a monument to the 24-year-old hero of the Warsaw Ghetto, Mordechai Anielewicz, who died as the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Within the idea of overcoming the Diaspora, there is also the drive to eliminate any possibility that its people will again let themselves be destroyed as “sheep to the slaughter.”

Essentially, Israelis have been forced to become accustomed to terrorism, which has marked the entire history of the State of Israel even before its foundation. Many historical studies have demonstrated that this process of inurement has, in fact, been a natural and necessary development for the Israeli people, while preventing terrorism from destroying public morale and from prevailing in people’s daily lives.

The decline of press attention to day-by-day terrorist episodes has also helped fortify this stoic quality of coexistence. War and terrorism have been Israel’s long-time companions, and it’s just a part of the fight to reject the tautological claim that terrorism is destructive, unpredictable, senseless, and shocking. For example, consider France’s feelings of disbelief and vulnerability after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, or America’s emotions of despair and grief after the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon and September 11, 2001 attacks. However, terrorism’s goal of destroying the social and economic resources of the country has failed, thanks to Israel’s extraordinary nature.

Adaptation to Terrorism’s Trauma

Israel has demonstrated that societies can preserve the normal standard of life by bolstering natural post-trauma emotions with various methods of adaptation. In this way, Israelis can respond to terrorism without falling prey to it. Rather, they can react to it with strength, organization, a sense of solidarity, innovative thinking, and various anti-terror techniques.

Surveys taken on the amount of post-traumatic stress amassed by Israeli society yield surprising results. An overwhelming 44.4 percent of the population were victims of suicide terrorist attacks, had friends and relatives who were victims, or knew someone who had survived an attack in the first 19 months of the Second Intifada, between September 2000 to February 2001. However, at the midpoint of the Second Intifada, which lasted until 2005, only 9.4 percent of Israeli citizens polled claimed to have suffered from post-traumatic stress.1 Israeli children suffered from posttraumatic stress at a level of 40 percent.

Additionally, 16.4 percent of the population surveyed were victims of a terror attack, while 22.1 percent of the population surveyed had friends or relatives who were victims of a terror attack. With such staggering data, we should expect to see signs of collective trauma.  It is unsurprising that 73 percent of respondents to a 1979 survey answered they were “afraid” or “very afraid” that they, or their close family members, would be hurt in a terrorist attack.  In 2002, in the middle of the Second Intifada, 92 percent of Israelis surveyed expressed fear that a member of their family may become a victim of an attack. But it is equally astounding that 76.6 percent of Israelis polled in 2006 declare that in a situation of terrorism “we would know what to do,” although stress is acute; 47 percent “felt life-threatening danger,” and 54 percent responded that they sensed “the lives of family members or acquaintances were in danger.” Despite this, 78.2 percent of respondents answered that “there will always be someone there to help me when I’m having difficulty.”2

This data continues to reflect the opinions of those who recognize these dangers today. Surprisingly, even with the recent wave of attacks, Israelis have been found to be resilient against terror, expressing positive outlooks on the future and their ability to overcome past attacks and prevent future ones.3 These attitudes correspond with acclimatization and individual faith in the capabilities of the citizens and government of Israel, regardless of political ideology. In Israel, the population’s trust in security forces and the army is definitive and genetic. There isn’t the typical underlying criticism of the defender of the “powers that be” – those whose duty it is to protect you. One does not suspect the government of being involved with some anti-popular historical enemy, as occurs in many European countries. There is an astounding level of cooperation between citizens and security forces. When a citizen is attacked, he will immediately seek a police officer in the vicinity, and he will find one, because police deployment is very wide-ranging and strategic, as is the stationing of security forces and distribution of weapons. A policeman or soldier who is attacked can always count on a nearby citizen to come running in an attempt to save him or her. Both parties “know what to do.” A spontaneous defensive reaction to such an unexpected event is highly esteemed as a realistic act of bravery. A terrorist who has attacked or who is about to attack must be stopped because he will be able to strike again.

Regarding the use of arms, when a citizen is vetted and secures a firearm, it is not given rashly, even when it is deemed that the weapon is required for urgent matters. Furthermore, the number of people who possess a firearm in a country like Israel, where many gun owners have received months of firearm training in the military, is lower than one might expect. In fact, it is very low: only 2.5 percent or 170,000 Israeli civilians possess a firearm.  Among them, 40 percent are professional guards at supermarkets and other public places.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat asked citizens to arm themselves during days of continuous terror attacks. The reasoning behind his request is interesting because it does not involve harming the wrong Israeli civilians, but instead calls on responsible gun owners who have been approved for a permit to carry their weapons and help protect their fellow citizens. Israelis can only obtain a weapon under the following conditions: if they are 21 years or older; if they have been residents in Israel for at least three years; if they have passed strict physical and mental exams; if they have passed a firearm safety test, and if they have had personal background checks verified by the Ministry of Public Safety. Furthermore, the issue of a gun permit will also be based upon a sufficient reason for its request, such as if one resides in an area where there is a high number of attacks. Weapons must be ordered through a licensed store where one receives a supply of 50 bullets that is not to be refilled until it has run out. When Barkat told citizens they could only carry a weapon if they are in legal possession of that weapon, he also added that one must not think that they can take the law into their own hands. Citizens must leave such responsibilities to security forces. The efficiency of these firearm measures is proven by these figures: in the last 10 years there have been around 50 cases in which armed citizens have intervened in preventing or responding to terror attacks (not many, given the previously examined figures), and in 70 percent of these cases their participation was crucial.

In Israel, much caution is taken to prevent a radicalization of society – which might increase wherever terrorism is present. Although we see the rise of the extreme right throughout Europe, in Israel, on the other hand, small groups of extremists (fanatics and even murderers), are largely kept in check because of the security measures. However, the image of Muslims and Palestinians has certainly not benefitted from the waves of terrorist attacks. The Israeli citizen is determined to defend himself and trusts that he will be defended, regardless of criticism and controversy. For example, 90 percent of Israelis supported Operation Protective Shield, which was launched in 2002 by Ariel Sharon when the Second Intifada had already reached horrific levels of violence. Shortly after that, 80 percent of Israelis also supported the security barrier against terror. Furthermore, the various defense measures voted upon by the Knesset, some of which were heatedly discussed (such as preventive detentions, the closing of high-risk zones like Hebron, and the destruction of terrorists’ homes) were widely approved. Israelis trust their country and its defense system, though they may criticize their political class.4

Israel had 53 suicide attacks in 2002. In the span of just one week, terrorists attacked a restaurant in Haifa, a supermarket in Jerusalem, a café in Tel Aviv, and a hotel in Netanya. Yet Israelis did not feel demoralized or depressed, nor did they panic or flee. Overall, during the Second Intifada, 1030 people were killed by terrorists (proportional to 295,000 Americans killed in the United States, when taking into account Israel’s small population) and the so-called Third “Knife Intifada,” in which, between September 2015 and July 2016, 40 victims of terror were killed. In this period, there were 157 stabbings, 101 shootings, 46 vehicular attacks, and one bus explosion. The adaptable way in which Israeli citizens responded is a result of acclimatization, which is the basis of Israeli “resilience,” and its eventual, consequential return to normalcy. It is this very normalization that prevents a great deal of the post-traumatic stress that typically accompanies terrorism in other countries.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, Boston was on lockdown, and its citizens shut up in their homes for days. This response to terror has yet to occur in Israel.5 There is determination and stoicism in maintaining one’s routine, and this habitualness translates into a solid resolve not to allow the threat of terrorism to dominate one’s daily life. Following terror attacks, Israelis are not ordered by their government to barricade themselves inside their homes; nor do they abandon daily routine. This resolve is exemplified in various interviews with Barkat, with store owners who reopen their businesses after a terrorist attack, and with citizens who return to sit at the same table where they were when an attack took place.

Rather, Israelis make minor changes as a means of caution, such as looking for seating far from the entrance of a café, immediately notifying easily accessible security guards (who are scarce in European countries) of the presence of suspicious people and objects in the street and in enclosed spaces, and being aware of one’s surroundings.

Elasticity Is the Norm

Owners and customers reopen and return to their shops. Israelis pursue tourism, trade, and continue using public transportation. The famous phrase uttered by a young man after the 2001 Dolphinarium Discotheque Massacre in Tel Aviv, in which 21 victims were killed (most of them teenagers) is: “We will keep on dancing.” This has become an essential theme in the pursuit of victory over terrorism.

The second point is to act: everyone attempts to do something to counteract the attacks, whether they are anticipated or unexpected. “Always be prepared,” or “Estote Parati” is the Scout motto, and it also works for the entire population of Israel. If you are prepared, you will already know ahead of time how not to be defenseless. In the meantime, there are volunteer organizations that are always on guard: for example, the Civil Guard is an organization of citizens who volunteer to assist the police with their work. There are both armed and unarmed groups that act solely for surveillance. The police train the groups and provide them with everything they need. The main activity of these groups is to conduct rounds of surveillance. They have limited powers, but they are prepared to do the right thing. If necessary, they can stop a person, verify his identity, and even arrest him. These watch groups are made up of more than 70,000 people, 28 percent of whom are women. The most common demographic in this group is men between 40 and 55 years old. (Men generally serve in the army reserves until 40 years old.) During the years of the Second Intifada, more than 500,000 citizens volunteered.

On March 8, 2016, 26-year-old Yishai Montgomery was strumming his guitar on the beach in Tel Aviv when he heard screaming. A terrorist stabbed American tourist and Army veteran Taylor Force, killing him and injuring 12 others in the process of his rampage. Yishai got the man in his sights and flung the guitar at his head, allowing the police to catch up with the terrorist and subdue him.  The guitar was shattered but soon after the incident a fundraiser was started to buy him a new one.

On the same day, in Petah Tikva, a stabber attacked Yonathan Azariah, an ultra-Orthodox man, who suffered a wound to the chest. The stabber had already frantically attacked several passers-by. Yonathan pulled the knife out of the back of his neck and effectively used it to strike down and stop the terrorist. On January 20, 2016, in Tel Aviv, Herzl Biton, a 62-year-old bus driver, found himself struggling with a terrorist who had stabbed many of his passengers and himself. He quickly slammed on his brakes, causing the terrorist to fly on top of him, and then he opened the door so the passengers could escape. He then seized the terrorist and sprayed him with pepper spray (sales of this were high during the Knife Intifada). The 23 year-old-assailant jumped down, but with Biton behind him, his exit was blocked until the police stopped him and brought him wounded to the hospital. Biton was also admitted to the hospital, seriously injured as a result of his stab wounds.

On June 8, 2016, four people were killed and six others were injured in an attack at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv. Haggai Klein, 32, was sitting at the market when two terrorists dressed in black began to shower bullets upon the shoppers. Klein threw a stool at the assailants, stopping them for a moment and causing one to drop his gun. The police then stopped the two. “My family and I were showered with tremendous recognition and love. But I think about the victims’ families, and I send them my condolences,” Klein said. “He did his duty,” commented Klein’s father, “I was very moved when I saw the video.”

The Mayor of Jerusalem himself, Nir Barkat, a technocrat in his forties, stopped a Palestinian terrorist with his own hands on February 22, 2015. He happened upon the pursuit of a stabber who had just attacked an Israeli man in his twenties.

Israel’s patriotism is no minor player in the fight against terror, except for very few who deny any nationalist spirit. 88 percent of Israelis are proud to be Israeli and have trust in the army.6 This trust, despite Israel’s well-known heated political discussions, is derived from the great determination with which one develops a continuous rethinking of security and health-care measures to heal those injured in terrorist attacks. In other words, Israelis live with and interact with terrorism, instead of tearing their hair out and crying. Healthcare is created and developed as needed.

Since 1983, every hospital carries out at least 20 drills annually. Magen David Adom (MDA, the Israeli Red Cross) has developed techniques that require no more than 28 minutes from the moment of the attack to the evacuation of the last victim.7 Ambulances in Israel, one may note, have often been delayed for various reasons (i.e. if they are already in use by other responders or must be picked up from a remote location). Therefore, those drivers who are on call, now frequently drive the ambulances to their home to be ready for a call at any moment. To arrive faster at the scene of an attack or accident, MDA is increasing the number of paramedics on scooters equipped with essential life-saving gear.

Personal initiative is part of this spirit: recently a bus driver in Jerusalem, with a critically injured woman on his bus, realized that it would have taken longer for an ambulance to arrive and decided to drive her to the hospital himself with his bus. This sort of can-do attitude, improvising, or ignoring bureaucratic protocols has a precedent in the many surprising actions taken by the country’s civil and military leadership. Examples include Ben-Gurion’s decision to accept the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan; the unexpected decision to bring down Egyptian planes; winning the Six-Day War, and the many episodes of insubordination by Sharon and Rabin. They understood that one must not stand still and wait for an order, but rather, must act.


We have the impression that Shlomi’s spirit is not destined to fade any time soon. Furthermore, the economic repercussions of the various Intifadas have always been rather small, despite the fact that in times of crises, tourism and trade diminish for obvious reasons. Technological and fundamental scientific structures, however, do not shrink. Israel’s flourishing economy is one of the few in the world that works despite the extraordinary amount of money spent on defense, which cuts into the government’s resources and leads to high levels of taxation. All in all, in spite of endemic terrorism in Israel, Jerusalem has remained among the top 10 most-visited world cities and has remained a number one high-tech city. Moreover, Israel’s mortality rate is the second lowest in the world – after Canada – and its birthrate is among the highest. Israel has also been rated the eleventh happiest country in the world.

What an incredible letdown for terrorism!

* * *


1 Dov Waxman, “Living with Terror, Not Living in Terror: The Impact of Chronic Terrorism on Israeli Society.” Perspectives on Terrorism (5-6), 2011.

2 Avraham Bleich et al, “Mental health and resiliency following 44 months of terrorism: a survey of an Israeli national representative sample,” BMC Med 4 (2006).


4 Asaf Zussman, Noam Zussman and Dmitri Romanov, “Does Terrorism Demoralize?  Evidence from Israel,” Economica, 2010.

5 Kobi Peleg, Gili Shenhar, “Did the U.S. Response to the Marathon Bombings Help or Harm Security?” Front Public Health, 2014.

6“Patriotism survey: 88% proud to be Israeli,” YNET, January 29, 2009.,7340,L-3663582,00.html.

7 Peleg and Shenhar, Ibid.