Gal Luft. Foreign Affairs. Volume 81, Issue 4. July/August 2002.
Terror’s Winning Strategy
Never in Israel’s history, to paraphrase Churchill, has so much harm been inflicted on so many by so few. Since the onset of the second intifada in late September 2000, dozens of exploding humans—Palestinian H-bombs—have rocked the Jewish state and transformed the lives of its people. As little as a year ago, suicide bombings were seen as a gruesome aberration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an expression of religious fanaticism that most Palestinians rejected. But in recent months a new, unsettling reality has emerged: the acceptance and legitimation of the practice among all Palestinian political and military factions.
Increasingly, Palestinians are coming to see suicide attacks as a strategic weapon, a poor man’s “smart bomb” that can miraculously balance Israel’s technological prowess and conventional military dominance. Palestinians appear to have decided that, used systematically in the context of a political struggle, suicide bombings give them something no other weapon could: the ability to cause Israel devastating and unprecedented pain. The dream of achieving such strategic parity is more powerful than any pressure to cease and desist. It is therefore unlikely that the strategy will be abandoned, even as its continued use pushes the Middle East ever closer to the abyss.
From Mortars to Martyrs
The Palestinian endorsement of suicide bombings as a legitimate tool of war was not hasty. At the start of the second intifada, the Palestinians’ preferred method of fighting was based on the strategy that Hezbollah used to drive the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) out of southern Lebanon after 15 years of occupation—a mix of guerrilla tactics such as ambushes, drive-by shootings, and attacks on IDF outposts. It was thought that the “Lebanonization” of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would cause the Israeli public to view these territories as security liabilities (as they had with southern Lebanon), and to pressure the government to withdraw once more.
Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s division of labor was clear. His political wing, Fatah, authorized its paramilitary units, spearheaded by the Tanzim militias along with segments of the security services of the Palestinian Authority (PA), to carry out a guerrilla campaign against Israeli settlements and military targets in the West Bank and Gaza. The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, were given the liberty to carry out attacks against civilian targets inside Israel.
From the Palestinian perspective, however, the results of the guerrilla campaign in the first year were poor, especially considering the duration of the fighting and the volume of fire. Palestinian forces launched more than 1,500 shooting attacks on Israeli vehicles in the territories but killed 75 people. They attacked IDF outposts more than 6,000 times but killed only 20 soldiers. They fired more than 300 antitank grenades at Israeli targets but failed to kill anyone. To demoralize the settlers, the Palestinians launched more than 500 mortar and rocket attacks at Jewish communities in the territories and, at times, inside Israel, but the artillery proved to be primitive and inaccurate, and only one Israeli was killed.
Israel’s response to the guerrilla campaign, moreover, was decisive. Using good intelligence, the Israeli security services targeted individual Palestinian militants and destroyed most of the PA’s military infrastructure. Israeli soldiers also moved back into “Area A,” the territory that had been turned over as a result of the Oslo peace negotiations to exclusive Palestinian control, to raze suspected mortar activity sites. At first these incursions met with international rebuke, even from the United States. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, denounced the first foray into Gaza in April 2001 as “excessive and disproportionate.” But over time the temporary incursions became such a common practice that the international community stopped paying attention. Stung by the lack of progress in the struggle, at the end of 2001 Arafat tried a final gambit, attempting to smuggle in a cache of Iranian weapons on board the Karine-A. But Israeli naval commandos seized the ship and turned his ploy into a shameful diplomatic disaster. Thus ended Palestinian emulation of the “Hezbollah model.”
Unlike the guerrilla strategy, meanwhile, the terror campaign carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad was showing results. The Islamic movements managed to kill or maim more Israelis in 350 stabbings, shootings, and bombings inside Israel than the mainstream Palestinian organizations had in more than 8,000 armed attacks in the West Bank and Gaza. The strongest impact came from 39 suicide attacks that killed 70 Israelis and wounded more than 1,000 others. If one compares this bloodshed with the limited damage caused by the 39 Scud missiles Saddam Hussein launched at Israel in 1991—74 fatalities, most of them caused by heart attacks—it is not hard to understand why the new methods caused such intoxication.
Palestinians are fully aware of what they have suffered at the hands of the Israeli military in response to the terror campaign, but most view it as a great success nevertheless. They derive comfort and satisfaction from the fact that the Jews are also suffering. The Palestinians view the campaign’s greatest achievement as not just the killing of so many Israelis but the decline of Israel’s economy, the destruction of its tourism industry, and the demoralization of its people. According to a mid-May poll, two-thirds of Palestinians say that the second intifada’s violence has achieved more for them than did the previous years of negotiations.
Before the outbreak of the second intifada, Palestinians distinguished among attacks on settlers, on Israeli military targets, and on civilians inside Israel. Now, however, those distinctions are disappearing. Although after the Israeli incursions this spring support for attacks against civilians inside Israel dropped 6 points to 52 percent, opposition to arresting those carrying out such attacks rose 10 points to 86 percent—a figure close to the 89 percent and 92 percent support for attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers in the territories, respectively.
In the post-9/11 era, however, when deliberate attacks against innocent civilians are anathema to most people, embracing terrorism as a strategy has required the Palestinians to persuade themselves, and others, that what they are doing is legitimate. They have therefore created what they see as a moral equivalence between Israel’s harm to the Palestinian civilian population and Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians, including children.
They have also developed a creative interpretation of what terrorism is, one that stresses ends rather than means. Thus, in December 2001, more than 94 percent of Palestinians told pollsters that they viewed Israeli incursions into Area A as acts of terror, while 82 percent refused to characterize the killing of 21 Israeli youths outside a Tel Aviv disco six months earlier that way. And 94 percent reported that they would characterize a hypothetical Israeli use of chemical or biological weapons against Palestinians as terrorism, whereas only 26 percent would say the same about Palestinian use of those weapons against Israel. Interestingly, the new definition extends beyond the conflict with Israel. Only 41 percent of Palestinians, for example, viewed the September 11 attacks as terrorism, and only 46 percent saw the Lockerbie bombing that way.
The more enchanted Palestinians have become with the achievements of their “martyrs,” the more Fatah has found itself under pressure to adopt the suicide weapon. Last year, fearing a loss of popular support if the “street” perceived the Islamists’ methods as more effective than Fatah’s tack, Fatah leaders decided they had to follow suit. The part of Arafat that wanted to show solidarity with the United States and that was determined to avoid any association with terror against civilians, in other words, succumbed to the anti-Israel rage and political calculations of his lieutenants and the members of what Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki has called the “young guard” of Palestinian nationalism.
Fatah’s official espousal of “martyrdom” operations took place on November 29, 2001, when two terrorists blew themselves up together on a bus near the Israeli city of Hadera. One, Mustafa Abu Srieh, was from Islamic Jihad; the other, Abdel Karim Abu Nafa, served with the Palestinian police in Jericho. But the bond of blood with the Islamists did not last long, and soon Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Islamists found themselves engaged in a diabolical contest over which group could perfect the use of the suicide weapon and be viewed as most valuable to the war effort. Al Aqsa has capitalized on the Islamists’ opposition to the participation of women and established squads of willing female suicide bombers named after Wafa Idris, the Palestinian woman who blew up herself and an Israeli man in Jerusalem in January. Islamic Jihad, for its part, has recruited children as young as 13 for suicide missions.
Both Islamists and secular Palestinians have come to see suicide bombing as a weapon against which Israel has no comprehensive defense. To counter the Iraqi Scuds, Israel developed and deployed the Arrow, a $2 billion ballistic missile defense system. Against Palestinian H-bombs, Israel can at best build a fence. The suicide bombers are smarter than Scuds, and Palestinians know that even though in Israel today there are more security guards than teachers or doctors, the bomber will always get through.
If history is any guide, Israel’s military campaign to eradicate the phenomenon of suicide bombing is unlikely to succeed. Other nations that have faced opponents willing to die have learned the hard way that, short of complete annihilation of the enemy, no military solution will solve the problem.
But the Israeli authorities are deeply reluctant to accept this reality. Israeli society seeks absolute security and adheres to the notion that military power can resolve almost any security problem. If the Palestinians put their faith in Allah, Israelis put theirs in a tank. Whether consciously or not, their belief in the utility of force—evident in the popular “Let the IDF Win” campaign, which advocated a freer hand for the army—reflects a strategic choice to militarize the conflict rather than politicize it. The IDF’s senior leaders repeatedly claim that the smart application of military force can create a new reality on the ground that, in turn, will allow the government to negotiate political agreements under more favorable terms.
It is true that when the IDF was finally allowed to “win,” Israel achieved impressive tactical results. Operation Defensive Shield this past April eliminated an entire echelon of terrorist leaders in the West Bank, crippled the PA’s financial and operational infrastructure, and reduced PA arsenals. But as at other times in its history, Israel failed to convert its tactical achievements into strategic gains. Its intensive use of military instruments earned it international condemnation, further radicalized Palestinian society, and created an environment of anger conducive to more terrorist activities. By May, unsurprisingly, the suicide bombings had started again.
IDF simulations before the second intifada had predicted that a military reentry into major Palestinian cities would lead to hundreds of Israeli casualties. In fact, however, the incursions into territories under Palestinian control proved to be almost painless. Following the assassination of Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, in October 2001, the IDF launched a broad assault on the PA, entering all six major West Bank cities. Palestinian resistance was negligible, and only six Israeli soldiers were wounded. Operation Defensive Shield, the second big incursion into Area A, also met relatively weak resistance. Aside from the struggle in the Jenin refugee camp, in which 23 Israeli soldiers were killed, Israeli forces conquered six Palestinian cities and dozens of smaller towns and villages while suffering only three fatalities.
The IDF has interpreted the Palestinian lack of resistance in the cities as a sign of weakness rather than a strategic choice. Israelis view with disdain the Palestinian “victory” celebrations after each incursion comes to an end. They are puzzled by the fact that their enemy fires more bullets into the air than at Israeli troops. What Israel fails to comprehend is the paradigm by which the Palestinians are choosing to conduct their war.
Acknowledging their perpetual conventional inferiority, Arafat’s people feel no need to demonstrate strong resistance to Israeli forces. They simply wait for the storm to pass while preparing another batch of “martyrs.” Families of suicide bombers now receive more than double the financial compensation than do the families of those killed by other means. Nurturing an ethos of heroism fundamentally opposed to that of the Israelis, the Palestinian war of liberation has elevated the suicide bomber to the highest throne of courage and devotion to the national cause.
Israelis’ misunderstanding of the new Palestinian way of war may come back to haunt them. Their perception of their enemy’s weakness is likely to embolden them and encourage more broad punitive operations in response to future attacks. But Israel’s military responses will eventually exhaust themselves, whereas the Palestinians will still have legions of willing “martyrs.”
In fact, despite defiant Israeli rhetoric insisting that there will be no surrender to terrorism, one can already see the opposite happening. Israelis are willing to pay an increasingly high economic and diplomatic price for increasingly short periods of calm. As a result, more and more people support panaceas such as unilateral separation—the building of walls, fences, and buffer zones to protect Israel’s population centers from Palestinian wrath.
Unilateral separation would no doubt make the infiltration of suicide bombers into Israel more difficult, but it would also increase their prestige in the eyes of many in the region. The bombers would be viewed, correctly, as the catalyst that drove the Israelis out of an occupied territory yet again, and the years of agony Palestinians have endured would be sweetened by a genuine sense of victory. Israel’s wall policy, perceived as withdrawal, would reassure the Palestinians that war succeeded where diplomacy failed.
As currently conceived, moreover, walling off the territories would not do much to reduce Palestinian grievances. No matter how long the fence, for example, dozens of Jewish settlements scattered on the hills of the West Bank would necessarily remain beyond it. Two-thirds of Israelis, according to recent polls, support the removal of such isolated and indefensible settlements to make the separation more feasible. But despite such views, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reiterated his refusal to dismantle a single settlement. “The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv,” he said recently, referring to the tiny, isolated, and fortified Gaza Strip settlement that has been the target of repeated Palestinian attacks.
Defusing the Bomb
Israel finds itself, therefore, at a crucial turning point in its history, but one from which no path seems particularly attractive. It must find some way of defending itself against an enemy so eager to inflict pain that it is willing to bring suffering and death on itself in the process. Retaliation is unlikely to work, but retreat is likely only to bring more of the same.
If there is any way out of this dilemma, it may lie in convincing the Palestinian public that its constructive goals can be achieved only by relinquishing its destructive strategy. Israel should therefore embark on a policy that rewards the Palestinians for genuinely fighting terrorism and avoid any policy that feeds the perception that terrorism works.
The rewards will have to be tangible and meaningful. Israel could, for example, offer the PA the removal of a number of small hilltop settlements in exchange for a period of non-belligerency and unequivocal renunciation of suicide bombing. This cooling-off period could then set the stage for renewed talks on a final-status agreement. Such an approach would indicate to the Palestinian population that Israel is serious about peace and ready to pay the necessary price for it, not only in words but in deeds. Most important, showing that Israel is prepared to confront and rein in its own radical rejectionists would put the onus on the Palestinian leadership to do the same.
Before this intifada, a large majority of Palestinians opposed attacks against civilians inside Israel. They hoped to achieve their aspirations for independence without resort to terror. Figuring out how to make that happen is not only the right thing to do, but it is also the best way to ensure Israel’s security. Unless that hope can be revived, the fate of Tel Aviv could indeed become that of Netzarim—which would be a tragedy for all.