The rules of engagement were straightforward: “If prisoners try to escape, fire a warning shot, and if they keep running, let ‘em run, they won’t get very far. Don’t shoot to kill unless your life is in danger.” Though the prisoners in question either had blood on their hands or had participated in terror attacks against Israel, most of us soldiers understood the wisdom behind those rules.
Meggido Prison, October 1999. I was called up to the IDF reserves and stuck up in a watch tower with an M-16 for protection and a two-way radio to let out a cry for help. I only used the radio once, the first time I saw an inmate lob a lump of shapeless gray matter that looked like clay over a wire fence and shout “mujahed!” In response an inmate from an adjoining compound would retrieve the landed projectile, extract what looked like a handwritten message on paper, read a name off it and deliver it, presumably to the person it was addressed to. That’s how I saw it from my watchtower perspective. What I told my commander over the radio was that prisoners from separate fenced off areas were apparently exchanging forbidden communication. To which the senior officer laughed and said, “Nu, they’re sending faxes.”
That wasn’t all that I saw and heard from the watch tower. I saw paired off prisoners walking back and forth along the foot paths of the prison yards engaged in deep conversations that lasted hours; I saw a guy with a long dark beard who looked just like Herzl stare up at me, swear out loud and spit on the ground; I watched a band of youth perform hand-to-hand combat drills, and from my elevated vantage point I could see the fire in their eyes; I observed them as they prepared the communal meal from the food we gave them, the potatoes, eggplants, zucchini, beans, garlic and onions, watched them add the olive oil and spices, and knowing what awaited me in the mess hall my stomach growled with envy; I saw spirited soccer matches last through sun-drenched afternoons, and never once witnessed a fight break out among the players; I heard an outbreak of wild cheers, figured that the prisoners were reacting to a soccer score over the radio, then understood that they were rejoicing over the news about the bus crash in the Galil that killed many Israelis; I was startled by the eerie sound of the muezzin’s call for prayer in the wee hours before the dawn and saw the terrorists file out of their tents like soldiers and fill up the yard; I watched them pray for our destruction, five times a day; and with great regularity I heard them call out to each other, mujahed, freedom fighter, when they sent their crude air mail over the fences.
At Meggido Prison, the Palestinian terror machine was showing signs of life, but in truth it was only lying in wait. The counter-terror dynamic was calling the tune of the times. It was October 1999, and hopes for a peaceful resolution of the conflict were encouraging. Among Israelis, there was a general feeling of cautious optimism that the Oslo Accords would at long last be implemented. Among Palestinians, this expectation had supplanted the dynamic that enables terror to thrive, as mass support for armed resistance was put on hold. With a political horizon in plain view, things were as quiet as they could ever be in this part of the world. In point of fact, 1999 was a terror-free year.
Hence, the rules of engagement made perfect sense. Don’t shoot to kill. Megido Prison’s special forces unit, Force 100, was perfectly capable of capturing a runaway prisoner. The last thing we needed was for an IDF reservist to shoot a terrorist in the back and set off a new uprising in the disputed territories. This was true in 1999, and it’s no less relevant when the terror dynamic is on the rise.
Seen in this light, it still baffles me that one year later, in October 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Arik Sharon teamed to unleash a provocation bordering on stupidity that will live on in infamy in the annals of our small nation: that needless show of force, stick-it-your-face march under heavy armed guard on the Temple Mount that let the genie out of the bottle, riled up the Palestinians and unleashed the Second Intifada. True, the Camp David talks had failed, but the points of contention were the same as they had always been and the diplomatic option was still viable.
One of those points of contention was, of course, Jerusalem, the most coveted and disputed city on the planet. Sharon’s dance on the Temple Mount had all the tact and good sense of a town drunk playing with matches in a gas station. Just when the terror dynamic was latent, along came the politicians to reignite it. That Barak and Sharon both had distinguished military careers was a small comfort. They weren’t listening to the voices of caution and restraint that say: Don’t inflame the territories. They must have forgotten the rules of engagement.
Flash forward around fifteen years, and it is amazing how little has changed. We are still busy doing everything to put off the inevitable, get politically real, close the deal and reduce Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to the dustbin of history where they belong. Instead, we do everything to keep them active and relevant. We spend more time explaining why “Abu Mazzen is not a partner” than we do at shaping a political option; and we never miss an opportunity to provoke the Palestinians. Not the terrorists – they don’t need to be provoked. I’m talking about the average folks who can defuse the constant Palestinian uprising, as they did in 1999, if only they had reason to believe that there was a peaceful resolution in the offing. The choices are simple: We can either practice restraint, or we can mix fire with oil and see what happens. We can either be serious about the political process, or we can waste all our energy explaining why it isn’t working. Instead of maneuvering Abu Mazzen into a position where he can’t say no, we are the constant nay-sayers. And by “we” I mean the current government that claims to represent me, not the Israel I believe in.
The terror/counter-terror dynamic can be summed up in an uncomplicated equation:
Political process + restraint = strong counter-terror dynamic
Political stalemate + provocation = a shot in the arm for the terror dynamic
Ask Bibi Netanyahu, whose long track record of incitement and its political payoff goes back to the Rabin assassination. Just as Sharon gained political coin from his side-step on the Temple Mount, so did Bibi, according to the latest opinion polls, in the recent flare-ups on that volatile piece of real estate. When it comes to whipping up Palestinian unrest and then portraying them as the bad guys, Bibi is on top of his game.
And when Bibi isn’t letting the Temple Mount crazies lead us to the abyss of Intifada 3 and possibly World War 3, he has other means of provoking the Palestinians and keeping Hamas (and himself) in business.
As I write these words, I can hear the deafening sounds of a cement mixer, jack hammers, clattering, banging and no small amount of screaming coming from workers in a construction site across the street from my home. Sure, the noise bothers me. But as a city dweller somewhere in the internationally recognized State of Israel I can rest assured that no one is protesting the building activity on my block. I haven’t heard a peep from John Kerry, the French or the UN. The Palestinians surely aren’t protesting. They’re doing all the building!
This unheralded construction project is well past the bulldozer stage. But just show a bulldozer anywhere in the unrecognized part of Israel (i.e. disputed territories) and you make headlines. In fact, just show the blueprints, or announce plans to build a thousand housing units somewhere in Biblical Judea, and you have a made-to-order international incident, Bibi-style. When it comes to inciting the Palestinians, the mere threat of a bulldozer is enough to get the job done in grand fashion. Bibi knows this – he learned it from “the Bulldozer” himself, Arik Sharon – cashes in on it, and laughs all the way to the polls.
Again, the choices are simple: We can finally draw the boundary lines between our land and theirs, or we can continue to delude ourselves that as long as we build on it it’s ours. Until the next time things get so out of hand that we won’t have a choice but: shoot to kill. And that’s no way to create a counter-terror dynamic.