Israeli counter-terrorism policy: a model of failure

The aftermath of an IDF raid on a Palestinian home in Hebron (CC-BY-SA חגי מטר,Wikipedia)


If any good comes out of Operation Effective Edge, it wont be the X months/years of superficial calm Israel likely will have purchased. Rather it will be that the macabre jolt of dead soldiers, thousands of more dead Palestinians, and habitual bomb-shelter ‘sprints’ finally enlightens Israel to what has long been a misbegotten and self-defeating security praxis.

To be sure, the infirmity of the forgoing didn’t just manifest in the 3,421 and counting Hamas rockets fired since the beginning of July; it’s been apparent for decades. Nonetheless, in some circles Israel has acquired a reputation of having ‘written the book on counter terrorism’.

Yet such appraisals are provincial. Counter-terrorism isn’t just about taking down the ‘bad guys’; it’s about undercutting the motivation that drives them. Israel is excellent at the former, but a miserable failure at the latter. Alas, no matter how many military operations it launches launches, how many terrorists it arrests or eliminates, Palestinian terrorism continues to breathe. Sure, it may simmer every now and then—but it unavoidably returns to a boil.

The Ingredients of Failure

The underlying defect of Israeli counter-terrorism policy is that it punishes bad behavior (i.e. terrorism) but neglects to reward cooperation. The result is a deterrence regime whose ability to ‘deter’ interminably hangs in the balance. Because when the incentive to behave is only the maintenance of wretched status quo and the absence of punishment, ‘quiet’ is invariably fleeting. And when ultimately broken, sanctions designed to restore it—i.e. targeted assassinations, mass arrests, curfews–have no lasting impact on the terrorist motivation to strike nor that of their constituency’s to support them.

To the contrary, if punishment isn’t discriminate enough, operational ‘victories’ incur local resentment and even reinvigorate public sympathy for subsequent acts of violence. As Martin Crenshawexplains, “the key component for [terrorist] group survival is recruiting and maintaining a strong membership.” By virtue of Israel’s often heavy-handed security maneuvers, Palestinian terrorists don’t have to look too hard for new volunteers.

Thus, as David Galula put it, “conventional operations by themselves have at best no more effect than a fly swatter. Some guerrillas are bound to be caught, but new recruits will replace them as fast as they are lost.”

By the Numbers

The empirical evidence behind this dynamic is telling. A 2008 RANDreport found that of the 268 terrorist groups in existence between 1968-2008, just 7% were extirpated by military force; the majority either adopted platforms of nonviolence and joining the political process (43%) or unraveled under the weight of local policing( 40%).

Israeli counter-terrorism efforts, for their part, have contributed zilch to the 7% figure above. In fact, one study found that among all the reprisal operations conducted between 1968-1989, only the very first “had any effect on the baseline rate of terrorism, and even this effect was temporary.”

What’s more, even the fabled ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ (ODS)—Israel’s crowning 2nd Intifada success story—had “no significant effect on the hazard of suicidal and non-suicidal incidents.” Quite the opposite; researchers found a “significant increase in suicidal incidents during ODS.” This was doubly true with respect to “incidental or preventive home demolitions”, both of which catalyzed surges in suicide terrorism.

The preponderant indiscriminateness (i.e. military curfews, mass administrative arrests, roadblocks) of Israeli security measures is evidently its own undoing. A survey of trends in violence across three regime periods—the First Intifada, Oslo accords, and Intifada 2—concluded that, “repressive actions, especially indiscrimatory ones, either increased terrorism or had no effect.” Not surprisingly, between 1987-2004, there was at least one –though on average, 14– “repressive indiscriminate action” in all but one month.

(Incidentally, the only measure that has demonstrably proven its worth was defensive: the West Bank security fence.)

The Pedagogy of Repression

Israel isn’t oblivious to the Sisyphean vein of its struggle. From the very beginning it’s operated on the assumption that total victory (i.e. the forceful imposition of its political will) over its enemies was unobtainable. Nonetheless, Israel hoped its military supremacy could deliver consistent and painful defeats on the battlefield that would gradually teach Palestinians the futility of ‘resistance’ and thus incline them towards a political settlement of its liking.

David Ben Gurion, the pioneer of Israel’s security doctrine, was an emphatic proponent of  ‘socialization through force’, holding that the Palestinians “only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance. So it’s simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army.”

Suffices it to say that over a half century later, the Palestinians still haven’t forgotten; the occupation, blockades, settlement bonanzas, the thousands killed–if ‘only’ inadvertently, and the thousands more rotting away in prison, hundreds of them without charge, won’t allow them to.

A Curriculum of Hope

While Israel’s strategic doctrinaires erroneously thought a consistent curriculum of repression would ultimately pacify Palestinian society, quantitative research (2012) reveals that a different curriculum, one entailing “an ongoing and consistent campaign of conciliation” was actually effective at reducing violence, often “as early as the following month.” To their credit, the former at least had the ‘consistency’ part right.

In instances when Israel made “only a few” token concessions, terrorism would actually spike. One such occasion proceeded a period (the First Intifada) in which an Israeli decision maker—Yitzchak Rabin—allegedly ordered the army to “break the bones” of Palestinian demonstrators. Naturally, Israeli credibility was at an all time low and the initial gestures that ensued were presumably perceived as two-faced. However, as their numbers accumulated to an average of 8 or more over a period of a few months, the trend acutely reversed. Palestinians, observing the trend and hoping ‘this time would be different’, held their fire accordingly.

Likewise, terrorist activities came to complete standstills in the month that proceeded diplomatic watersheds, including inter alia, the Taba and Sharm-a-sheik summits, and during the Tenet and Peres-Abu Ala ceasefires. Hamas, for its part, took its finger off the trigger for seven entire months after the latter summit, while the contemporaneous 2005 Israeli-Gaza-North-West Bank disengagement saw Fatah-linked terror attacks all but disappear.

But it wasn’t just organizationally attributed attacks that stopped either; anonymous or unclaimed acts of terrorism also fell to 0,suggesting that, “when talks do take place, the major Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas, are capable of upholding that which is agreed upon and reciprocating de- escalation with de-escalation, at least over the short term.”

‘But what about the charter??’

Unfortunately, this hypothesis has yet to be put to the long-term test. Israel has seldom been willing to dangle the types of concessions (i.e. East Jerusalem, ending its Gaza blockade) that could facilitate such an ‘experiment.’ Not only does it fear capitulating to terrorism, but it also fears Palestinians would interpret such moves as a sign of weakness; one that will embolden them to pursue what many Israelissuspect is their ulterior objective: conquering or exterminating the state of Israel and its Jewish population.

Admittedly, Hamas’ targeting of civilians—to say nothing of its existentially menacing charter—does little to dispel this notion. Yet such a construal blatantly ignores the group’s metamorphosis into a pragmatic organization that, while forced to rhetorically pander to its hardcore constituency, has become much more sober towards in its ultimate objectives.

On the latter count, Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas’ founding father who Israel assassinated in 2003, was explicit: “Let’s be frank, we cannot destroy Israel. The practical solution is for us to have a state alongside Israel…When we build a Palestinian state, we will not need these militias; all the needs for attack will stop. Everything will change into civil life.”

At other times, Hamas leaders have privately acknowledged that “a period of peaceful coexistence is likely to socialize the next generation into acceptance of the status quo, allowing them to turn a permanent ceasefire into peace.”

Moreover, underscoring its sensitivity to public opinion, Hamas has itself promulgated that should Palestinians approve a peace referendum that entails a two-state solution, it would “respect the results regardless of whether it differs with its ideology and principles.”

Missed Opportunities

For Israel, the maintenance of a ‘powerful army’, as Ben Gurion exhorted, has allowed that army an outsized influence over political decision-making while concurrently shunting diplomacy to the sidelines. That a force-centric’ counter-terrorism model prevails is thus a matter of course. Perniciously, its one-dimensionality induces a cognitive tunnel vision that not only encourages military solutions to situations that don’t necessarily call for them; it also detracts from potential openings for de-escalation.

Unbeknownst to many, Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory culminated inattempts at rapprochement. In fact, the day after Israeli imposed its infamous blockade the group conveyed messages via “official representatives and tradesmen…that if Israel would open the border crossings, Hamas would stop all terrorist attacks on Israel.” It further indicated it had “no problem regarding (Israeli-Palestinian) contact and cooperation as a humanitarian step towards opening the crossings,” and even proposed establishing a “joint committee” with open lines of communication.

As always, Israel responded the way it knew best: with a policy of indiscriminate repression that sought to turn Gaza into a Kafkaesque hellhole. Goods as arbitrary and innocuous as musical instruments,school supplies and coriander, a luxury spice, were interdicted from entering. And in concert, Israel appointed itself as Gaza’s official dietician, counting the inflow of calories to ensure its residents wouldn’t be getting ‘seconds’ come dinner time.

Had Israel taken up Hamas on its offer and moreover, parlayed its Gaza disengagement to further rather than “prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state”, perhaps things today would be different. Perhaps Hamas would never have married Iran, Israel wouldn’t have to periodically ‘mow the lawn’ (and spill rivers of blood in the process) nor shell out a fifth of its budget to maintain its military fortress.

Sure, one could call the above a pipe dream. But Israel has long heeded a policy of cynicism and what has it achieved? A perpetual state of war; the severity of which is due to intensify as technologyprogresses, the boycott movement redoubles, and America’s predominantly old conservative pro-Israel demographic peters out.

Conclusion: Giving Palestinians Something to Lose

History has shown that appeal of political violence wanes most predominantly not through force, but when “credible alternative channels for addressing the grievances that underpin the conflict are created, as those who continue with political violence then risk coming to be seen as a threat to gains already achieved.”

Accordingly, if Israel is to undercut the resonance of radicalism and achieve a durable peace, it needs a new strategy that is predicated on giving the Palestinians something they won’t want to lose; i.e. a vibrant state of their own. The road ahead will be trying, but Israel must exit the highway to nowhere and take it.

It can start by ending its abject stranglehold over Gaza, resetting its relations with Hamas, freezing settlement construction, and announcing a renewal of peace negotiations based on the 1967 borders. As empirically demonstrated, the accumulation and consistency of such measures would signal Israel’s sincerity towards resolving Palestinian grievances and sow an atmosphere of hope the latter will be loath to disrupt.

Such a gambit would also place the ball in the Palestinian’s court and create a situation in which Israel can only gain. If the skeptics are right and the Palestinians—who themselves conceded they’d accept such a deal—hedge around a more than generous offer, the West would lose the right to twist Israel’s arm for not doing its utmost for peace. And yet if they’re wrong, a Palestinian state—one whose economic prosperity would be heavily dependent on cooperation with Israel—would not only discredit extremism and inspire local harmony, it would also usher in Israel’s long elusive regional integration and open its economy to new horizons.


About the Author
Zach Goldberg is a former Israeli Army infantryman and a holder of a Bachelors degree in Government as well as a Masters in Terrorism and Homeland Security from the IDC Herzliya.