January 4, 1998
Harsh Realities on theGround
My first story as a foreign correspondent postedto Israel was the Lod airport massacre of May 1972, in which threeJapanese revolutionaries mowed down 26 passengers in the arrivalsterminal on behalf of George Habash's Popular Front for theLiberation of Palestine. Quarter of a century later, Israelis stillpause in their stride whenever they hear an explosion. Two booms?Probably a plane flying through the sound barrier. No need to worry.One? Maybe it's a contractor blasting the rock for an underground carpark. Better listen for the ambulances though. Three? Switch on thearmy radio station to hear the worst. A burst of automatic fire? Geton the phone to count your family and friends.
Over the past two years, Jerusalem alone has beenshaken by two bus bombings and by explosions in the Mahane Yehudamarket and the Ben-Yehuda shopping precinct. The victims are notstrangers. In one of the bus attacks, a journalist colleague lost hisson. In Mahane Yehuda, my wife's fish monger had an arm blown off. InBen-Yehuda, the manager of our favorite coffeehouse was wounded inthe leg.
Terrorism and counterterrorism have sounded theirbloody drum beat ever since the Jewish state was established. Somemight argue that they go back even earlier, to the first Arab pogromsin Hebron and Jerusalem in 1929. But since May 15, 1948, Israel hasbeen responsible, above ground and below, for its own protection.Jews no longer have to turn the other cheek or petition others toact. They have their own army, their own police, their own secretservices -- and their own government to give the orders. It was toolate to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, but in 1981, MenachemBegin could send the air force to demolish Saddam Hussein's nuclearreactor.
From the start, the doctrine was one of activedefense. Take the battle to the enemy. In conventional warfare, thatmeant fighting in the Sinai desert, the Golan Heights or Jordan. Inthe war of attrition with Palestinian terrorists, which took on a newdimension after Israel stretched its frontiers in the 1967 Six-DayWar, it meant investing men, money and ingenuity inintelligence-gathering. It meant deploying hit squads in the WestBank and Gaza as well as abroad; rejecting ransom demands wheneverthere was a viable military alternative, even as far away as Entebbein Uganda; bombing the guerrillas in their bases; bulldozing patrolroads through overcrowded refugee camps; searching bags at publicbuildings, airports, cinemas, supermarkets and department stores;posting guards on schools and buses.
In the conquered territories, it meant closures,curfews and the 3-in-the-morning knock on suspicious doors.
There is no such thing, a West Bank militarygovernor once told me, as a benign occupation. Under extremeprovocation, such as the 1978 coast road massacre of Egged busdrivers and their families on a Shabbat picnic, or the 1982assassination attempt on Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador toLondon, terror could even prompt full-scale invasion to flush thePalestinian militias out of their Lebanese strongholds.
By its nature, this is an ugly war fought withdirty weapons -- on both sides. Marquis of Queensberry rules do notapply. The terrorists go for soft targets: bus stations, shoppingmalls, public transport, school trips, family cars on lonely roads,hikers in the Judean wilderness, soldiers hitching home for theweekend. They murder their own collaborators, without giving them achance to prove their innocence. Moslem fanatics brainwashimpoverished youths to blow themselves to paradise.
The Shin Bet internal security service, for itspart, has had to bribe, threaten and corrupt a network of informers(known with uncommon frankness as "stinkers" and to ill-treatsuspects. In the name of deterrence, border policemen often behave asif they have a license to brutalize any passing Arab. If they arecaught, they are prosecuted, but, mostly, they don't get caught. Thearmy has demolished the homes of bombers' families and punishedentire Arab communities. Palestinian nationalists, accused ofinciting or plotting violence, have been imprisoned without trial orexpelled from their homeland. The task is much harder now that Gazaand the West Bank towns are under Palestinian rule.
Politicians and judges try to set limits ofdecency. In February, the government laid a bill before the Knessetthat regulates the Shin Bet. In specific cases where prisonersexercise their right of appeal, the liberal Supreme Court is alreadydemanding disclosure of interrogation methods. It tries to draw aline between torture and "reasonable physical pressure." But,inevitably, the balance falls on the side of security. No judge wantsto take the rap if a "ticking bomb" goes off.
Over the years, Israel has logged glorioussuccesses and humiliating failures. The line between hit and miss israzor-thin. At Ma'alot in May 1974, 22 pupils held hostage by NaefHawatmeh's Democratic Front were killed in the crossfire when Israelicommandos stormed their school. It could as easily have gone theother way.
In December 1968, two Popular Front gunmen,trained in Lebanon, opened fire on an El Al plane at Athens airport.Israel retaliated by destroying 13 Arab airliners during a paratroopraid on Beirut airport (while his men were wreaking havoc, the forcecommander, Rafael Eitan, wrote himself into Israel Defense Forcelegend by ordering a cup of coffee from a petrified Lebanese stallholder and insisting on paying for it).
In April 1973, the Mossad external securityservice and the IDF returned to Beirut to kill three senior PLOofficials in pinpoint revenge for Black September's murder of anIsraeli agent in Madrid.
Back home, Sayeret Matcal, the Israeli SAS, freeda hijacked Sabena airliner at Lod airport in May 1972 (BinyaminNetanyahu and his Labor challenger, Ehud Barak, both disguised asaircraft mechanics, were among the heroes of that operation). Fouryears later, six transport planes flew the Sayeret to Entebbe, whereit saved all but four Israeli and Diaspora Jewish passengers of anAir France flight hijacked by Wadia Haddad's dissident faction of thePopular Front. It was the most daring and the most effective ofrescue operations.
After Black September slaughtered 11 Israeliathletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972, Prime MinisterGolda Meir ordered the Mossad to teach the terrorists a lesson. Inthe 10 months after the Munich massacre, nine of their leaders wereassassinated in foreign capitals. Black September, a cover for YasserArafat's Al Fatah, was blunted.
The failures have been equally spectacular. InMarch 1968, Israel launched a three-pronged assault on a Fatah baseat Karameh, east of the Jordan, after a school bus had run over amine in the Arava between the Dead Sea and Eilat. The IDF flung inhundreds of men with tanks, artillery and air support. Israel paidfor complacency and inadequate preparation with the loss of 28 menand much of its deterrent power. Although the Palestinians lost 150of their own fighters, Al Fatah celebrated Karameh as a victory overthe strongest army in the Middle East. A myth was born.
Another fiasco followed in July 1973, when aMossad hit team in the Norwegian ski resort of Lillehammer killed aMoroccan waiter mistakenly identified as Ali Hassan Salameh, BlackSeptember's European operations chief. The Norwegian police capturedsix Mossad operatives, overconfident and undertrained, and put themon trial.
The Mossad suffered a similar setback lastSeptember, when two hit men were caught after a clumsy attempt topoison Khaled Meshal, a senior Hamas official, in Amman. To get themback, Netanyahu had to send an antidote and free Hamas' founder andspiritual mentor, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. For months afterward, KingHussein refused to cooperate with the Mossad in the war onterror.
Not for the first time, the Meshal affair raisedthe question of whether such quick fixes achieve anything. WouldHamas have withered away without Khaled Meshal, any more than it didwhen Israel banished 415 of its leaders to Lebanon in December 1992?Occasionally, the answer seems to be yes. Islamic Jihad, Hamas'ruthless junior partner, has been far less effective since the Mossadassassinated its mastermind, Fathi Shkaki, in Malta in October1995.
On the other hand, the killing of Arafat'slieutenant, Abu Jihad, in Tunis in April 1988, did not end the intifada , ofwhich he was the supposed godfather. His widow is now a minister inthe Palestinian Authority. And Hamas retaliated for the death of itschief bomb maker, Yehya ("The Engineer") Ayyash, in Gaza in January1996, with a flood of suicide bombings that killed 60 and sweptShimon Peres, the prime minister who authorized the assassination,out of power six months later.