September 20, 2001
Lessons from Israel’s War on Terror
When President Bush talks of fighting a war against terror until victory, of stamping out terror, it's probably worth looking at Israel's decades-long attempt at doing the same. The results obviously do not add up to victory. Over the last year Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers have taken a toll on Israel as never before. Now that the peace process is dead and the violence has steadily increased, Israelis don't see an end to terror on the horizon, only a long battle to keep it from destabilizing the country. The latest Israeli leader forced by the scope of terror to lower his expectations is Ariel Sharon. He ran on the confident promise to return security to the nation, and when the first terror bombings occurred on his watch, Sharon sounded confident that he would put a quick end to it.
But at the beginning of May, during a visit to the Hershkowitzes, a family of West Bank settlers who'd just lost their second member to Palestinian gunmen, Sharon made an astonishing on-camera admission to them: "I admit that I didn't expect it would take so long to overcome terror." Since then over 100 more Israelis have been killed by Palestinians -- at Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium, Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant and many, many other spots. Sharon was the architect of what probably was Israel's most ambitious attempt to end terror -- the 1982-85 Lebanon War. The war's official name was "Operation Peace for Galilee," and was ostensibly fought to run the PLO out of Lebanon, where they had made life miserable for residents of Israel's north for many years with cross-border infiltrations and missiles. The PLO was run out of Lebanon, but they relocated to Tunisia, from where they continued to orchestrate attacks on Israel.
Meanwhile, the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah sprouted up to take the PLO's place, and pummeled Israeli soldiers and residents in the North until Israel finally withdrew from Lebanon in May of last year. Along the way, Hezbollah blew up 241 Marines and scores of French soldiers who'd come to sort out Lebanon, and left with nothing to show for their trouble but coffins. Sharon had hoped to install a Christian, pro-Israel leadership in Lebanon, and succeeded briefly, but the pro-Israel, Christian leader Bashir Gemayel was assassinated by anti-Israeli guerrillas, and Lebanon, after a long civil war, has come under the control of Israel's enemy, Syria.
The war on terror in Lebanon did not succeed, and while the withdrawal from Lebanon has given Israel relative quiet on its northern border, it is a volatile quiet. Israel's war against the PLO brought it not only Hezbollah, but Hamas as well.
In the 1980s Israel nurtured Hamas -- at that time a purely religious, charitable organization -- in the hope that it would supplant the militant Palestinian nationalist groups. But when the first intifada began in 1987, Hamas turned to terror and has never looked back.
In 1997 the Mossad tried to assassinate Hamas' leader in Jordan, Khaled Mashal. But the lethal injection failed, and when the assassination attempt became public immediately, the late King Hussein, who walked a tightrope between his peace treaty with Israel and his Islamic opposition, was compelled, for domestic reasons, to exact a price from Israel. In return for releasing the Mossad agents captured in Amman, Hussein demanded the release from an Israeli prison of ailing Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu complied, and Yassin now rallies the fanatics from his heavily guarded home in Gaza.
There was a time Israel didn't negotiate with terrorists. But that policy changed, to the point that Israel released 1,150 Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for three Israeli hostages held by arch-terrorist Ahmed Jibril. Israel has had its successes against terror. The most spectacular was the 1976 "Raid on Entebbe," in which Israeli commandos flew to the Ugandan airport, killed the terrorists holding over 100 hostages from a hijacked Air France plane, and returned them to safety. Other successes included the assassinations of "Black September" terrorists involved in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Israel showed its "long reach" in these liquidations, sending agents into Arab and other countries after their targets. Israel has shown its long reach in the war against terror various times. Its emissaries assassinated Abu Jihad, the longtime field commander of the PLO, in Tunisia; Fathi Shikaki, leader of Islamic Jihad, in Malta; and bombed PLO headquarters in Tunisia.
While these moves may have slowed down the PLO, they did not stop it. And while Israel was convinced that the 1995 assassination of Shikaki had finished off the thinly populated Islamic Jihad, the groups has returned to suicide bombings for the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
Israel hasn't stopped going after terrorists. The policy of "assassinations" or "targeted killings" -- or, in the Sharon government's new preferred term, "self-defense measures to protect Jews" -- is the spearhead of Israel's response to the intifada.
Israel recently assassinated the Abu Ali Mustapha, leader of the legendary Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which used to blow up international airliners under the direction of Mustapha and his well-known, retired boss, Dr. George Habash. Still, after decades of making war on terror, bombs continue to explode across Israel. Worst of all, this comes after a seven-year experiment -- the Oslo peace process -- which reversed Israel's approach to Palestinian terror, and sought to end it through compromise instead of force.
The lesson from Israel for America is that in the war against terror, there is no final victory.
But then it should be asked: What would have happened if Israel had done little or nothing against terror? Chances are, Israel wouldn't be here.
So even if Israel hasn't won the war against terror, its fight has prevented terror from winning the war against Israel. In this, there is also a lesson for America.