Israel may have been forged 63 years ago this week in a crucible of conventional war, but it has faced a slew of enemies in the decades since who have tried to weaken, destroy or demoralize it by unconventional means. Hijackings, suicide bombers—before they played in Iraq or Europe , they opened in Israel.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that American killing of Osama bin Laden feels so… Israeli?
Think of the similarities: A daring commando raid on a terrorist stronghold (Entebbe 1976). An incursion in self-defense on foreign soil (Osirak 1986). A targeted killing, aka assasination, of a threatening militant leader (Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, 2004). Post-operational international condemnation (Gaza Flotilla, 2010; Jenin “Massacre,” et al). Long overdue payback for a national tragedy (see the movie “Munich”). The bold, daring and risky American operation had all the hallmarks of bold, daring Israeli operations—I half-expected President Obama to go on TV to announce its success in Hebrew.
The similarities are not a coincidence. After years of fighting conventional wars against conventional armies, the United States has adapted to the kind of enemies Israelis have long grown accustomed to: non-state actors driven by fanatical rage to kill as many innocents as possible.
In a word, terrorists. So the lessons Israel has learned in its struggle are the lessons Obama applied last week:
You don’t fight terrorists with armies. You don’t even fight them, as Obama wisely realized, with big, big bombs. You go in and take them down, one by one. You do this because the terrorists would prefer you use bombs and artillery against innocent populations to weed them out—the collateral damage only helps their cause. Bin Laden, like the leaders of Hamas, hid in the midst of a civilian population, effectively using women and children as human shields. By choosing a commando raid over a bombing run, Obama denied bin Laden a final act of terrorism.
You fight terrorists where they live, not where you live. Immediately after 9/11, the late Wlliam Safire wrote that the United States’ duty, at that dark hour, was to take the battle to them. Israel, a small country, long ago made that tactic a centerpiece of its defense strategy. Sometimes the tactic fails, as when Israel botched the assassination of a Hamas terrorist leader in Jordan and caused a diplomatic firestorm. And sometimes even success has a cost—remember the scandal that erupted after Israeli operatives forged foreign passports in order to snuff out Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in his Dubai hotel room in January 2010. But the scandal faded, and al-Mabhouh is still dead. Obama can take heart from the Israelis that despite the post-action outrage, it’s worth it.
You fight terrorists in ways they least expect. After they learned that Gaza-based terrorists shooting rockets into Southern Israel were hiding behind booby-trapped doors, the Israelis developed an urban warfare technique that involved entering rooms by blasting through adjoining walls. Surprise! After six years in his villa, Osama probably began to feel that the 10-foot walls and windowless rooms of his compound were impregnable, and the fact that he lived under the umbrella of Pakistani airspace made him untouchable. The last thing he expected to see was an American soldier in his bedroom. As it turns out, that was the last thing he saw.
You don’t capture terrorist leaders, you kill them. Israel started this policy in earnest following the Second Intifada in 2000, when Israel faced terror from non-state actors on an unprecedented scale. Terrorists groups don’t use conventional targets, but they do have leaders who provide either inspiration or operational knowhow, or both.
“Those who say that these operations don’t have an impact are mistaken,” Major General Yoav Galant, the former head of the IDF’s Southern Command, told The Jerusalem Post. “The liquidation of terror leaders prevents terror attacks and influences the organizations.”
While Israel’s human rights groups have raised some objections, ancient Jewish sources provide some common-sense justification: “He who comes to kill you, arise earlier and kill him,” the Talmud teaches. America doesn’t need to apologize for shooting an unarmed Osama. He shot first.
It’s not surprising, then, that two countries engaged in a fight against religious fanatics would use the same methods with the same justifications. In the final analysis, the greatest struggles humanity faces are not among nations, peoples or religions, but between the fanatic and the tolerant. Those two types cross all borders and religions.
The struggle to contain and thwart fanaticism must be a shared burden, as victory against it benefits not just one country, but all mankind. For 63 years, Israel has been at the front lines of that battle.