Israeli Counterterrorism in Dealing with Palestinian Terrorism after 1993: Reactive or Pre-emptive?


Israel is a country where counterterrorism has been playing one of the most significant roles for decades. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has been trying to deal with terrorism and efficiently prevent its inhabitants from terrorist attacks supported by the neighbouring countries. However, one particular source of terrorism has been the most significant challenge for Israel since its establishment. It is terrorism carried out by Palestinian extremists. Palestinian terrorism has left behind hundreds of terrorist attacks and casualties since 1948. In 1993 the Oslo Accords were signed, and a new era of peace and cooperation was supposed to start between Israel and Palestine. On the contrary, Palestinian terrorism became more violent and bloody. Therefore, Israeli counterterrorism had to adjust to a new situation, when Palestinians were expected to be their allies, who indeed secretly and sometimes entirely openly supported Palestinian terrorism targeted on Israel (Bickerton, Klausner, 2015) (Byman, 2011).

Reactive and Pre-emptive Counterterrorism Strategies

The reactive and pre-emptive strategies dominate Israeli counterterrorism. Lee Jarvis and Michael Lister (2014) claim that the primary goal of the reactive strategy is to act after a terrorist attack, what means to find perpetrators and allow the state institutions to apply the law which could be embodied in arrests, imprisonments or eliminations of terrorists. “Reactive counter-terrorism focuses on bringing to justice individuals who are suspected of committing criminal offenses in regard to the law” (Jarvis, Lister, 2015, p.158). Moreover, Scott Stewart (2009), a terrorism analyst at Stratfor provides a definition which is very similar to the definition of Jarvis and Lister. Stewart explains reactive counterterrorism as a strategy “where authorities respond to a crime scene after a terrorist attack to find and arrest the militants responsible for the attack, it is customary to focus on the who, or on the individual or group behind the attack” (Stewart, 2009). For instance, Israel started to seal the Palestinian border to arrest the Palestinian terrorists trying to get into Israel and to bring them in front of a court (Byman, 2011).

The second counterterrorism strategies are preventive or pre-emptive. The main aim of that strategy is to make acts of terrorism the least feasible for its designers and perpetrators. In the case of the pre-emptive strategy, Jarvis and Lister characterize it as a strategy, which is “geared toward anticipating and preventing the terrorist act from happening” (Jarvis, Lister, 2015, p.158). For example, if a terrorist is eliminated (killed or imprisoned), he is not able to continue perpetrating terrorist acts, and that is the main goal of the pre-emptive strategy. The pre-emptive strategies seek to use force as a tool for preventing a terrorist attack. In addition, they also rely on cooperation with the communities within which likely perpetrators and designers of terrorist attacks can live and operate. A significant component of that strategy is an intelligence activity that plays a crucial role in obtaining the information that can help to detect potential perpetrators (Byman, 2011) (Jarvis, Lister, 2015).

Counterterrorism in Israel

In Israel, there is at least one more possibility. That is the possibility of a direct elimination (targeted killing) of the perpetrator(s). “Israel’s high court upheld Thursday the military’s right to assassinate members of groups the state defines as terrorist organizations” (Wilson, 2006). Besides, the elimination of terrorists by the IDF soldiers is the application of the Israeli laws. IDF soldiers are legally allowed to use force if it is necessary for their missions. “The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat” (Israel Defence Forces, n.d.). For instance, Israeli prime minister with military officials can order targeted killing or the IDF soldiers can kill a Palestinian terrorist trying to perpetrate a terrorist attack in Israel. These two laws play a significant role as embodiments of the reactive and pre-emptive counterterrorism strategies.

After Oslo (1993-1996)

In 1993, the whole world watched as U.S president Bill Clinton, the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO chairman Yasser Arafat met to sign an agreement which was expected to change the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict forever. That deal was called the Oslo Accords. The main points of the agreement were the Israeli acceptance of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which would represent the Palestinians, who were expected to launch self-rule of the Gaza Strip and small parts of the West Bank. “After signing the accord, Israel and the Palestinians were, within one month, to begin negotiating the details of the withdrawal of Israeli troop from the Gaza Strip and Jericho” (Bickerton, Klausner, 2015, p.298). Moreover, in 1995, Israel and Palestine signed the Oslo Accords 2 by which the Palestinian authorities got more control over the Palestinian territories. In addition, the West Bank was divided into three areas (A, B and C). Area A was under Palestinian control, civil and military. In return, the PLO promised to renounce “terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace” (Office of the Historian, n.d.).  Unfortunately, expectations were far higher than the reality. The Peace process launched by the Clinton administration failed after he left office. Violence between Israel and Palestine started to rise again. However, the Oslo Accords were significant because of Israeli counterterrorism strategies which had to adjust to a very new situation in which probably everything changed (Byman, 2011).

Terrorism after Oslo

After Oslo, not Fatah, but Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) led by Arafat became the leading Palestinian terrorist organizations which strictly opposed the peace accords signed in Oslo. Its hostility toward the Accords escalated in 1993 and continued until 1996. At least 195 Israelis were killed primarily by suicide bombings (Byman, 2011). Behind the most bloody assaults between 1994 and 1996 was Hamas bomb maker Yahya Ayyash, who became the most wanted Palestinian terrorist. Also, in 1994 Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier who was later killed. Another challenge was Yasser Arafat who played a game with Israelis and the international community (Byman, 2011). He tried to convince them that he is a defender of the peace signed in Oslo. Simultaneously, he supported terrorist attacks of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations based on the situation and his political needs (Bickerton, Klausner, 2015) (Byman, 2011). For instance, when he needed to pressure Israeli politicians, he tacitly approved a terrorist attack. When he needed to support his peaceful image, he ordered the imprisonment of a few Hamas proponents as proof of his devotion to the peace. “Arafat was a master of double talk” (Byman, 2011, p.81). Some could ask why Arafat signed the peace treaty with Israel? The answer is really simple. Arafat wanted to buy more time for his ambitions to establish the independent Palestinian state. Arafat wanted to attack Israel when Palestine would be independent, strong enough and with enough support from other Arab states. Moreover, it is obvious that Arafat allowed to retaliate with a long and bloody wave of suicide bombing. For him, it was vital to keep hatred alive, because true peace would make his actions against Israel meaningless. Therefore, for Israel, it was challenging to build peace and cooperate with someone who was behind the decisions leading to the terrorist attacks targeting Israel and its civilians.

Israeli Counterterrorism after Oslo

As mentioned previously, the Oslo Accords were a disaster for Israeli counterterrorism and intelligence. Their readiness to protect ordinary Israelis from terrorist attacks, mostly suicide bombing embraced by Hamas and the PIJ, became paralyzed due to the Palestinian self-rule over the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. “Israel’s intelligence capacity in the Gaza Strip has dropped to zero” (Byman, 2011, p.83). Thus, a logical question had to be asked by the people trying to deal with Palestinian terrorism. How to obtain intelligence vital for the fight against terrorism without control over the territories? Therefore, once they could not conduct a full control over the Palestinian territories, they had to come with new policies of collecting information and dealing with terrorism.  Israeli ability to exercise the reactive (to arrest and trial terrorists) and pre-emptive (to prevent its citizens by making attacks less feasible) counterterrorism strategies decreased to zero due to the lack of control over the areas where the attacks were designed. Therefore, one of the most crucial tasks for the Israeli counterterrorism struggle was to establish collaboration with Palestinians in order to obtain intelligence vital for their success.

One powerful tool of Israeli counterterrorism was allowing some Palestinians to get in contact with their relatives living abroad. Palestinians were many times offered education, medical treatment and other advantages which could raise their living standards. Also, Israel threatened young Palestinians by labeling them Israeli conspirators which would have deplorable consequences for them. Israel, by threatening young Palestinians, by providing them with better education and healthcare reacted to the suicide bombings.  Moreover, the information obtained from Palestinians and the cooperation with Palestinians helped Israel to eliminate at least one significant proponent of the Palestinian terrorism.

For example, one of young Palestinians Kemal Hammad was recruited by the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency). He was threatened to be labelled an Israeli conspirator. It is important to add that Hammad was one of the few who had direct contact with Ayyash. Thus, Shin Bet gave Hammad a phone for Ayyash which was not only bugged. “Unbeknown to Hammad, it also contained fifteen grams of the explosive RDX” (Byman, 2011, p. 94). Ayyash was killed. As a consequence, Hamas and the PIJ retaliated with attacks which left dozens of Israeli citizens dead. However, according to the intelligence gathered after the assassination, a deadly wave of terrorist attacks had already been planned before the killing. Here the following question may arise. Taking into consideration the fact that Hamas and the PIJ were able to react to the assassination of the supposedly crucial figure of their organizations with even stronger attacks, would it not have been more efficient for the Israelis to carry out counterterrorism actions on a larger scale? Such actions could eliminate more masterminds and simultaneously paralyze their ability to retaliate.

Another significant tool for dealing with Palestinian terrorism was targeted killing. Targeted killing is one of the most important tools of Israeli counterterrorism which has been used by Israel since its establishment. Israel uses this counterterrorism activity to eliminate people who are responsible for terrorist attacks against Israel or design them. Targeted killing is used if there is no means by which the wanted target could be detected and his terrorist activities eliminated (Wilson, 2006).  For example, in October 1995, the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Fathi Shiqaqi was assassinated in Malta. He was on the way from Libya where he had met with Muammar Gaddafi, who promised him financial help for the PIJ terrorist activities. The impact of that particular policy is far more apparent. The terrorist activities of the PIJ were paralyzed after Shiqaqi’s assassination (Thomas, 2010).

Shiqaqi’s assassination differs from the assassination of Ayyash. When Israel started gathering intelligence about the two terrorists, they reacted to the attacks designed by those two terrorists. Israel began to carry out actions which were designed to help apply the Israeli laws by punishing the wanted terrorists following the suicide bombings. Their assassinations could be understood as a reaction to their actions because Israel punished them and applied the Israeli law allowing targeted killings. Such work is the primary goal of the reactive strategy (as mentioned in the section about terrorism, justice could also be embodied in a direct elimination in the case of Israel). On the other hand, the assassination of Ayyash did not help to make terrorist attacks less feasible. Therefore, his death could not be understood as the fulfillment of the pre-emptive counterterrorism strategies.

However, it is important to realize, that at least in the case of the Fathi Shiqaqi’s assassination, terrorist attacks of the PIJ stopped for a few months. Thus, they enabled Israel to protect its citizens against the PIJ terrorist attacks. If the primary goals of the reactive and pre-emptive counterterrorism strategies are to apply the laws embodied in punishments (targeted killing in that case) and to make terrorist attacks the least feasible, then, they were fulfilled. Shiqaqi was killed (punished, application of the Israeli law) and not able to continue in his activities (prevention) making this both a pre-emptive and reactive counterterrorism activity. On the other hand, based on the events that followed after his assassination-the PIJ started to cooperate with the above mentioned Yahya Ayyash from Hamas. In addition, the PIJ was able to revenge the death of Ayyash a year after Shiqaqi was assassinated in Malta. Hence, more complex and systematic counterterrorism action may have been required in order to dismantle both terrorist organizations or at least to paralyze their ability to recover in such a short time period.

However, if Israeli counterterrorism wanted to deal with suicide bombing, it had to restrict the movement of the Palestinian militants. Therefore, a third vital policy was the sealing of the Palestinian territories. The main purpose of that policy was to make the movement of terrorists more difficult which would decrease the number of terrorists who could get into Israel. On the other hand, to seal the border hermetically is nearly impossible, therefore, there were also terrorists who succeeded to cross the border and carry out a terrorist attack (Byman, 2011).

For example, Israel sealed the border to control the lives of the Palestinians who worked in Israel. Many of them were forced to provide information. Otherwise, they would lose their jobs and would not be able to sustain their families (Byman, 2011). Also, once the border was sealed, Israeli soldiers patrolling the border forced potential attackers to find ways by which they could reach Israel and the targets within its territory. “Sealing the border became an increasingly important counterterrorism tool” (Byman, 2011, p.84). On the other hand, there are cases when terrorists crossed the border. Then, the information provided by the Palestinians who worked in Israel proved to be significant, because they could reveal the places where terrorists wanted to attack.

In this case, a mixture of the reactive and pre-emptive counterterrorism strategies can be found. Sealing of the Palestinian borders was a reaction to the previous events of suicide bombing. However, it is also a step which should prevent the Israeli citizens from future terrorist attacks. The information provided by the Palestinians who wanted to get into Israel helped to detect planned suicide bombings and their designers. It means that some terrorists were arrested or killed thanks to the information from the Palestinians who wanted to work in Israel, which could be understood as application of the Israeli law. Even if a planned terrorist attack was not detected according to the information from the Palestinians, the sealed border forced terrorists to find loopholes in the border system, which also heightened the odds of their detection. Therefore, once the border was sealed, Palestinian terrorists were eliminated by the IDF soldiers or detected and tried in Israel. Thus, we can speak about reactive counterterrorism strategies. On the other hand, the majority of the detected terrorists trying to cross the border and perpetrate an attack were tried in Israel (and imprisoned) or killed. Therefore, the goal of the pre-emptive counterterrorism strategies was met. Their detection, imprisonment or elimination could also be understood as prevention, because they could not continue in their terrorist attacks, thus Israel made their terrorist attacks impossible or less feasible for them.

The tactics of sealing the border could be seen to be comparable with the tactics of the collaboration with the young Palestinians. Both tactics were useful due to the significant intelligence they obtained. On the other hand, would it not be more efficient to apply these two strategies simultaneously? Such activity could increase the number of obtained significant intelligence. On the other hand, to seal the border during the collaboration which leads to the elimination of significant terrorists could warn the wanted terrorists and compromise secret actions. Therefore, it is questionable whether the simultaneous application of the both described activities would fulfil the goals of the reactive and pre-emptive counterterrorism strategies.

The above examples of Israeli counterterrorism are discussed in this part. The first two show us that targeted killing can have positive or negative impacts. The Ayyash’s assassination is the result of intelligence activity targeted towards young Palestinians which fulfilled the goals of the reactive strategies. On the contrary, the Shiqaqi’s was a result of intelligence activity outside the Israeli borders, which fulfilled the goals of both mentioned strategies simultaneously. Therefore, despite the fact that both actions resulted in targeted killings, their impact was different. Moreover, according to the events which took place after the mentioned actions, it was possible to analyse whether we can speak about reactive and pre-emptive counterterrorism strategies simultaneously. Furthermore, the sealing of the Palestinian border led to the obtaining of vital information that fulfilled the goals of reactive and pre-emptive strategies.

Written by Tomáš Iliev

Již brzy vám přineseme druhou část článku zabývající se izraelskými protiteroristickými strategiemi v letech 1996 až 1999 za první vlády Benjamina Netanjahu



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