Twenty years after Defensive Shield, Israel struggles to contain latest terror wave

As IDF marked anniversary of landmark success against Palestinian militants, Israelis were gunned down in Bnei Brak. Is Israel learning the right lessons?

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

An IDF soldier stands guard in Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. (IDF Spokeserson's Unit/Flickr)
An IDF soldier stands guard in Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. (IDF Spokeserson's Unit/Flickr)

On March 29, 2002, Israeli forces began a major offensive into the West Bank, retaking large Palestinian cities in a bid to crackdown on the terror of the Second Intifada.

Two decades later, Operation Defensive Shield has yet to conclude, at least in a figurative sense, according to Israel Defense Forces Chief Aviv Kohavi.

“Operations that stop terror daily are the continuation of the operation,” Kohavi said at an event in late March marking the anniversary of the offensive. “and dozens of arrests that occur every week in the Judea and Samaria Division’s sector are testimony to the commitment and effort by the IDF and Shin Bet to Israel’s security.”

Kohavi was speaking as Israel underwent a renewed wave of attacks that would eventually take the lives of 11 innocents in the span of a few days in late March, and 2 more in April. Yet he also claimed that during the operation, seen by the Israeli public as the turning point in defeating the Second Intifada, “the IDF proved it could defeat terrorism in a complex, urban environment.”

And therein lies the frustrating paradox Israel finds itself in. The IDF carried out a dangerous operation whose accomplishments surprised even its own commanders. It “defeated terrorism.”

Yet, 20 years on, Israelis are still being stabbed and shot on the country’s streets, and as leaders search for solutions, it is not immediately apparent that the lessons learned during the Second Intifada are at all relevant today.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi is seen after a meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the IDF Central Command headquarters in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The end of the political process

As part of the Oslo Accords signed in September 1993 and September 1995, Israeli forces withdrew in stages from Palestinian cities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The second round of agreements established areas A, B, and C, with Area A under full Palestinian Authority civil and security control.

Terrorism continued through the 1990s, but new agreements with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were signed by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A new government came to power under Ehud Barak in May 1999, which fulfilled a campaign promise and withdrew IDF forces from the security zone in southern Lebanon in May 2000.

Bill Clinton looks on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands during the signing of the Oslo Accords, September 13, 1993. (photo credit: courtesy GPO)

Barak then focused on the stalled political process with Arafat in an attempt to solve once and for all the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

IDF intelligence identified the danger inherent in the talks with Arafat. “If he is convinced that he cannot fulfill his strategic goals through negotiations, he could turn to a general conflict using all elements of power,” the Military Intelligence’s Research Department wrote that year. In April 2000, months before the Second Intifada broke out, Moshe Ya’alon, head of the IDF’s Central Command, predicted correctly that “It’s clear that we are heading toward a conflict soon, possibly in September or maybe even next week.”

The negotiations culminated in the July Camp David talks hosted by President Bill Clinton. After those talks failed, Israeli leaders braced for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood by Arafat, accompanied by a terror campaign.

While the declaration of statehood never came, the attacks did.

On September 27, an IDF soldier was killed by an IED in the Gaza Strip. The next day, opposition leader Ariel Sharon, a security hawk largely reviled by Palestinians for his past military exploits, toured the Temple Mount complex, as clashes broke out between hundreds of Palestinians and security forces.

From there, the violence rapidly spiraled out of control, with the IDF largely unable to effectively tamp down on the unrest. In some cases, repressive Israeli actions stoked Palestinians’ desire for revenge, and some criticized Israel for what they said was a heavy-handed response.

Over the next year-and-a-half, as the political leadership — under Barak initially and from March 2001 under Sharon — continued to aim for a return to a political process with Arafat, shootings and suicide bombings escalated in a shocking fashion. Attacks like the June 2001 Dolphinarium bombing in Tel Aviv, which killed 21, and the August bombing of Sbarro in central Jerusalem, which left 15 dead, shook Israel to its core, but weren’t enough to convince the Sharon government — or the George W. Bush administration in Washington DC — that a major military campaign was needed to gain control over the situation.

Ariel Sharon leaves the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000. (Flash90)

A number of major developments changed the Sharon government’s outlook. The September 11, 2001, attacks in the US focused Bush intensely on fighting terror, but in the months after the attack, Washington pressured Israel to avoid escalation in order to allow the US to build an international coalition to fight Al-Qaeda.

Bush changed his position in January 2002, after Israel captured the Karine-A ship as it sailed from Iran packed with weapons for the Palestinians. The seizure convinced Washington that Arafat was part of the international terrorist network, and gave Israel legitimacy to operate more aggressively against the PA.

The aftermath of the Park Hotel bombing on March 27, 2002. (Flash90)

A horrific bombing on March 27, 2002 proved to be Israel’s breaking point, capping a month that saw over a dozen suicide attacks. That evening, as guests celebrated the Passover seder at Netanya’s Park Hotel, a Hamas operative entered and detonated a suitcase packed with explosives. The attack killed 30 people — including several Holocaust survivors — and wounded another 160.

Calls were made, troops were readied, and an offensive, given a defensive name, was launched.

After 468 civilian deaths in less than two years, the gloves were finally off.

Into Area A

By March 29, Israeli forces had surrounded Arafat’s compound in Ramallah.

Over the next three weeks, 285 regular and reserve IDF companies would fight their way into the Palestinian-controlled cities of Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Jenin, and Nablus, killing dozens of terrorists, as well as civilians caught in the crossfire, and capturing thousands of Palestinians combatants.

The fighting was often conducted in dense, urban environments, where the IDF displayed innovative, highly effective methods of movement and fire.

Fighting in the heart of densely populated cities, the IDF killed dozens of Palestinian noncombatants, though the precise number is unknown due to the conditions of the fight and the obvious interest of both sides and international organizations to influence that figure.

In all, some 30 IDF soldiers and policemen lost their lives in Defensive Shield, and another 182 were wounded.

The Muqata’a in Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, 2013 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/PalestinianLiberator/File)

On May 1, with US and British mediation, Israel and the PA reached an agreement that saw the IDF withdraw from Arafat’s Muqata compound in Ramallah, and end a tense siege around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, effectively drawing the operation to a close.

Though terror attacks continued to take the lives of Israeli civilians in the coming years, it was clear that the operation had altered the course of the intifada. In June 2002, for the first time, security forces foiled more attacks than were actually carried out, and the positive trend continued through 2005, generally seen as the end of the intifada.

Just as important as the direct damage done to the Palestinians’ terrorist infrastructure, Operation Defensive Shield saw Israel break through an important mental barrier that had existed since the Oslo Accords. No longer was any part of the West Bank seen as off-limits, and Israeli forces had the legitimacy and tactics to operate whenever the need arose. Today, IDF forces enter Area A nearly every night as they search for weapons and militants.

The physical and economic damage caused by the operation also had an important deterrent effect. A significant segment of Palestinian society came to see the violence of the intifada as counterproductive to their cause. In late 2004, Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas said, “The use of arms has been damaging and should end.”

Illustrative: An Israeli reservist packs his gear after ending a deployment near Gaza during Operation Defensive Shield, 2002 (Tsafrir Abayov/ Flash90)

But terrorism from the West Bank did not end. Over the last 15 years, while shootings and rock-throwing continued, Palestinian terrorism also evolved, posing new threats in waves of attacks. A series of ramming attacks hit Jerusalem in 2008-9, and again in 2014-15. In late 2015 and early 2016, Palestinian teens, both male and female, carried out a series of mostly “lone-wolf” stabbing attacks, 39 in October alone.

Similarly, the rash of attacks late last month has sparked fears of a new wave of violence, including the possibility of a rise in Islamic State-inspired shootings and stabbings.

Learning the right lessons

Twenty years after Israel managed to move to the offensive effectively against a frightening terrorist threat, its leaders see a direct thread between that victory and the effort to combat Palestinian terror in the years since. The lessons learned in the West Bank continue to shape IDF counterterrorism doctrine and the way Israeli leaders think about combatting terrorism.

In March, the IDF’s History Department and the Defense Ministry published Ohad Leslau’s “Operation ‘Defensive Shield’: From Containment to Decision” to coincide with the anniversary. The work was accorded great importance within the IDF, as evidenced in the foreword by Shaul Mofaz, the IDF chief during Defensive Shield, and current chief of staff, Aviv Kohavi.

But as the terrorism threat has evolved, it is not entirely clear what relevant lessons Defensive Shield holds for Israel’s current efforts to protect its citizens.

For one, the political and military situation is drastically different. In 2002, the PA and Islamist groups carried out an organized campaign that relied on physical infrastructure and chains of command. The overwhelming majority of the attacks stemmed from Palestinian-controlled areas, and it was clear that the IDF would play a central role in combatting the threat.

A post on a Facebook page connected to Fatah from October 2015 of a knife stabbing a religious Jewish man. (Screenshot: Palestinian Media Watch)

Today, young Palestinian attackers are usually often not members of terrorist groups, and attacks are rarely carried out on the orders of commanders. They are instead radicalized on social media, reacting to perceived violations by Israeli forces, often in connection with the Temple Mount and Ramadan, or inspired by farewell messages or diatribes posted by other attackers.

The praise of such attackers, and their treatment as martyrs on social media, is another important motivator for young attackers. Complicating matters even further, in recent years some Palestinians, especially young women, decided to carry out attacks after fights with family, romantic rejection, or depression. Picking up on any indications that such an attack is going to take place — without the young men and women turning to organized terror cells to receive directions or suicide vests — is an immense challenge.

The IDF’s relevance against such threats is not readily apparent. Attacks emanating from Israeli territory are the domain of the police and Shin Bet, and the helicopter gunships and tanks that killed terrorist leaders in 2002 are not going to be employed in Umm al-Fahm or Jerusalem.

Ahmed Manasra, a 14-year old Palestinian boy, convicted of the attempted murder of two Israelis in a stabbing in October 2015, walks out of the District Court following his sentence hearing in Jerusalem on September 25, 2016. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

That hasn’t stopped Prime Minister Naftali Bennett from trying to find some use for the organization that ground down the Palestinian terror campaign in the early 2000s. He has deployed thousands of soldiers onto Israel’s streets. Jerusalemites drinking coffee on tony Emek Refaim Street looked up Sunday to see groups of armed infantrymen patrolling among the baby strollers and American seminary students.

That deployment and other defensive measures might offer a measure of comfort to some Israelis — and may well alarm many more —  but it takes no great amount of skill by a terrorist to wait until soldiers and policemen have passed by to carry out an attack.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar (R) are seen during a visit to the security service’s regional command in the northern West Bank and the security barrier on April 3, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Despite the difficulty in applying the lessons of 2002 to the threats Israel faces today, looking back at the last two decades can be instructive in important ways.

Even during Defensive Shield, Israeli commanders understood that killing terrorist operatives wasn’t the key to gaining the upper hand. “We cut off the head, and a new head arises,” lamented Yitzhak Eitan, the head of the IDF’s Central Command during Defensive Shield, during a post-operation roundtable hosted by Mofaz on May 27, 2002.

He and the commanders fighting in Palestinian cities learned an important lesson — close, continuous friction with terrorists created vital opportunities for Israeli intelligence.

“Instead of always looking for the most senior operatives, we are going for widespread arrests, interrogations in the field,” he explained. Those interrogations gave Israel the information needed to foil upcoming attacks and disrupt terror networks. The IDF began keeping forces on standby, waiting to operate immediately based on intelligence from the field.

“The intelligence gathered by the Shin Bet,” wrote Arik Barbing, former Shin Bet commander in Jerusalem and the West Bank, “especially during the Second Intifada, led to the breaking up of terror infrastructure and the arrest of thousands of terrorists.”

During the so-called knife intifada in 2015-2016, security forces had to develop new intelligence methods as well. The methods that had been crafted over years of combating Hamas and Tanzim terrorist infrastructure weren’t relevant against Palestinian youth who carried out low-signature attacks. They began looking instead for sudden changes in online behavior.

Mourners attend the funeral of Border Police officer Yazan Falah, who was killed in a shooting attack in Hadera, at the military cemetery in the northern Druze town of Kisra-Sumei, March 28, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“Young people using the internet and social media create signs that are a sort of digital signature; lists, likes, reactions, emojis, voice notes, and technical signals of times and place,” wrote Barbing.

This allowed the Shin Bet and IDF intelligence to track suspects and pick up signs that indicate a potential attack. This demanded new intelligence models, training, and tools, including big data tools to track and organize online activity.

Against this type of threat, heavy-handed measures like surrounding neighborhoods and putting up checkpoints were seen as counterproductive, and military operations were designed to be as surgical as possible, without creating any unnecessary resentment.

Whether new patterns of terror are emerging, or whether the current spike is similar to those of the past decade, it is the accuracy and speed of the intelligence that will be key. There will be voices advocating broad, punitive measures like preventing Muslims from reaching the Temple Mount and more aggressive policing alongside the deployment of soldiers inside Israeli cities. Not only will defensive measures ultimately prove ineffective, they may well add to the problem.

Twenty years later, Operation Defensive Shield does offer lessons for Israeli leaders looking for effective measures against an evolving threat. But if they are to be proactive in combating the latest wave of attacks, they will have to make sure they are learning the right lessons from Israel’s past successes.

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