The consequences of counterterrorist policies in Israel

Ami Pedahzur, Arie Perliger

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Violent attacks against civilians for the purpose of terror constituted an integral part of the strategies carried out by both Jewish and Arab factions in Palestine during the years of the British Mandate, especially after 1936 (Kimmerling and Migdal 2002; Lachman 1982; Lustick 1995). The founding of the Israeli state on May 14, 1948, led to a war between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries that lasted for more than a year. By the end of the war, the new State of Israel controlled much more land than was initially allocated in accordance with the United Nations partition plan.1 A Palestinian state in fact was never established. Israel, Jordan, and Egypt annexed sections of land that had initially been offered to the Palestinians by the United Nations, and approximately 900,000 Palestinians became refugees.2 The first decade after the war was marked by a relative decline in the levels of violence on both sides. The terrorist attacks perpetrated against Israeli civilians were carried out by the fedayeen-groups of Palestinian refugees most of whom were armed by the Egyptian regime and served its interests (Yaari 1975). These attacks were the precipitating factor in the formation of the official Israeli counterterrorism policy (Goren, August 16, 2006; Shavit, August 16, 2006). This policy, which at the time was called a "retaliatory policy," consisted of military raids against Arab military and civilian centers as an immediate response to attacks against Israelis. The reasoning behind these reprisals was to prove to the Arabs that Israel would not tolerate acts of violence in its territory and that those who perpetrated these acts would have to pay a high price (Ganor 2003, 75). By engaging in this policy, the Israeli elite was hoping to deter Arab leaders from sponsoring terrorism. Questions of democratic acceptability and human rights violations related to the implementation of this policy were not even discussed at the time (Morris 1996, 228-30). At any rate, the goal was not attained. All in all, the "retaliatory policy" ended in a severe escalation between Israel and Arab countries-most prominently Egypt-and in the killing of dozens of innocent civilians (Morris 1996, 446-54). What is more, the policy did not bring an end to terrorism. On October 10, 1959, the Movement for the Liberation of Palestine (Fatah) was established, and on January 1, 1965, three members of the new group attempted to execute its first terrorist attack on Israeli soil (Shavit, August 16, 2006). Two years later, following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians intensified. Not only were 950,000 Palestinian refugees now under direct Israeli military occupation, but by 1968 the Israeli settler movement had started to expand to the West Bank.3 Jewish settlements were established first in the Hebron area and then all over the occupied territories.4 By that time, the popularity of the Fatah had skyrocketed, and its leader, Yasir Arafat, had taken over the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which served as an umbrella organization for the different Palestinian ideological factions. The following years were marked by an unprecedented wave of attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets, both in Israel and abroad. Terrorism had turned from a relatively marginal item on the agenda of the Israeli security establishment to a major one (Zohar, August 17, 2006). This was reflected in the expansion of counterterrorism intelligence branches and the formation of new special counterterrorism units. The attacks did not alter, however, the major premise of Israeli counterterrorism policy-deterrence and containment (Ganor 2003, 75-78). The question was: how could these goals be attained? The emerging policy involved intensive intelligence gathering and strikes against PLO activists, camps, and in some cases even sponsoring states (Byman 2005, 145). While this policy was aimed at coping with the symptoms of the problem, Israel actually intensified its root causes by annexing East Jerusalem and, most prominently, by rapidly expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank (Zertal and Eldar 2004, 132-37; Schiff and Yaari 1990, 54; Shalev 1990, 36-40). The 1980s were marked by two important developments. First, the PLO forces were driven out of Lebanon by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the summer of 1982. Arafat and his supporters had to relocate their headquarters to Tunis. Second, local Palestinian factions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip gained more prominence. Among those factions, two were particularly significant: The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which was established in 1981, and Hamas, which was formed six years later. The first group is a relatively small and elitist organization, and the latter is a mass social and political movement, but they share similar ideologies that are a mixture of religious and nationalist ideas. The two groups refused to join the PLO and subsequently became the major opposition front to the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO on September 13, 1993. These agreements were supposed to be the first step in the reconciliation process between Israelis and Palestinians; however, they turned out to be the starting point of an unprecedented era of violence in the region. Exactly five months prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords, on April 13, 1993, Hamas launched its first suicide bomber. In the following years, suicide attacks would prove to be an extremely effective weapon.5 Such operations are not costly to carry out and have proven to be highly effective in terms of their lethality and the panic they induce. Furthermore, the Israeli security establishment had no prepared routines for countering these attacks and hence had to start experimenting with different response procedures. Only ten years after the first suicide attack, Israel found a mechanism that enabled it to cope with this tactic effectively. As with similar procedures in the past, however, Israel's various responses were aimed at the symptoms rather than the root causes, and in fact those responses intensified the hostility of the Palestinians toward Israel and the support for the use of violence.6 The Palestinian factions then turned to the use of high-trajectory weapons. These rockets have proven to be less lethal than human bombs; however, they have had a profound psychological impact. Two criteria should serve as the basis for evaluating Israeli counterterrorism policy: effectiveness and democratic acceptability. On both measures, Israel does not score very high. Despite Israel's continuous efforts to find effective counterterrorism policies, Palestinian terrorism has never ceased. In fact, it has only intensified over the years. One of the prevailing myths in Israeli popular discourse is that "Arabs understand only the language of force." This myth has been reflected in the counterterrorism measures employed by the state. Harsh measures have always been preferred over more moderate ones. When those measures have proven futile, even harsher tools have been adopted. At the same time, the root causes of Palestinian terrorism have not been addressed. Israeli officials have never considered the seizing of Palestinian lands and the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as terrorism-motivating factors. The outcome has been devastating for both societies. In the following sections, we offer and then test a framework aimed at explaining what led Israel to a situation in which its democratic foundations have been compromised and at the same time terrorism has not disappeared.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Consequences of Counterterrorism
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages32
ISBN (Print)9780871540737
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'The consequences of counterterrorist policies in Israel'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this