Every nation has a right and a duty to prevent terrorism, but has to do so in a way that does not make the problem worse.
This article was published in Homeland Security Today on March 10, 2020
There is no doubt that the Western nation faced with the most serious, and most persistent, terrorist threat is the tiny country of Israel. Right since its inception the land of Israel has been beset by angry neighbours keen to destroy it and violent extremist groups bent on the same mission. Israel features prominently and frequently in jihadi propaganda and, to a lesser extent in right wing screeds (anti-Semitism is always present however).
In response to these threats, both of a military and a terrorist nature, Israel does what is has to: it protects itself. No one can say this is not a legitimate course of action. Every state has the duty to keep its citizens safe and its borders secure. Any government that fails to do so does not deserve to govern.
As a consequence, Israel has built up one of the world’s best (small) military forces, ones that punch well above their weight, as well as world-class security intelligence agencies (domestic and foreign). I had the privilege of exchanging views with both Shin Bet (domestic) and Mossad (foreign) and walked away very impressed with the men and women who serve their country.
In response to these threats, both of a military and a terrorist nature, Israel does what is has to: it protects itself.
At the same time, all these actions aimed at thwarting Israel’s enemies from hitting it must be carefully planned and judiciously executed. Mistakes can have serious repercussions and counter-productively make matters worse. Actions and reactions must be proportionate: if not they can give fodder to more violence.
It is a valid question whether the current Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu gets this.
Mr. Netanyahu has of course just been returned to office in the third election in Israel this year alone. Just as on the previous two occasions, his Likud Party failed to win a majority and will have to cobble together a tenuous coalition with likeminded parties. It is far from clear at the time of writing (March 6) whether he will be able to form a majority government.
Nevertheless, there are signs that his administration is engaged in policies and deeds planned to better secure Israel’s security that are in actual fact undermining that goal. For sake of brevity we will look at two: the growing power of the Ultraorthodox Jewish parties and the practice of demolishing Palestinian homes.
12% of the population
Ultraorthodox Jews currently constitute only 12 percent of the population but are by far the fastest growing constituency. Not surprisingly, given their name (they call themselves the haredim – those who tremble before God), they are very conservative and messianic. They reject the secular state and hew to the conviction that the biblical land of Israel, i.e. everything between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Hence they are often the most zealous among the settlers in the Occupied Territories.
The complicating factor is that the Occupied Territories is also where the Palestinian state should be. The expansion of Israeli settlements in that area make any future state untenable and provide fodder for violent reactions (i.e. terrorism). Some Ultraorthodox themselves are not beyond the use of violence to make their mark (and this too must be called terrorism).
Israel will never be as safe as many other Western countries. This does not mean it should engage in actions that make an already difficult situation worse.
In his quest for parliamentary majorities the Netanyahu government has sought the support of the Ultraorthodox parties, giving them a disproportionate level of influence. Furthermore, Mr. Netanyahu has never met an illegal settlement he does not like, complicating the situation on the ground and providing the seeds for more Palestinian terrorism.
Another questionable practice of this and other governments has been the demolition of houses associated with individuals suspected or involved in violent attacks in Israel. The latest one took place on March 5 when Israeli Defence Forces destroyed the houses belonging to two Palestinian prisoners accused of carrying out an attack in the occupied West Bank last year.
More, not less violence
This policy is of questionable legal or moral standing and obviously creates the conditions for more, not less, violence. It also punishes people who themselves were not responsible for attacks against Israel. Why would any state think this is a good idea?
Israel is a hard place to govern. No party ever seems to get a solid majority in the Knesset. Lots of states have a particular hatred for it. Terrorism is a very real threat. The neighbours are anything but democratic and free. As a result, Israel has to make some tough decisions.
Those decisions need to be good ones, however. Untrammeled development in the Occupied Territories and unjustified revenge acts against the families of terrorists are not among those. The Netanyahu government needs to rethink this.
Israel will most likely never be as safe as many other Western countries and will have to be continually on its guard. This does not mean it should engage in actions that make an already difficult situation worse.