A HIGH PRICE: THE TRIUMPHS AND FAILURES OF ISRAELI COUNTERTERRORISM
By Daniel Byman
Oxford University Press, $34.95, 464 pages
Faced with terrorist attacks (and conventional military attacks) by its Palestinian and Arab state neighbors since the earliest days of its existence, Israel has had to develop exceptionally effective counterterrorism capabilities to protect its citizens on all fronts, making it one of the world’s most innovative and toughest counterterrorism “powers.” This subject is discussed in Daniel Byman’s “A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism,” a comprehensive account of the effectiveness of Israel’s counterterrorism campaigns since the country became independent in 1948.
Mr. Byman, a prolific author of numerous books and articles on Middle East security issues, is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. This book is enriched by his research visits to Israel and meetings with leading Israeli security officials cited throughout the volume.
One of the book’s strengths is its overview of the multiple types of terrorist threats that have confronted Israel over the years. These threats began before 1948, with the Palestinian Arab community’s opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine. Although not mentioned by the author, those pre-state Palestinian terrorist groups were similar in their religious militancy to today’s Hamas, while the primary Palestinian organization that was established in 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), adopted the pseudo-secular and left-wing slogans of 1940s anti-colonialist national liberation movements.
Much history is covered in the book: Israeli counterterrorism responses to the initial Palestinian fedayeen attacks against the fledgling Israeli state in the early 1950s, the rise of the PLO in the mid-1960s and its attacks against Israel from its bases in Egypt, Jordan and south Lebanon after the June 1967 War, the first intifada (uprising) in the late 1980s and the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, which were intended to establish a political solution to the conflict.
Although a primary goal of Israel’s leaders at the end of the 20th century, Mr. Byman writes, “was to end terrorist violence” and bring about a peaceful reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, that did not happen. The Palestinians under Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat (including the rejectionist Hamas) continued their terrorist attacks, and the weak Israeli coalition government, led by Yitzhak Rabin, was unable to stop the construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Fatal blows to the Oslo Accords were delivered by the Palestinian Hamas, which intensified its terrorist campaign against Israel, and Yigal Amir, a Jewish terrorist. Amir, who represented the Jewish religious extremists that opposed any territorial compromise with the Palestinians, assassinated Prime Minister Rabin in early November 1995.
With Arafat’s poor leadership and Palestinian terrorism intensifying as Hamas began taking over the Palestinian “agenda” in the years that followed, the situation continued to worsen. Palestinian terrorism assumed new forms, first employing martyrdom suicide operations. Later - and up through the current period - it began launching rockets from the Gaza Strip against bordering Israeli towns.
Mr. Byman’s discussion of Israel’s use of harsh but necessary counterterrorism measures against Palestinian terrorists, such as harsh interrogation techniques and targeted killings, is worth noting. For Israel, interrogating people suspected of involvement in terrorism is “part of a sophisticated process that is at the heart of its counterterrorism intelligence,” Mr. Byman writes. Interrogations can provide information on a terrorist group’s members and activities, its weaponry, sources of funding and locations of its network. Such sessions also can serve as venues for recruiting new informers and agents once they are sent back to the Palestinian territories.
Targeted killings of terrorist leaders and operatives, whether through assassinations or surgical aerial strikes, Mr. Byman writes, are “a form of prevention, killing a ‘ticking bomb’ before he explodes or killing the facilitators who send others to kill. Officials also hope that they will deter terrorists from violence or, if that fails, make them live in fear, rendering them less effective. Over time, and with enough deaths, the killings can also reduce the total number of terrorists.”
Israel regards them as a last resort, to be used only when those being targeted cannot be arrested. It turns to its legal system to provide a “green light” to justify the killings, with consent by top security and government officials required to approve specific killings beforehand.
Additionally, the author discusses the effectiveness of the security barrier Israel has erected to prevent Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating into Israel, the nature of the highly coordinated counterterrorism infrastructure instituted to protect the country (e.g., the roles of Aman in military intelligence, Shin Bet in domestic intelligence, the Mossad in foreign intelligence and police, including the Border Police).
Some of Mr. Byman’s contentions can be disputed, such as the assertion, “Much of the Palestinian terrorism against Israel is about competition between groups, and hostility toward Israel is only secondary.” Any examination of their rhetoric would easily disprove such a claim.
Mr. Byman is correct in arguing that effective counterterrorism must blend military coercion and efforts at political conciliation that address a conflict’s underlying causes. The latter component has been, as Mr. Byman notes, one of the weaknesses in Israel’s counterterrorism campaign. With the Palestinians’ leaders deeply divided and incapable of providing workable solutions to improving their peoples’ futures, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appears far from near-term resolution.
Joshua Sinai is associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech.