Israel’s Approach to Counterterrorism
The Israeli approach to counterterrorism (CT) is unique because terrorism there is ever-present and takes many forms; it may occur from within Israel, it may take place from Palestinian territories, it may come from across the border or from further afield. The attack may be a one-off suicide bombing or a knife or car rampage or the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. The terrorists themselves are different too in that they may be Arab, Palestinian, Arab-Israeli or even Japanese.
The evolving nature of the threat led Israeli policymakers to eschew the idea of having an official counterterrorism doctrine. Instead Israel has taken a more organic, holistic approach to CT that relies on innovation and creativity and is aimed at deterring and creating divisions within terror groups, and between the groups and their constituencies through coercion and/or persuasion.
Israel’s approach to its security oscillates between Bitachon Yisodi (fundamental security threats) to Bitachon Shotef (continuous security). What this means is that Israeli CT employs tactics that are focused on systematically disrupting and weakening the infrastructure of terrorist entities, whether within Israel or beyond its borders. This may include large-scale military operations against terrorist cells or more targeted, special operations.
To deal with the threat, the Israeli CT architecture is multifaceted involving the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), specialist units, the police, the private sector and the broader community. The Israelis are also operating within the social media space, either through an aggressive public diplomacy (Hasbara) campaign aimed at explaining Israel’s CT operations or outlining the threat that Israel faces via the ‘Israel under fire’ hashtag. The IDF’s Information Security Department also carries out counter-intelligence operations aimed at identifying Hamas cyber activists seeking to use social media platforms such as Facebook to extract information from Israeli soldiers.
The origin of this multilayered approach began in the 1950s when the threat came from beyond Israel’s borders. The attacks were then led by fedayeen (irregular forces) based in Jordan and Egypt. These were small units armed with machine guns and grenades who carried out hit-and-run operations. The Israelis responded to these attacks by forming specialist military units such as Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) and Shayetet 13 (a naval commando unit whose name translates as ‘Flotilla 13’).
From the 1970s the threat evolved from guerrilla warfare to hijacking, kidnapping, suicide bombing, knife attacks, car attacks, smuggling, tunnels and kite terrorism. The IDF has adapted in response, forming specialist military units who now carry out counter-IED, urban warfare and counter-guerrilla warfare operations. These units play key roles when the IDF undertakes major military offensives against terrorist targets as seen with Operation Cast Lead in 2008.
A good example of how the Israelis have had to adapt to new terrorist tactics is by looking Hamas’ use of kite terrorism (attaching firebombs to kites, balloons and inflated condoms and flying them over the border, setting fire to forests and agricultural land). Hamas allegedly began using this method after seeing a kite with a Palestinian flag attached to it. The Israeli military initially didn’t have a ready response but is now using drones to shoot down or destroy the kites and is continuing an aerial campaign to destroy Hamas munition makers.
The Israel National Police (INP) also plays an important counterterror role. The INP is the first line of defence against terrorism within Israel. All its members receive basic counterterrorism training (coupled by the fact that all its members have also served in the IDF).
The INP has two components: the ‘blue police’ and the Border Guard (BG). The former operates in six districts, or Machoz: Northern, Tel Aviv, Central, Judea and Samaria (West Bank), Jerusalem and Southern. The BG is a distinct force in that it combines policing and military functions, with its members wearing a quasi-military uniform as opposed to the traditional blue uniform wore by sworn police forces around the world. The guards are responsible for security along the border and in areas that present special security concerns, such as Jerusalem. Officially, BG units are subordinated to the territorial commander of the blue police, but they specialise in internal security and CT operations as well as undertaking criminal investigations.
Within the INP there are specialist counterterrorism units, such as the YAMAM, a special weapons and tactics (SWAT) force, which carries out takeover and intervention as well as prevention and interdiction operations. Another important unit is the YAMAS, or Mista’aravim, which translates as ‘disguise as an Arab’. The unit began its life in the late 1980s operating as a specialist military unit and is composed of Arabists—individuals that know and understand every facet of Arab/Palestinian society and can easily operate within the indigenous populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israelis have shown remarkable resilience when it comes to terrorism, refusing to be cowed by the perpetual threat of violence. The state and the people have also shown how important creativity and innovation is when designing, developing and implementing counterterrorism policies.
What Israel has shown is that terrorism is not something that can be defeated, but it is something that one can learn to live with. If Israelis are to move towards a world in which they needn’t worry about terror attacks and the continued cycle of violence, a solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict must be found.