Small World

Jewish World Review August 23, 2001 / 4 Elul, 5761

Is Israel's security genius prolonging Arafat's war?

By Edward N. Luttwak -- WHILE DIPLOMATS and Middle East experts wonder how peace negotiations can ever resume after the colossal failure of the Oslo process, and while Palestinian suffering continues, security experts everywhere are fascinated by the extraordinary success of Israel in minimizing its casualties.

The constant, dramatic coverage of shootings and bombings is contradicted by statistics: In the 10 months since the outbreak of violence, a total of 136 Israeli civilians and soldiers have been killed --- many fewer than the number who died in road accidents over the same period and an amazingly small number considering the sheer magnitude of the violence. Physical damage to Israeli public infrastructures and private property has been insignificant and, more important, not one of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank or Gaza has been evacuated.

Israel's ability to keep damage to a minimum explains why world attention is no longer focused on the heroics of the Israeli military, which were so apparent in the 1970s and 1980s, but instead on Israel's security system, which immediately went into action once Yasser Arafat's men started shooting. In a world where even impeccably democratic governments are confronted by terrorist attacks, there is more than idle curiosity in the secrets of Israeli success.

Information publicly available provides tantalizing glimpses.

For example, the Web site of RAFAEL, the high-technology leader in Israel's defense industry, shows new items for "low-intensity warfare," including high-altitude surveillance balloons equipped with telescopes. These may explain how terrorist chiefs sitting in their offices or riding in cars in the midst of other traffic can be killed remotely by missiles --- and with no errors so far. These kinds of electronic detectors may even explain how so many explosive devices have been found before they could explode. A specialized undercover Israeli commando unit that kills individual terrorists as they move about in the apparent security of Palestinian towns does not find them just by accidentally spotting them in a crowd.

Every day, press photographs clearly show Israeli soldiers wearing target-distorting bags over their helmets, while all soldiers and policemen wear their Israeli-made bulletproof vests that in spite of the extreme heat of the Middle East summer do not seem to contribute to heat prostration.

These may seem like technical micro-details, but they are not unimportant in the overall politics of the conflict.

When Arafat's riflemen started shooting 10 months ago, one of his goals was to trigger an antiwar movement within Israeli society by killing as many soldiers as possible. They are almost all young conscripts, with duly anxious parents.

While well-equipped snipers also helped to keep the Israeli death toll low -- in 4,016 shooting incidents against outposts, just 12 Israeli soldiers lost their lives -- the very good protective equipment of the troops, including vehicles with advanced light armor and a unique set of mobile fortifications, also played a part.

But a much bigger reason for the failure of Arafat's offensive was that the Israelis were fully ready for it. In spite of the abrupt transition from the high hopes of peace to the outbreak of armed violence, there was no surprise, no shock, no confusion.

On the face of it, Israeli intelligence can claim the credit for anticipating Arafat's moves. But there was much more to it than that: When the shooting started, hundreds of separate army and police units throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were already on high alert, all personnel were already wearing their helmets and armor at all times, all radio and data networks were already up and running, all foot and vehicle patrols were being carried out in a full combat mode.

This could not have been achieved just by transmitting a last-minute warning; only a policy decision at the highest level could have set the machinery in motion.

Israel's security system, while technically admirable, is not, however, bringing peace any closer. On the contrary, by doing such a good job of limiting the damage, it is making indefinite conflict seem more tolerable and any fundamental decisions seem less necessary.

JWR contributor Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Edward N. Luttwak