Recollections of Israel's Operation Defensive Shield, Ten Years Later

It was brutal, but restored normalcy on both sides of the Green Line and in essence suppressed terror activity.

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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made four critical decisions during the second intifada. In three cases, he set his ideology aside and ignored his basic instincts. He decided to build a separation fence, which significantly reduced suicide bombings in Israel; he did not assassinate Yasser Arafat ‏(it will be a surprise if this is ever proved otherwise; Sharon’s uncharacteristic restraint in this matter averted a rift with the Bush administration‏); and he led the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which drew broad international backing for Israel.

And then there was Sharon’s most important decision: Exactly 10 years ago, at the end of March 2002 and following months of hesitation, he sent Israeli troops into the dense casbahs of the West Bank cities and the narrow alleys of the refugee camps.

Colonel Amir BaramCredit: Daniel Bar-On

Some of the methods were brutal, but Operation Defensive Shield suppressed Palestinian terrorism, including Hamas and Fatah’s deadly suicide bombings. Though its impact was not fully apparent until three years later, the operation restored normalcy on both sides of the Green Line. Even though the second intifada claimed seven times as many Israeli lives as the Second Lebanon War, most Israelis seem to have erased it from their memory.

Sharon launched the operation despite the army’s misgivings. Even though 133 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks in the “terrible March” of 2002, the General Staff was apprehensive about reconquering the West Bank cities. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was uneasy about expanding military activity, and Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, who generally took a hawkish line toward the Palestinians, hesitated for a long time. Some of the generals were more outspoken in their opposition.

Intelligence officers warned that hundreds of Israeli soldiers would be killed. When the General Staff was presented with an aerial photo of one of the West Bank camps, one officer exclaimed, “It looks horrible.” Another told the defense minister: “I want it on the record that I warned you.”

“The behavior of some senior officers did not contribute to the Israel Defense Forces’ honor,” said one individual who took part in those discussions. Even though Israel sustained 20 casualties in the June 2001 Dolphinarium bombing, it took another 10 months − and the Park Hotel bombing in Netanya − for the operation in the West Bank to be authorized.

Israel Defense Forces field commanders at the brigade and battalion level, who had experienced Palestinian resistance during lightning raids on refugee camps, believed the mission was possible. Moreover, they argued, with civilians being slaughtered every day in Jerusalem and Haifa, the army needed to get to the suicide bombers and their bombs, even if this would cost soldiers’ lives. The pressure from the below persuaded Sharon to impose his opinion on the General Staff.

Overcoming the fear

“Operation Defensive Shield was first and foremost a question of decision making,” says Col. Amir Baram. “We had to be victorious mainly over ourselves, overcome the fear and enter a densely populated area saturated with explosives and enemies. We learned more about ourselves from the decision than we did about the Palestinians.”

This week we accompanied Baram, 42, now the commander of the Paratroops Brigade, to Mount Gerizim, for a view of Nablus, whose casbah his battalion conquered in Operation Defensive Shield. It’s barely a 40-minute drive from Glilot interchange just north of Tel Aviv to the Hawara checkpoint at the southern entrance to Nablus, which was used to enforce a suffocating siege on the city. The checkpoint is now unmanned, allowing free passage between Nablus and Ramallah. Baram says it’s good to see Nablus open again.

On the night of the 2002 Passover seder, the 890th Battalion, under Baram’s command, hosted the defense minister and the GOC Central Command in Gilo, the southern Jerusalem neighborhood that was still subject to occasional sniper fire from neighboring Beit Jala.

“Suddenly the two started receiving messages about the news from Netanya. I remember the horror. We never finished the seder. The next day, the whole battalion started advancing toward Nablus,” he recalls.

Operation Defensive Shield and the separation fence upended the intifada, he says: “Before the fence there was no efficient defense. The battalion was stationed in Tul Karm and the Shin Bet [security service] would warn that a suicide bomber was on the way. I knew there wasn’t much we could do other than

place soldiers on the road near Bahan and hoped for the best. We shifted onto the offensive quite quickly. We moved the whole battalion into the Tul Karm refugee camp to seal things before they could attack us. There was no time. If you missed a terrorist in Tul Karm, that evening you would hear about a bombing in Netanya. It’s hallucinatory − conducting a war meters away from civilians. At night we’d have shoot-outs in the refugee camp and in the morning we had coffee at Bat Hefer [a community on the Green Line].”

Everything about the fighting was very close and personal. “We had no qualms at all about the activity. We were defending our home. It wasn’t hard to persuade soldiers that they were arresting suicide bombers who otherwise would kill their families in the center of the country,” says Baram now.

The paratroopers in his unit had many tough experiences, “but they came out of it less scarred than my generation did in the first intifada. They had full moral justification. They were being shot at, and at home buses were exploding. That was the greatness of our brigade commander, Aviv Kochavi [now director of Military Intelligence]. He was able to put his finger on behavior issues. Anyone who tells you that there were no moral offenses during the intifada is lying. Members of our forces deliberately vandalized property, looted and stole. We also killed people by mistake. But we were able to check ourselves and mete out punishment where necessary, especially when people committed offenses that were not just judgment errors in the heat of battle.”

A third intifada is not in the cards, and is not inevitable, Baram adds: “The Palestinians had the price of the defeat seared into their consciousness. Ordinary citizens could not live a normal life. They remember that vividly.”

West Bank Palestinians are indeed better off now than they were at the height of the intifada and compared with their counterparts in the Gaza Strip. But the relative economic stability is no guarantee against a new flare-up. There is growing frustration in the West Bank, in part due to Israeli indifference.

The economic surge of 2008-2010 has slowed considerably, the settlements are continuing to expand and the political horizon has receded. The status of the Palestinian Authority has been eroded and its security organizations are widely viewed as Israel’s collaborators. Still, it’s unlikely that this anger will be enough to send the masses into the streets today, Land Day, as marches against Israel are planned in the territories and along Israel’s borders.

Inside and outside

This week Marwan Barghouti, one of the fomenters of the second intifada, spoke out from his prison cell, where he is serving five life terms. Barghouti, considered to be the designated successor to Mahmoud Abbas, called on the Palestinians to launch broad popular resistance against the occupation, or in other words, an intifada. He did not mean suicide bombers or shooting attacks, but first intifada-style demonstrations. He also demanded an end to security and economic coordination with Israel, as well as all forms of normalization. The question is whether he can fire up the masses from his jail cell.

Despite the relative security quiet, this is a dramatic time for Hamas, too. The members of the organization will soon choose not only its political bureau ‏(which functions like the movement’s government‏) and its chairman, but also the shura councils ‏(a quasi-parliament‏): the general one as well as those in Gaza, the West Bank, Israeli prisons and abroad. The current head of the political bureau, Khaled Meshal, announced in December that he does not intend to run again. Hamas sources say Meshal is likely to be appointed head of the bureau anyway as an expression of support by the organization’s members.

In recent weeks, Qatar, Sudan and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have been pressuring Hamas not to allow Meshal to step down. This might curb the attempt by some Hamas leaders in Gaza to undermine him. In any event, the focal point of the elections will be the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and

Fatah. Many senior officials in Hamas, led by Meshal, argue that ending the conflict with Fatah is a vital interest for the organization. Others, though, mainly the leaders in Gaza, view this development as a threat to the group’s rule in Gaza. The elections will likely show who won the argument.

A second issue concerns the prisoners released in the Shalit deal. Yihyeh Sanwar and other Hamas leaders who served time in Israeli prisons are likely to demand a spot in the organization’s political bureau. Anything else will be regarded as contempt. It is still too soon to say how the senior Hamas officials who recently returned to Gaza from Damascus will fare, or whether the military wing’s heads will entrench their power.

Power failure

A week ago, Hamas held a large rally called “Exposing the conspiracy against Gaza.” One of the movement’s leaders, Khalil al-Hayya, claimed that Hamas had reliable information indicating that Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and American representatives were holding secret meetings where they decided to ratchet up the economic pressure on the Gaza Strip to force Hamas to reconcile with Fatah. He accused Fatah of involvement in a plot to restore the siege on Gaza and promised “to strike at them with an iron fist.”

The purpose of the speech was mainly to give an excuse for the six weeks of power outages and fuel shortages in the Strip.

A., who lives in Gaza City, told Haaretz this week that the power supply is irregular, “six hours on, 10 hours off. There are no fixed hours.” Sometimes electricity is available only at night, when it’s needed less. There is hardly any fuel for cars, the elevators don’t work and the water supply ‏(via pumps‏) is unreliable. “It’s like we’re suddenly back in the 19th century,” he said.

For more than a year, Hamas obtained fuel to operate the Gaza power station by smuggling it from Sinai through the tunnels. But Cairo has had enough: Not only was Hamas getting fuel at the prices paid by Egyptians, rather than Egypt’s export prices, but the organization was also collecting fuel taxes and not sharing the money with Cairo. The huge demand for fuel in Gaza caused a fuel shortage in Sinai, and even in Egypt itself. So the Egyptians decided to halt the smuggling.

Hamas attributes the crisis mainly to the Egyptian transition government’s desire to make the Palestinian groups reconcile. Hayya’s declarations indicate Israel can rest easy: Palestinian reconciliation is becoming increasingly remote.

Hamas’ tough line is also significant for another reason. During the latest round of violence with Israel, the organization sat on the fence. Israeli intelligence believes Hamas will not be able to do so again. Competition from Islamic Jihad might induce Hamas to act.

This week, the IDF deployed Iron Dome antimissile batteries in metropolitan Tel Aviv, in the meantime only as an exercise. Paratroops commander Baram says that the “fear barrier” broken in Operation Defensive Shield has a parallel with respect to Gaza today.

“Maybe because of that I am less fearful of going into Gaza,” he says. “As in Operation Defensive Shield, until we pay a steep price and have our back to the wall − we don’t take action. I like Iron Dome just fine, but in the end it will play itself out. At some point, every dome needs a hammer next to it. And then we will have to dredge up from our memory what we did in Operation Defensive Shield.”

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