The 20th anniversary of 9/11 offers an opportunity for an Israeli perspective, too, on the attacks against the United States. When the Al-Qaida terrorists crashed four hijacked passenger planes into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and a field in Pennsylvania, Israel was immersed in its own struggle against terrorism. The second intifada had erupted less than a year earlier. In the summer of 2001 the Palestinian terrorist organizations in the territories had begun focusing their efforts on suicide attacks. In the Middle East the use of “human bombs” began in Lebanon, after the invasion of the Israel Defenses Forces in 1982, but the Palestinians brought it to a height.
Until 9/11, these horrors were received in the West with a certain sympathy for the victims but without an iota of understanding for the actions Israel had to take to protect its citizens. Even afterward, things were not altogether smooth. The prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, feared that President George W. Bush would sacrifice Israel’s interests in order to bring Arab states into his coalition against terror. But by the end of 2001, when Israel uncovered the involvement of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in the attempt to smuggle the Karine A arms ship to the Gaza Strip, Bush was fully on Sharon’s side.
The Bush administration openly supported most of the tough measures introduced by Sharon: the assassination of terrorist operatives, military invasions of Palestinian cities and, finally, the reoccupation of the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. The more the Americans became entangled in their endless war on terror, which dragged them into bloodsoaked invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the more Israeli methods and approaches they adopted.
The George W. Bush administration, and to an even greater degree the administration of President Barack Obama even more so, killed terrorists throughout the world with attack drones, using methods that according to U.S. media reports were developed by Israel. The drastic security measures that were introduced in international as well as domestic U.S. aviation copied standards established in Israel decades earlier.
The Palestinians, who viewed suicide attacks as practically the only way to hurt Israel, persisted in using them for a few more years. Even nonreligious nationalist organizations, such as Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, began using this weapon (and terror attacks within Israel proper) in their efforts to compete against Hamas and Islamic Jihad for the hearts and minds of the Palestinians. But the continued use of suicide bombers in the national struggle for liberation turned out to be a serious mistake for the Palestinians, because it reduced the West’s support for their cause. From 2006 suicide attacks, even by the Islamist organizations, declined substantially. This can’t be attributed entirely to the effectiveness of the Israel “lawnmower” in periodically trimming the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. The decline was, at least in part, the result of a policy shift on the part of the Palestinian organizations.
The advent of the Arab Spring, in late 2010, led gradually to another shift: The West stopped ascribing all the woes of the Middle East to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It abandoned the notion that the Arab world’s problems would disappear the moment the Israeli occupation ended and a Palestinian state was established. Meanwhile, the fighting in Iraq and consequently in Syria spawned the Islamic State, a movement that was more extreme than even Al-Qaida, leading to a series of attacks by supporters of the organizations in France, Belgium, Britain and other European states.
In hindsight, Sharon got what he wanted. With the exception of the Democratic Party’s left wing, successive U.S. administrations demonstrated understanding for Israel’s difficulties and for most of the measures it adopted. Western Europe was less sympathetic, but military officers and intelligence agencies in these countries nevertheless were careful to stay on top of the methods and equipment that Israel developed.
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Despite a certain ideological affinity, and contrary to the claims of the Israeli right, the struggle of Hamas is not identical to that of Al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The latter two are not currently in control of a large, discrete territory and responsible for the welfare of its residents, as Hamas is in the Gaza Strip. (Islamic State controlled a large area for a few years beginning in 2014.)
However, the support of some Israeli leftists for the establishment of a Palestinian state sometimes slides into indirect justification of terrorist activity. One such nadir was recorded in 2001, on the first anniversary of the launch of the second intifada, when several left-wing organizations, including B’Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, published a newspaper ad with names of victims of the conflict from both sides. It included not only Palestinian civilians who had been shot by the IDF, but also the names of the perpetrators of the suicide attacks at the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium in June 2001 and a Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem two months later, alongside those of the victims.
That came to mind this week when a few starry-eyed journalists gushed over the courage of the freedom fighters who escaped from Gilboa Prison. The initiative and resourcefulness of the prisoners on their way to freedom should not be underestimated, but it’s best not to over-romanticize them. One of the escapees was convicted of murdering an innocent 18-year-old man whose only sin was to hitchhike in the West Bank; another was involved in detonating a boobytrapped car whose explosion killed Israeli civilians. If they can be recaptured without bloodshed, their escape is less likely to set off a new round of violence that could cost the lives of many people on both sides.