From the attack by Arab mobs wielding hatchets and knives on the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem in 1920 to recent attempts by Arab youngsters to knife individual Jews, we have witnessed 96 years of terror acts waged by Palestinian Arabs against the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.
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The riots of 1920 were followed a year later by attacks on Jews in Jaffa, and culminated in the attacks by Arab mobs on Jews in Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed in 1929. The reaction by British police forces was inadequate, and the Jewish community was as yet not organized to deal with these outbursts of violence. They caused considerable loss of life, but did not succeed in halting the Zionist enterprise.
The major Arab effort to reverse the course of events in the Land of Israel was the Arab revolt of 1936-39, in which gangs of armed Arabs attacked Jewish and British targets. It was suppressed by the use of drastic measures taken by the British forces. Thousands of Arabs were killed, and over 100 were hanged.
The Jewish community was consumed by a debate on how to respond to this wave of violence. The official line taken by the Jewish Agency and its military wing, the Haganah, was to practice restraint and not retaliate in kind, despite the loss of life.
The contrary line was taken by the Revisionist Movement’s armed wing, the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (led by David Raziel), which believed that Arab terror against Jews should be answered by terror attacks against Arabs. Actually, members of the Haganah participated in the Special Night Squads led by Orde Wingate, which practiced collective punishment against Arab villages. The Arab Revolt was suppressed but, nevertheless, succeeded in bringing about a change in British policy in Palestine. This resulted in the White Paper of May 1939, limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine and preventing the escape of many Jews from Europe to Palestine.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, we have seen “spectacular” acts of Palestinian terror, like the hijacking of commercial aircraft and the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Measures taken by the Israeli security services have been effective in preventing additional acts.
The first intifada lasted for over three years. A large number of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip participated in demonstrations, strikes and rock-throwing at passing vehicles. It was a situation I inherited when I took over the Defense Ministry from Yitzhak Rabin in 1990. A concentrated effort by the Israel Defense Forces and the security services, targeting those throwing rocks at cars, brought the intifada to an end within a year.
During the second intifada, which spanned the years 2000-2005, suicide bombers were the terrorists’ weapon of choice. Over 1,000 Israelis lost their lives, leading to the entry of IDF troops into West Bank cities during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002.
The present wave of Palestinian terror differs from all the others. Terror acts are being committed by individuals or pairs, using knives, guns or ramming pedestrians in the street. It makes for one-on-one encounters where the victim, civilian or soldier – if he is alert and, better yet, armed – can frequently stop the threat. Seemingly on the wane at the moment, the terror wave has only harmed the Palestinian cause – as was the case with both intifadas.
The recent incident in Hebron where a terrorist, seemingly already disabled, was shot to death by a soldier, has engendered a public debate even before the results of the IDF’s judicial procedure have been completed. It has highlighted the ethical problems facing the IDF and individual soldiers when facing attacks by terrorists.
Without prejudging the conclusions of the judicial procedure, it is important to be aware of the dilemmas facing individual soldiers in such a situation. They were addressed by Col. (res.) Yaakov Hisdai in a recent opinion piece in Makor Rishon. “The attempt to obligate one side to respect the laws of war, while the enemy holds them in contempt, is not self-understood from the moral point of view,” he writes.