A New Perspective on Security (2002–2006)
In early 2002, a new perspective on security began to emerge in the Israeli government that was informed by the post–September 11 reality. The intifada that had begun in 2000 was considered to be of a different nature from that in the late 1980s, which had terminated with the Oslo Accords in 1993.
The first Intifada was seen in Israel as primarily a popular uprising through riots and demonstrations; the al-Aqsa Intifada, on the other hand, was seen as a “top down” conflict with direct connections to Arafat and those around him. Israelis argued that most Palestinians lived under the PA’s jurisdiction, and it had the ability to restrain the terrorists and to restore order if it chose to do so. They also argued that one man’s terrorist is everyone’s terrorist and cannot be called a “freedom fighter.”
Large-Scale Military Operations Begin
On February 27, 2002, the IDF began a large-scale military operation in several cities and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It ended about three weeks later with the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Bethlehem and Beit-Jalla on March 18. To that point, it was the largest-scale Israeli military response to the intifada, involving simultaneous actions in several locations in the West Bank and Gaza utilizing air, naval and ground forces. The operations included penetration into areas under full Palestinian control and into refugee camps that had hitherto been virtually off-limits to Israeli forces.
The Israelis struck at the terrorist infrastructure: people, weapons, tunnels for smuggling weapons from Egypt into Rafah in the Gaza Strip, weapons workshops and laboratories, and so on. This marked a shift, from the previous indirect Israeli effort of putting pressure on the PA to put pressure on the terrorists, to direct Israeli action against the terrorists. The Israeli operations had some tactical successes: Some rockets were captured, rocket producing workshops were destroyed, suicide bomber supplies were destroyed, various terrorists were arrested and some killed.
Operation Defensive Shield
The new Israeli policy became official under Operation Defensive Shield. It involved simultaneous actions in several locations in the West Bank and Gaza utilizing air, naval, and ground forces. Previous military incursions were narrowly focused and targeted limited areas. The decision to launch this operation was taken following the suicide bombing of the Passover seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya on March 27.
It reflected the belief of Israel’s government and public that Palestinian terrorism had reached intolerable levels and that Israel had to take drastic action to contain it because Arafat and the PA could not be induced to take real steps to stop terrorism and to promote that end.
Israel could rely only on itself.Israel had no illusions that a single military operation, however comprehensive, could eliminate Palestinian terrorism, but it did expect to strike a serious blow against the infrastructure that sustained terrorism.
That infrastructure consisted of the organizational framework and the individuals involved in terrorist acts and in the material support structures: command centers, weapons stores, explosives laboratories, and weapons factories. A heavy blow against this infrastructure could significantly reduce the operational capacity of the terrorist organizations and the scope of terrorist attacks. The method adopted was the temporary reoccupation of population centers in the West Bank where the infrastructure was located.
The extensive military operations carried out by the IDF in Operation Defensive Shield had several goals beyond establishing a new security reality favorable to Israel. These goals included neutralizing the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, highlighting the PA’s involvement with terrorism, and isolating Arafat, who was seen as the principal stimulator of violence. All of this was to be accomplished without escalating the violence into regional conflict and with minimal harm to the Palestinian population.
In a speech to the Knesset on April 8, 2002, Sharon announced:
IDF soldiers and officers have been given clear orders: to enter cities and villages which have become havens for terrorists; to catch and arrest terrorists and, primarily, their dispatchers and those who finance and support them; to confiscate weapons intended to be used against Israeli citizens; to expose and destroy terrorist facilities and explosives, laboratories, weapons production factories and secret installations. The orders are clear: target and paralyze anyone who takes up weapons and tries to oppose our troops, resists them or endangers them— and to avoid harming the civilian population.
Israeli tanks, bulldozers, soldiers, helicopters, and other forces and units moved into and laid siege to cities and towns. On March 29, Israeli forces entered Ramallah where they surrounded and partially destroyed Arafat’s compound. Israel also demanded that terrorist suspects hiding there be handed over. On April 1, Israel entered Bethlehem, and Palestinian gunmen took refuge in the Church of the Nativity on April 3.
This was followed by sporadic fighting, and the standoff continued for some time until arrangements were made for the exile of the gunmen to other locations. The forces also entered Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Nablus, and Jenin. Much of the terrorist infrastructure was destroyed, and the PA’s facilities were largely devastated.Israel’s operational methods were effective. Ramallah, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Bethlehem, and Nablus were overrun quickly with few casualties. Only in the Jenin refugee camp did the IDF encounter stiff resistance, and there it suffered relatively heavy casualties.
Outcome of the Military Operation
Defensive Shield accomplished most of its aims. Much of the terrorist infrastructure was destroyed. Hundreds of Palestinian gunmen were killed, and many others wounded. Thousands of suspects were arrested, including hundreds known to have been involved in terrorist acts. On April 15, the IDF arrested Marwan Barghouti, head of Fatah and Tanzim in the West Bank.
Barghouti, who served as the most senior official of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, had planned numerous suicide bombings and had even participated in shooting attacks. Thousands of weapons were seized, mostly rifles and handguns, but including weaponry banned by the Oslo Accords, such as antitank rocket launchers, mortars, and rockets. Dozens of explosives laboratories and weapons factories were uncovered and destroyed.
Headquarters were located, and documents and computers were confiscated. Prisoner interrogations and captured documents provided valuable information about terrorist organizations and their connection with the PA. Military pressure on the terrorist infrastructure also led to a steep decline in terrorist attacks while the operation went on, as Palestinians focused on protecting themselves.
The operation also had a political objective: to put pressure on Arafat by isolating him in his offices in Ramallah. The IDF took over the PA compound there and refrained only from entering the rooms in which Arafat and his aides were present. The discovery of documents linking Arafat and other Palestinian officials to known terrorists and the uncovering of caches of illegal weapons yielded unprecedented evidence of the depth of the PA’s connection to terrorist activity.
Within Arafat’s Mukataah compound in Ramallah, IDF soldiers found scores of munitions, pistols, automatic rifles, and empty suicide bomber belts. Also within Arafat’s compound, the IDF found official correspondence between the office of Fuad Shoubaki, PA chief finance and procurement officer, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.
The correspondence included procurement requests for bombs and ammunition, revealing that the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades was a bona fide group, with its own terrorist infrastructure and supply chain. In addition to the arrests of top Fatah officials and the discovery of documents linking Arafat to terror operations, the IDF found evidence of the close cooperation of Fatah with Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, especially in Jenin.
Operation Defensive Shield was a significant Israeli effort to convince the Palestinians, and especially Arafat, that an end to terrorism and violence was essential and that a failure to achieve this would incur a substantial Israeli response. Whatever the Palestinians had achieved in the occupied territories in the economic and social sectors and in terms of public services was now in a shambles as a result of the failure of Palestinian authorities to prevent, stop, respond to, or otherwise discourage anti-Israel violence since September 2000.