SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Jerusalem -- The two rapid-fire suicide bomb attacks that rocked this nation Tuesday -- just days after Israel attempted to assassinate the top Hamas leaders as they sat down to lunch in Gaza -- have revived questions about Israel's campaign to quash Palestinian terrorism.
Critics argue that Israeli attacks such as the bombing Saturday that narrowly missed killing Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin underscore Israel's impotence in the face of Palestinian resistance and only provoke retaliatory attacks. But Israeli policymakers say the Palestinians' refusal to take responsibility for securing areas under their control has forced them to target the terrorists themselves and their masterminds.
In the past three weeks, since a suicide bomber killed 22 people in Jerusalem on Aug. 19, Israel has killed a dozen Hamas leaders. If Saturday's raid had succeeded, then it would have claimed the life of Yassin and at least 10 others, including the group's chief bombmaker, Mohammed Deif.
Afterward, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Hamas leaders that they were "marked for death," and Hamas threatened unprecedented revenge, saying Israel had "opened the gates of hell" with its attempt to assassinate Yassin.
The relentless attacks are part of a campaign to eliminate -- or at least intimidate -- the militants.
"Israel's purpose is to reconstruct deterrence on the terrorist front as well as we have managed to maintain it on the conventional (military) front for the past 30 years," said Eran Lerman, a former military intelligence colonel who is Jerusalem director of the American Jewish Committee. But Lerman cautioned that the strategy must be carried out carefully.
"Deterrence is never an isolated concept -- it's not just a matter of how much pain you can inflict on the other guy," he said. "If you do it in an illegitimate way, you lose diplomatically, and the other guy has scored on the strategic level."
DIFFERENT STRATEGIES USED
Faced with the constant threat of terror attacks, Israeli policy has gone through several distinct phases since the outbreak of the intifada three years ago.
At first, Israel used diplomatic and financial pressure to try to persuade Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to crack down on the militants.
When this failed, Israel began targeting suspects defined as "ticking bombs" -- people suspected of preparing an imminent attack on Israelis -- and assassinating them in extrajudicial killings. At the same time, it stepped up military pressure against the Palestinian Authority, bombing their buildings and isolating Arafat. But that tactic only seemed to inflame the intifada.
Now, Israel is going after the leadership of terrorist groups -- and it appears to know where to find them.
In its anti-terror campaign, Israel draws on a vast array of sophisticated and frequently top-secret devices, but insiders say the most-potent tool in the Israeli armory is the stool pigeon.
"Palestinians snitch on one another habitually, to the point that Israel will eventually know where all of these leaders are," said Dr. Michael Oren, a former Israeli army officer in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon, and author of the highly acclaimed history book "Six Days of War."
Israeli officials say their first priority is defensive -- to prevent terror attacks wherever possible.
"We have invested a lot of our capability in following the preparation of terror attacks against Israel," said Edad Shavit, a senior analyst in Israeli military intelligence.
As Tuesday's suicide bombings illustrate, even this aggressive campaign has failed to provide insurance against terror attacks. But Israeli authorities say they are determined to proceed and are making progress in pinpointing high- level targets within the militant groups.
Since the reoccupation of the West Bank last year, Israeli intelligence officials have been working furiously to rebuild the information networks they neglected during the years after the 1993 Oslo peace pact.
"The quality of 'humint' (a military term for human intelligence) flowing to Israel has been growing remarkably, and it's not just because of money," said Lerman. "There is a sense that Israel is serious -- and serious about protecting its sources. There are also elements in Palestinian society who are sick and tired of seeing what these people are doing and where they are dragging the rest of their own people."
In the vanguard of Israel's war on terrorists are the mistaravim, or "secret Arabs" -- Israelis who look and sound like Palestinians -- who infiltrate target areas and mingle with the local population.
Israel also taps phones and e-mails, deploys highly sensitive listening devices and launches unmanned, silent drones equipped with state-of-the-art video and photographic equipment.
Once the intelligence is in hand, Israelis can deploy an impressive array of deadly material, from laser-guided missiles to sniper rifles equipped with liquid hydrogen-operated night vision equipment able to hit a target more than a mile away in complete darkness.
"The Israel Air Force's strike techniques for carrying out 'targeted killings' appear to have been refined successfully, so that far fewer innocent bystanders are hurt," said political analyst and former Mossad agent Yossi Alpher.
Indeed, the Israeli army says that one of the reasons the attack on Yassin failed was that it used a relatively small 550-pound laser-guided bomb in order to minimize civilian casualties.
But Alpher has deep misgivings about where this campaign is leading.
"The trouble is that Prime Minister Sharon is now liable to conclude that his best option is to fully reoccupy the Gaza Strip in order to eliminate Hamas," Alpher told an online forum of American Peace Now, adding that without a viable political solution, "this is a recipe for yet further deterioration of the situation."
That view is shared by Gen. Shlomo Gazit, a former head of Israeli military intelligence.
"The Palestinians are using their weakness in the balance of power in their own favor," said Gazit. "Withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip is the only act that can save Israel from self-destruction. If the army does not change its military doctrine, we are doomed."