At the end of March 2002, following the Passover eve massacre in Netanya and a month during which 135 Israelis were killed by terrorists, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the IDF back into the Palestinian cities in a major military campaign dubbed Operation Defensive Shield.
That same year, Sharon gave final approval to begin constructing the security fence to keep terrorists from easily penetrating from the West Bank into Israel. Sharon had long opposed building a physical barrier, because he feared that any barrier erected would become permanent, and he was reluctant to do anything that might be construed as setting Israel’s final borders.
But Sharon’s acquiescence in constructing the security fence, as well as his decision to send the troops back into Bethlehem, Jenin and Nablus, came as a result of palpable insecurity that almost all Israelis felt at the time – the height of the Second Intifada.
To understand Israel today, to understand its lurch to the political right over the last two decades, to understand so many of the government’s actions, it is necessary to understand the real sense of insecurity that grips so many Israelis.
To understand Israel today, it is necessary to understand the real fear that a rocket can come crashing into your living room, or masked terrorists may emerge from a tunnel into your child’s kindergarten, or a deranged terrorist may drive his truck into a bus stop where you wait for a ride back home from work every day.
These concerns are real, they are immediate and they impact heavily on the government’s actions.
The Second Intifada fundamentally changed Israel in that it changed the equation regarding what is and what is not secure. Overnight the dangers in most people’s minds went from being far away on the borders to being in the coffee shops downtown. The Second Intifada and its rampant terrorism changed the Israeli psyche.
And it had a huge impact. Sharon responded to this sense of insecurity by going back into the Palestinian cities, and by building the security fence. The nation clamored for him to do something, anything, to fulfill the most basic obligations of any government – provide security to its citizens. This insecurity filtered up, and it impacted governmental decisions and policy.
That was then, and – as bad as it may seem – the level of violence the country is witnessing these days comes nowhere near the level during the heyday of the Second Intifada, when buses were being blown up every other week, sometimes every other day.
The trauma of the Second Intifada still lingers in the minds of most people. So when the current wave of terrorism hit – a baby run over at a bus stop, a 25-year-old woman stabbed to death, four men wearing tallit and tefillin slaughtered in the middle of morning prayers – that trauma is revisited, and it re-triggers a sense of intense insecurity.
And that has a real impact, because that insecurity is something that the government – any government – must respond to. Just as Operation Defensive Shield and the construction of the security fence were born of a sense of genuine insecurity by many Israelis, so, too, the insecurity felt by many in Jerusalem now will have an impact on governmental policy in the coming days.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed an angry, frustrated nation on Tuesday, just 12 hours after the brutal attack in a Jerusalem synagogue left four worshippers dead and eight others wounded. He spoke of a directive he gave earlier in the day to destroy the homes of the two terrorists responsible for the attack, to move quickly forward with plans to demolish the homes of terrorists involved in other attacks over the last month, to step up enforcement of the laws against incitement and declare illegal organizations that continuously incite against the state.
“This is a campaign that that will not happen overnight,” he said, girding the country for a long battle to tamp down the current round of terror.
“We need patience and will of steel, because our enemies are testing our resilience,” he said. “We know that, we have been here before. What is needed now is to unite around the things that we have to do. It is likely that some of the things we will do will be hard, I’m already saying that, and it is possible that we will have to use other means, beyond what I mentioned. I expect full backing in this struggle, which is right and just for Israel’s security.”
Although Netanyahu did not spell out the other steps he had in mind, among the ideas that have been floated recently include revoking the citizenship rights enjoyed by Israeli or Jerusalem Arabs engaged in terrorism; placing checkpoints at the entrance to Palestinian neighborhoods and villages in and around the capital; and sending security forces and border policemen on the same type of raids into the east Jerusalem night after night that proved so successful when conducted by IDF in the West Bank during the Second Intifada.
However, when one or more of these steps is carried out, television screens around the world will be full of pictures of wailing women in scarves standing over the ruins of demolished homes, or long lines of Palestinian workers standing in the driving rain at a checkpoint on their way to work, or heavily armed police firing tear-gas canisters into throngs of youthful Palestinian rioters. The country will protect its citizens, even if doing so means taking actions that do not look good on television.
The images will be painful, difficult to bear, triggering many to ask what in the world Israel is trying to do. And the answer will be simple: trying to provide basic security for its people, a people once again very worried about the safety of their loved ones.
Herb Keinon is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. Originally from Denver, he has lived in Israel for more than 30 years. He has been at the Post since 1985, and has covered the diplomatic beat since 2000.