Yossi Alpher
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
April 16, 2012 - 12:00am

There are important lessons to be learned from Operation Defensive Shield, the Israel Defense Forces' aggressive push deep into the West Bank beginning in late March 2002. Both Israelis and Palestinians ignore these lessons at their peril.

Perhaps most obviously, at least from the Israeli standpoint, Defensive Shield was triggered by Palestinian suicide bombings. So, for that matter, was construction of the security fence (and in a few places, wall) that now separates most of Israel from most of the West Bank and that commenced more or less in parallel with the military move. The Israeli psyche--indeed, Israelis' attitudes toward peace with the Palestinians--was heavily influenced by the trauma of the suicide bombings, which were directed specifically at Israeli civilians.

At the time, most Palestinians supported the suicide bombings. These days, according to many surveys, roughly 50 percent still justify them, thereby significantly contributing to ongoing Israeli distrust of a Palestinian peace partner. It's safe to say that a new wave of suicide bombings would be a certain way to provoke renewed Israeli aggression against the Palestinian establishment perceived as supporting them.

Defensive Shield hastened the demise and death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and rendered his legacy highly problematic. Alongside his obvious accomplishment of moving the Palestinian issue to the center stage of international affairs and negotiating the Oslo accords and the creation of the PA, he is also remembered by Israelis as furtively supporting Palestinian violence toward them, including the suicide bombings. The decision by Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak to rely on Arafat as a peace partner eventually contributed significantly to discrediting the peace process among the Israeli public. Interestingly, I encounter more and more Palestinians these days who acknowledge this crucial flaw in Arafat and its disastrous consequences.

Today, in retrospect, with Israel's less-than-successful military operations in South Lebanon (2006) and the Gaza Strip (2008-9) behind us, Defensive Shield must also be understood as a reminder that Israel has great difficulty in dealing militarily with provocations by non-state neighbors on its borders. While these operations did succeed in generating a degree of deterrence, it is only partial and temporary deterrence. What exactly Defensive Shield "seared into the Palestinian conscience" (in the words of then IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon)--whether deterrence, hatred, a sense of futility, or a combination thereof--remains open to debate.

Nor did these major anti-terrorist military operations move us at all closer to political solutions. Today we contemplate a professional and capable Palestinian security force in the West Bank and a Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who has resolved to reject violence as a strategy. Yet we are probably further from a two-state solution in 2012 than we were in 2002, with Israel's leadership at least as deserving of blame as Abbas.

There remains one bizarre and even macabre historical coincidence to consider in the context of Operation Defensive Shield. The March 27, 2002 suicide bombing that triggered the operation was the Pesach attack on a hotel that killed 30 celebrants--the worst suicide bombing in Israeli-Palestinian history. It took place scarcely one day before an Arab League summit, meeting in Beirut, enacted the Arab Peace Initiative, the most far-reaching collective Arab peace proposal to date. The jarring juxtaposition of these two events, one unspeakably barbaric, the other projecting real hope for peace, has resonated ever since.

Sadly, the memory of the suicide bombing is still with us, and will be for a long time. Happily, so is the prospect for peace embodied in the API. But with the Arab world undergoing radical change, that may not remain the case for long.-


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