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How Israel Became A Role Model In Fighting Terrorism

Since its creation, the Hebrew state has adapted to a permanent terrorist threat, thanks to a dynamic model of which the central elements are intelligence and the involvement of the civil society.

Israeli soldiers patrolling a street in the Palestinian city of Nablus in May 2016
Israeli soldiers patrolling a street in the Palestinian city of Nablus in May 2016
Nathalie Hamou

PARIS — In the wake of last month's tragedy in Nice, just like after the attacks in Paris on November 13th, the same solution was put forward for France: "the Israeli model," where the terrorist threat is part of daily life.

In Tel Aviv, military experts invited on television sets appeared to be modest, avoiding any kind of reference to an "Israeli anti-terrorist model." The Jewish state, whose people have been through seven wars and two intifadas since its creation, has become a textbook case for how to handle a permanent state of insecurity. This expertise could be a source of inspiration for European decision-makers.

In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, Cannes mayor David Lisnard called upon former Israeli Brigadier-General Nitzan Nuriel to help local authorities and emergency intervention teams prepare for a possible attack during the world-famous Cannes film festival. Last April Nuriel, who also headed Israel's anti-terrorism bureau from 2007 to 2012, conducted a terror simulation at the festival's convention center to test the city's reinforced security measures. He had previously carried out an audit based on lessons learned from the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the 2004 Madrid bombings, the two disasters professionals remember most.

One of his recommendations was to "secure the seafront" and enhance controls on all land and sea access points to the city of Cannes. Asked about the Nice attack, he told Les Échos: "I have the feeling France wasn't really prepared for such a disaster."

Ben Gurion, the world's safest airport

In the past 18 months, delegations of countries struck by terrorism have been visiting Israel's Ben Gurion International airport — considered the world's safest — to assess the country's fight against terrorism. A country where homeland security isn't the responsibility of the army, but of intelligence services and the police.

In February, former Nice mayor Christian Estrosi traveled to Israel, where he met the CEO of the Eagle Security and Defense company Giora Eiland, also the former director of the Israeli National Security Council. During his visit, Estrosi insisted on the need "to be at the forefront of the fight through intelligence against cybercrime, considering that radicalization is done through social networks." A field in which the Jewish state excels, as it is one of the world's pre-eminent cyber-powers along with the United States, China, Russia and the United Kingdom.

A third intifada?

Why is the Israeli approach so efficient? "For decades, Israel has been confronted with a multiform and disseminated threat," says David Khalfa, research associate for the think tank IPSE. "The country has suffered a series of terror attacks with an ever-changing modus operandi. Israel's anti-terrorism strategy has had to permanently adapt by taking on an approach based on anticipation and rapidity of reaction, with mixed results, but countries faced with an important terror threat are scrutinizing this experience," he says.

According to Khalfa, this threat has gone through important changes over four broad periods of time: First the 1970s with the attacks from the Palestinian fedayeen; then the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and its wave of suicide attacks; followed by the post-Oslo years during which Israel — faced with the second intifada — found itself targeted by rocket or missile fire from Hamas and Hezbollah; and now, the more recent escalation of car-ramming or knife attacks.

"Israeli anti-terrorism is based on defensive modes of action, such as safety barriers and military checkpoints, as well as offensive ones like infiltrations, preventive arrests, and targeted killings. This double-edged approach, coupled with its security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, allowed Israel to significantly bring down the number of major scale attacks, even though small-scale attacks by Palestinians with rudimentary means have taken over in the last few months," says Khalfa.

Intelligence as the cornerstone

The cornerstone of Israel's anti-terrorism system is the intelligence apparatus, which works in concentric circles: in the West Bank, at Israel's borders, and inside the country. Inside Israeli cities, the Jewish state relies on elite counter-terrorism units placed under police command, except for the former riot police unit Yasam, which now patrols on motorbikes inside Israel and directly answers to Shin Bet, the internal security service.

Israel can thus react extremely quickly in case of an attack, and Israeli civil society plays an especially important part in fighting terrorism. The army plays a crucial role, as every young Israeli is required to serve three years — two for women — under the flag. But there's also the fact that the authorities have made it easier to carry weapons, meaning that civilians can respond more quickly when there's an attack, not to mention the private protection companies which mushroomed at the beginning of the second intifada and its suicide attacks.

"The public's awareness and resilience are a key asset," explains Boaz Ganor, director of the International Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The authorities take many preventive measures, such as banning vehicles from circulating in entire areas altogether during major events and gatherings. Checkpoints and barricades are also erected, an action plan that was reinforced during the recent wave of terror attacks that killed more than 31 Israelis, 4 foreigners and 207 Palestinians, including 130 assailants, since the fall of 2015.

A population aware of the risk

While this cycle of violence has produced 140 attacks with knives, guns or ramming cars initiated mostly by young Palestinians considered "lone wolves," it hasn't had the same psychological impact as the suicide bombings of the second intifada. "We've experienced worse but the "knife intifada" has broken a run of six years of relative calm," says Ely Karmon, research director at the ICT. As a matter of fact, Israeli security forces have found themselves helpless against Palestinian assailants aged between 13 and 20, unknown to the intelligence services and acting mostly alone. But as usual, the operational adjustment has been swift: Blocks of concrete or metal rods were installed at bus stops to protect commuters and stop ramming attacks against exposed pedestrians, and the authorities raised awareness among the population.

Another defensive approach that's evolving is the monitoring of social networks. "Israel has invested heavily in this area," explains Khalfa. "Especially since it noticed the growth of ISIS's influence on certain young, self-radicalized Palestinians, for whom the fight is more in line with jihadism, as was recently observed in the attack in Tel Aviv's Sarona market."

That attack, on June 8, was carried out by two cousins from a West Bank village south of Hebron. They opened fire on people sitting at the terrace of a chocolate shop, killing four and wounding about fifteen people. According to Shin Bet's investigation, the two terrorists had decided to carry out an ISIS-inspired attack, but hadn't been officially recruited by the terror organization nor had they received help in the process. Against such attacks, even Israel hasn't found a solution yet.

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