Exploding Myths

Why Israel’s war on terrorism is working.

Last week a suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis outside of Tel Aviv. Here is how a New York Times editorial reacted: “But as was sadly demonstrated again yesterday, no amount of military action can stop the suicidal madness. That can only happen if there is Palestinian moderation, Israeli restraint and progress toward an equitable settlement.”

You have probably read sentiments along these lines so many times that this reasoning sounds sensible. But it’s complete nonsense. First of all, the bomber came from the radical group Hamas, which openly rejects any peace with Israel and tends to strike anytime progress toward peace appears imminent. So, far from deterring suicide bombings by Hamas, an “equitable settlement” would likely have provoked more. Second, prior to Israel’s offensive in the West Bank, suicide bombers were striking at nearly a once-a-day rate. Since then, they’ve struck at a rate closer to once a month. Third, last week’s attacker came from the one location (the Gaza Strip) that Israel didn’t target. Imagine if the government gave flu shots to residents of every state except New York. If a flu epidemic then hit New York, would it demonstrate that flu shots can’t stop the flu?

When intelligent people (like the Times editors) believe something so wildly wrong, it’s usually because they’re in the grip of a theory that helps them to ignore real-world evidence. In this case, the theory is that Palestinians resort to terrorism out of despair. The corollary to this theory is that all Israeli military action will inevitably backfire since it simply makes Palestinians more desperate and angry. For those who believe this—a group consisting of most liberal newspaper editors, the foreign policy establishment, and virtually the entire outside world­—the case against Israeli military action (such as the recent one in the West Bank) is simply an a priori truth.

This fallacy also ignores history. Palestinian terrorism does not result from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but from Israel’s existence. Palestinian terrorism long predates the 1967 occupation; the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in 1964, three years earlier. But hasn’t the more recent phenomenon of suicide bombing come about because of long-simmering Palestinian despair? Not really. Suicide bombings started only after the 1993 Oslo Accords, which provided Palestinians with their best opportunity for a state. They intensified massively after Israel withdrew from Lebanon and offered a series of generous territorial concessions.

If anything, then, history suggests that Palestinian violence results not from desperation but from hope. I’m not saying things are quite this simple. People’s brains work in different ways. Some Palestinians are radicalized by despair and pacified by hope. For others the reverse is true. But historical facts mesh better with the idea that Palestinian violence results from Israeli weakness than with the idea that it results from Israeli strength. The Palestinians may never really accept Israel’s right to exist, but they may make peace if they conclude that destroying Israel is impossible.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s suppose that Israeli military crackdowns did increase the number of Palestinians willing to engage in suicide bombing. It still wouldn’t necessarily follow that crackdowns lead to more bombings. Why not? Because the number of suicide attacks depends upon more factors than simply the number of willing martyrs. Successful suicide bombings require plenty of other ingredients: the capacity to get past Israeli security (which necessitates training and, probably, fake identification); the ability to fashion hidden explosive devices; and the explosives themselves. Yes, some bombers use homemade ingredients, but they’re far less effective than the professional-grade stuff—such as the explosives that the Palestinian Authority imported from Iran. The choke-point in the production line is almost certainly not the number of volunteers. It’s the other ingredients. And it’s those ingredients Israel has tried to cut off, by arresting or killing terrorist leaders, seizing bomb-making equipment, and sealing off its borders.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect defense. But the other strategy—placating the Palestinians to the point where none of them are willing to serve as suicide bombers—is almost certainly worse. Even if an Israeli charm offensive could convince an overwhelming majority of Palestinians to reject suicide bombing, even a tiny minority of holdouts—say 100 or 200 volunteers a year out of a population of nearly 4 million—could sustain a massive terror campaign. Trying to protect Israel from suicide bombers by dampening Palestinian despair rather than fighting terrorism directly, then, is sort of like safeguarding your house by trying to give every potential burglar in town a well-paying job rather than installing an alarm.

Why, then, do so many well-intentioned people persist in subscribing to this fallacy? Because it’s intellectually convenient. “Putting aside the debate about the ethics of Israeli policy in the territories,” wrote Times columnist Nicholas Kristof last month, summing up the sentiment, “as a practical matter, from Israel’s own standpoint, Mr. Sharon’s policy so far has been worse than ineffective; it is aggravating the terrorism.” The whole appeal of this notion lies in the part about “putting aside the ethics.” Denying the effectiveness of Israeli military action forecloses any debate over its morality. It allows you to ignore the difficult trade-offs between Jewish and Arab interests by pretending the two are in perfect alignment: If Israel would halt its military incursions and withdraw from the territories, Palestinians would stop their terrorism, leaving both sides more secure. This makes for a lovely and comforting syllogism. If only it were true.