Whatever they may have accomplished or failed to accomplish politically, the Oslo accords of 1993 between Israel and Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization have transformed Israel’s security situation in ways that have still not been squarely faced. Much of the territory in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day war is now governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
This embryonic state already possesses a large, militia-like police force comprising some 40,000 men; depending upon the outcome of present negotiations, it may come to acquire a combination of paramilitary and military forces as well.
Although Israel will undoubtedly retain military superiority over its fledgling Arab neighbor, the threat it poses in combination with the rest of the Arab world is already significant, and is certain to grow with time.
Despite its obvious strategic strengths, Israel has chronically suffered from two Achilles’ heels that make its defeat militarily thinkable. The first is demographic.
Israel’s minuscule population, combined with the sensitivity of Israeli society to the loss of life, casts a giant shadow of doubt over the country’s ability to withstand an extended conventional war with the surrounding Arab world. If its enemies could force upon it a conflict lasting months or years, they would significantly improve their chances of prevailing.
The Israeli response to this long-standing problem has been to accelerate the moment of cease-fire by rapidly transferring the battleground to enemy territory and/or attacking the enemy’s infrastructure by means of air power.
Of much greater importance, however, is the second Achilles’ heel, which is geographic. The tiny area of the Jewish State, together with its over-reliance on reserve forces (itself partly a product of the country’s demographic weakness), casts a giant shadow of doubt of another kind altogether: namely, over its ability to withstand a lightning strike.
An enemy’s penetration into the heart of Israel could prevent the mobilization and equipment of its military reserves in addition to interrupting many other vital operations. To this second problem the traditional Israeli response has been a very fast system of mobilization-since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the entire procedure has been designed to take no more than 24 hours-plus the reliance on superior air power to abort an enemy’s attack on the first day of battle.
This is where Oslo comes in: the influx of Palestinian forces into Israel’s center has greatly exacerbated the problem presented by the country’s second Achilles’ heel, to the extent that a total collapse of the overall strategic balances now possible. How so? The approximately 40,000 policemen now at the disposal of Arafat are already organized into a semi-military structure. They are known to have some 30,000 automatic weapons in their arsenal, along with a significant number of machine guns, light antitank missiles, grenades and rocket-propelled grenades, land mines and explosives. They may also have, or be able surreptitiously to obtain from Arab countries, more advanced weapons, including handheld Strela and Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Obviously, these forces are not going to defeat the armed might of Israel in battle. But if; even as currently constituted, they were to be deployed in a coordinated fashion in the opening phases of a broader Arab assault, they could wreak havoc of a decisive kind.
A good portion of the Palestinian police is installed in the towns of Qalkilya, Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Jenin on the West Bank-in other words, in areas adjacent to Israel’s most vulnerable sectors, military and civilian alike.
These nerve centers of Israel’s life could be successfully infiltrated by a mere 10 percent of the Palestinian police force, thus transforming them into a crucial front in a comprehensive regional conflagration.
Crossing Israel’s 1967 borders in small fighting units of ten to twenty men, these 4,000 men could make their way in civilian vehicles along a labyrinthine network of roads and paths with which they are intimately familiar. They would need no more than an hour to reach extremely sensitive points in the heart of Israel.
Once there, they could wholly subvert the 24-hour mobilization strategy Israel relies on to fend off the far larger armies of its Arab adversaries.
If Israel were still at the initial stages of an alert, the enormous numbers of its as-yet-unarmed reservists streaming to arms depots and mobilization points would form attractive prey. Gaining control of key intersections or other advantageous locations, the Palestinian guerrilla units would be in a position to create chaos on the roads that serve as the primary arteries of mobilization and, in all probability, to kill large numbers of would-be fighters. They could also attack some of the mobilization centers themselves, most of which are not only within easy striking distance of the West Bank but are also lightly guarded. The damage that can be inflicted by small units operating against the vulnerabilities of a larger and more powerful adversary is not a matter of speculation. Among the wealth of cases that one could cite, some are from Israel’s own military past.
During the 1982 war in Lebanon, for example, a few dozen young, untrained Palestinian fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades operating from hills and orchards proved far more effective in delaying Israeli traffic on a vital military highway than batteries of cannons and Katyusha rockets launched from a distance. If mini-units of this kind can succeed against heavily armored columns, how much more damage could they inflict on buses and cars filled with unarmed reservists making their way to equipment depots?
Nor do key thoroughfares, intersections, and mobilization centers exhaust the list of possible targets. In all its wars, Israel has depended heavily on the ability of its air force to gain mastery of the skies at the outset. But most Israeli air bases are quite exposed to guerrilla attack, being located within 20 to 40 kilometers of Palestinian territory. British commando operations in World War II are testimony to how easily an enemy can penetrate such installations. Leading small teams of men, Colonel David Starling of the Special Air Service successfully destroyed 250 German warplanes parked on the runways of military airfields located many kilometers behind Rommel’s front lines on the North African front.
Palestinian soldiers need not actually penetrate air bases, as Starling did, to achieve their goal. Lying hidden in the foliage of orchards or farmlands outside an airfield’s perimeter fence, they could employ light mortars or handheld anti-tank or surface-to-air missiles to strike Israeli planes. In previous conflicts, the Arabs have never been able to counter Israel’s superiority in the air; a surprise ground attack on its planes would thus undoubtedly present an appealing option to Arab war planners.
Finally, targeting the military is not the only means by which a broad series of Palestinian commando attacks could contribute to an effective Arab assault. Terrorist raids on residential neighborhoods or the seizure of national television and radio stations might serve to promote widespread demoralization and civilian flight.
Another set of potential objectives consists of technical installations: the electric power plant in Hadera, the oil refineries of Haifa, the chemical tanks of Gelilot, or the switchboards, transformers, and distribution boxes of the Bezek national telephone company. Power outages, huge blazes near Israel’s large cities, and temporary interruptions of communication lines would all serve to paralyze if not cripple Israel in the early phases of a war.
Are there no effective counters to the peril posed by the armed Palestinian police? Of course there are, at least in theory. For example, Israel could fortify its border with the Palestinian Authority in particularly vulnerable sectors. It could also draw upon reserve soldiers on kibbutzim to establish lightly armed, mobile patrol teams designed for immediate intervention in any threatened locality. Alternatively, several thousand infantry soldiers could be transferred from fighting units and assigned to a light militia scattered at different points in the Israeli rear.
Whether such measures would work if put to the test is another question. But that aside, there is, in fact, little evidence that Israel’s military or political planners are giving serious attention to this or any other aspect of the ongoing transformation of the county’s security position.
A number of factors are at work here. For one thing, Israeli military officials, focusing on the extreme relative weakness of the Palestinian forces and the fact that an operation involving dozens of separate guerrilla units against Israel has never been attempted, simply discount the possibility of a synchronized assault. For another, they appear to believe that Israeli intelligence would definitely enjoy between 12 and 24 hours’ warning in advance of any large-scale attack, an interval sufficient to seal the borders. And even if a limited incursion were to occur, they argue, attack helicopters could provide sufficient defense for border areas.
These are all questionable assumptions. History seldom serves as a certain guide to future behavior, and to rely inflexibly on precedents is to set oneself up for a shock.
It is especially foolish to depend on fixed notions of warning time: Israel’s worst military fiasco occurred when it was caught unprepared by the Egyptian attack in October 1973.
Besides, it is not inconceivable that a future Palestinian government, in coordination with the major Arab states, would opt to invade with almost no advance field preparations, in a kind of “get-in, go-shoot” operation wherein commando teams would be dispatched into battle with only an hour or two of notice. This would not only achieve the element of surprise but likely increase the number of Palestinian saboteurs who could be infiltrated. Finally, since these infiltrators would need to traverse but a very short distance before being in a position to wreak major harm, and since any battles that ensued would be taking place in heavily populated areas, attack helicopters would be next to useless, if not calamitous, as a means of response.
Perhaps the most dubious supposition of all, however, is one now being bruited about in Israeli political circles. This is that the Palestinian leadership would itself be reluctant to see a decisive Arab victory over Israel, out of fear that the new Palestinian political entity would then inevitably slip under the control of either Egypt or Syria, two military giants with claims on Palestinian/Israeli territory. Since, in other words, the Palestinians have a vested interest in Israel’s survival, they would not participate in any such operation. But this line of thinking is speculative in the extreme, and the very fact that it is seriously on offer suggests how eager many Israelis have become to avoid facing the still very menacing realities of the Middle East. One does not have to go far back into the past for an example of a much greater degree of realism.
Here are the words of Shimon Peres in 1978:
“The influx of a Palestinian fighting force (more than 25,000 armed fighters) into Judea and Samaria [would signify]… an excellent starting point for mobile forces to advance immediately toward the infrastructure vital to Israel’s existence.”
Even after he negotiated the Oslo accords, Peres did not alter his gloomy estimation. As he argued in The New Middle East (1993), the situation created by an armed Palestinian State would be strategically fraught with catastrophe: the [country’s] narrow “waist” will be susceptible to collapse by a well-organized surprise attack.
Even if the Palestinians agree to demobilize their state from both army and weapons, who can guarantee Israel that after a certain amount of time an army will not be formed, despite the agreement, which will camp at the gates of Jerusalem and the approaches of the coastal plain, and pose a substantive threat to Israel’s security? This, indeed, was the ground of Peres’s opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet what was self-evident a mere six years ago to Israel’s most determined advocate of negotiations with the Palestinians is now being dismissed in the rush to conclude the “peace process.”
Almost 2,500 years ago, according to Thucydides, the Greek statesman Themistocles succeeded in persuading his fellow Athenians to transform their city-state into a naval power. Yet despite the vast strategic superiority it thus acquired, Athens still remained vulnerable to a simple, surprise ground attack from Sparta. In order to protect and ensure access to its new strategic assets-that is, its advanced navy and port facilities-Themistocles advocated linking the city of Athens to its port at Piraeus by means of two parallel walls.
Like ancient Athens, Israel enjoys strategic superiority over its neighbors, primarily in the realm of aeronautics and technology. Over the decades, whenever armed hostilities have broken out, this advantage has permitted Israel to strike at its enemies’ rear in a manner that has eventually led to victory at the front.
After 1967, Israel also enjoyed its own “walls of Themistocles,” in the form of the geographic expanses of Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank.
These double walls are what enabled Israel to survive the successful surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack that opened the 1973 Yom Kippur war but that was neither penetrating enough nor quick enough to take control of Israel’s “Piraeus”- its airports, its reserve bases, and the like.
The deployment of light Palestinian forces throughout the West Bank has already collapsed Israel’s eastern “wall” of mountains and the Jordan River, neutralizing their vital function of protecting against a sudden lightning strike aimed at the country’s soft eastern flank. Indeed, if we were to consult Themistocles, he would assuredly advise us that the current Israeli defense posture is absurd. On the one hand, the state invests billions of dollars in building a modem army; purchasing state-of-the-art warplanes and constructing modern airfields; equipping and training reserve battalions; and deploying Arrow missiles. All this is right and proper and necessary. But on the other hand, it has permitted a situation to develop in which these selfsame modern, expensive systems are liable to be rendered irrelevant.
On the basis of such wishful thinking, battles, and wars, are lost.
Yuval Steinitz, a new contributor is a senior lecturer at Haifa University and the author of four books in the fields of philosophy and the philosophy of science, as well as numerous articles in Hebrew-language publications on military strategic issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Formerly an activist in the Peace Now movement, Mr. Steinitz now serves as a member of Israel’s parliament (Knesset) for the Likud party.