Yesterday, Israel and the Palestinians began the process of exchanging prisoners. One Israeli soldier captured five years ago in Gaza by Hamas is being returned while about a thousand Palestinian prisoners are being freed. This is not the first of such lopsided swaps. In 1985, the Israelis got a better deal: 1150 Palestinians were exchanged for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon. Over the past thirty years some 7,000 Palestinians and 19 Israelis — including several sets of remains — have been exchanged.
This latest prisoner swap reflects many of the basic dynamics of the war on terror. The Israelis have been fighting this war much longer than has the United States, actually from before the founding of the state of Israel. In many ways the Israeli experience is ours also and the lessons they have learned are ones the United States should study carefully.
The first lesson is that there are no winners in terror wars, only losers. The Palestinians cannot win and the Israelis have chosen not to win. Trans-border terrorism, which is what the Palestinians have for the most part conducted, cannot conquer a foreign country or even collapse its government. For its part, Israel chooses not to engage in the kinds of warfare that could end the terror campaigns. What Israel is doing, and what the United States must do also, is to outlast the terrorists while limiting their ability to harm us.
The second lesson is that both sides in terror wars tend to be insensitive to casualties. Yes, Israeli and Palestinian mothers alike mourn for their dead children. Yes, Israel has been willing to swap a thousand for one. But Israel too has suffered thousands of casualties over the past sixty years without breaking. Israel has abandoned forward positions in Lebanon and Gaza that were ultimately indefensible. But the stakes are so high, the very survival of the state of Israel, that even horrific casualty rates have proven tolerable.
The third lesson is that technology can be an effective counterweight to the terrorists’ advantages of stealthiness, surprise, geography and numbers, but it is not decisive. Israel has extensive experience with the strategy of identifying and targeting the terrorists’ leadership and infrastructure. It pioneered in the employment of unmanned aerial systems and precision munitions against high value targets. Israeli tactical intelligence has been the gold standard by which other countries measure their own capabilities to understand and attack terrorist networks. Israel had deployed the several batteries of the Iron Dome system designed to defeat short-range rockets. In the final analysis, it may be that the barriers Israel erected between itself and the Palestinians are more effective in countering terrorism than all the advanced technology. The history of the last sixty years strongly suggests there is no silver bullet that can defeat the terrorists.
The final lesson is that the war on terrorism must be waged internationally, even globally. Here again the Israelis led the way with operations as distant as Tunisia and on the high seas. Terrorist organizations must be denied safe havens. The focus right now is on a border crossing between Israel and Gaza where the prisoner exchange is taking place. But the decisive theater in Israel’s war on terrorism is more distant, perhaps as far away as Iran.
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