Former top IDF intel official talks to Haaretz about a gradual change in the rules of confrontation in the framework of the global war on terror.
At the height of the second intifada, until the middle of the last decade, Israel developed and enhanced a system of assassinations of terrorists which was euphemistically referred to as “pinpointed assassinations.” Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi (Farkash ) headed the IDF General Staff intelligence branch at that time. While the American assault force’s operation against al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was an operation on a much bigger scale than the Israeli actions and took place far from the borders of the United States, to a large extent it employed a similar format to that used previously by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service.Aharon Ze’evi (Farkash ), Will the assassination of bin Laden at the hands of the United States pave the way for similar moves by Israel in the future, against [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah or even [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad?
We must not forget that we are not a power. Not everything that is permitted to the Americans is permitted to us as well. But nevertheless, there is a gradual change in the rules of confrontation in the framework of the war on terror. A wider maneuvering space has been opened. Nassrallah understands that too. It is no coincidence that he so seldom leaves his bunker in recent years.
Is there greater legitimacy today, for Israel also, to make moves against heads of terrorist organizations that refuse to hold any kind of negotiations?
In the past, the countries of the West were opposed to the Israeli claim that no distinction should be made between the so-called political echelon and the “military” echelon in the terrorist organizations. There is an important message in the Americans’ decision to do away with bin Laden. It is not possible to distinguish between the leader and the operational echelon subordinate to him. The decision-makers have to be dealt a blow. Seven years ago, when we killed the senior Hamas officials such as Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, our approach was not accepted by the international community.
In retrospect, did the Israeli policy of assassinations prove itself at all? Did it not merely provide encouragement for revenge attacks and the continuation of the cycle of bloodshed?
Since Israel unfortunately suffered more terrorist attacks, it became a kind of experimental laboratory for the front line in this struggle. The assassinations were an important tool. It can’t be helped. These leaders don’t like committing suicide. It’s different than sending other people to carry out suicide missions for them. When they are being chased, they are less effective. The pinpointed assassinations are still a very important deterrent tool against senior leaders of the terrorist organizations. It is true that every terrorist leader can be replaced. Bin laden will also have a replacement. What is important is the continuum of assassinations that is directed at the heads of the organization and indicates to them that they too have something to lose.
The immediate question that a lot of Israelis asked themselves, following the reports of the American success, was: Why do we not succeed in locating Gilad Shalit who is not hidden at the other end of the world but just a few kilometers from our border?
Organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah have successfully learned our strengths and weak points. They understand what precautions must be taken in order to safeguard an asset like an abducted Israeli. I think that Israel shares the same determination to bring Gilad back home that the Americans demonstrated in striking bin Laden.
Here too we must find the right combination of circumstances – precise intelligence information, the ability to organize an operation within a few hours while the target is “hot,” a reasonable ratio between the chances of success and the risk that there will be losses – we still remember the failed attempt to rescue [kidnapped soldier] Nahshon Waxman – and the possibility of avoiding excessive collateral damage. To my regret, this is a combination that occurs very rarely.
I don’t agree with the claim that the Shalit affair is a resounding failure on the part of intelligence. If you had asked me about the American efforts to hit at bin Laden a month ago, what would we have said? We would certainly have described them as terrible schlemiels. I can safely say that tremendous efforts are being made and that it is possible that the right timing will enable such an operation to be carried it out in the future. Israel has excellent intelligence capability but things have to fall together. One cannot carry out a rescue operation at any price. If they had told President Obama that there was a great risk that the entire American force would be harmed, he would not have sent the troops to kill bin Laden this week.
Everyone is praising the Americans for their intelligence work in this operation. What does it actually mean?
We must give credit to the American intelligence agencies for their sustained effort. I know the significance of chasing a terrorist for years. The people who head the agencies change every few years. One needs a great deal of determination, perseverance, and a high level of organization in order to continue running an operation like this until it succeeds. In this era, there must be a combination of exact information, cooperation between the various intelligence arms and sometimes also with foreign services, and a very sharp capability on the part of the force that carries out the operation. Consider the ability shown here by the American forces: tremendous firing power, accuracy, self-confidence, the ability to hit those you have come to kill and to leave without a scratch. Zero casualties is not a result that is achieved by chance.
TV programs like “24” actually present these kinds of operations in a fairly realistic way. They are not science fiction. There is a never-ending puzzle of information that has to be collected and collated. Without a fusion of this information, the operation won’t work. Even what appears to be the most minute bits of information have tremendous importance. We saw that in the media reports: The fact that the compound in which bin Laden was living did not have Internet activity increased the Americans’ suspicions. Various kinds of intelligence gathering are in operation here: human intelligence, visual information gathering, and wiretapping and other signal intelligence. In the end, this combination of intelligence enables a warning to be issued to the fighter heading the force: “Don’t go into the yard now, there is suspicious movement there.”
By the way, I was somewhat surprised to see the presence of President Obama in the war room in real time, with the ability to watch on the screens what appeared to be the force in the field. As the head of the intelligence division, I didn’t want leaders and senior officers to enter the war room of the unit that was instructing the advance guard. I also tried not to go there. The commanders don’t need too many kibitzers giving them advice while the business is still going on. That could influence the effectiveness of the fighting force.