Israel’s Security System Truly Worth Emulating

The Nation Is Able to Balance Democracy and Safety

By Gregory J. W. Urwin

(Reprinted by Permission of the Philadelphia Enquirer,

original article date June 27, 2007)

 

Ever since the Twin Towers disintegrated into rubble Sept. 11, 2001, the cries of "Death to America!" coming from Arab streets have sounded more ominous than simple posturing. The recently squelched plot to blow up JFK Airport and the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power fill Americans with unspoken dread that catastrophe lurks.

That's just how terrorists want us to think. Terrorism may seem to be arbitrary and senseless killing, but it's actually sophisticated psychological warfare. Terrorists (and the states supporting them) seek to foster fear and panic in order to change the policies of nations they cannot defeat by conventional means.

The United States faces a twofold challenge in battling terrorism. While striving to deter attacks by enemies foreign and domestic, it also must avoid sacrificing the basic freedoms and quality of life that ensure the loyalty of most Americans to their government.

America should learn from Israel, a country under constant threat of attack.

To gain a better appreciation for how a functioning democracy can successfully practice counterterrorism, I joined more than 40 other American college professors in late May for 10 days as an academic fellow of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Israel (FDD).

The FDD provided us with unparalleled access to almost every level of the Israeli security system, from its National Security Council to various units of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and National Police. We even visited a maximum security prison housing convicted terrorists and spoke with representatives of Hamas and the Popular Front.

Israel's efforts to thwart terrorism seem so much better coordinated than ours. As a small nation that prizes results, it has developed a security system free of the institutional overlap and bureaucratic turf wars that dog its American counterpart. The National Police and Israeli Security Agency battle terrorism within Israel, while threats emanating from outside the country are handled by the IDF and Mossad (Israel's version of the CIA). All four organizations share intelligence and readily work together in other ways.

All Israelis are required to serve three years in the military (with the exception of ultra-Orthodox Jews and most Israeli Arabs), creating a populace that is equipped to take crises in stride. Israeli citizens lead normal lives when they aren't under direct threat. The Tel Aviv hotel that the FDD academic fellows made our base from May 26 through June 6 sat less than 50 miles from where Qassam rockets fired by Hamas operatives in Gaza hit Israeli soil. Yet, Tel Aviv's residents went to work or school during the day and filled the city's restaurants and clubs at night.

The Israeli approach to counterterrorism offers a balance between restraint and ruthlessness. Every restaurant and facility able to accommodate 500 or more people must have an armed guard on duty. It is a sobering experience to hand your luggage to a bellboy packing a Glock automatic pistol.

As a democracy, Israel observes higher ethical standards than many of its enemies. Besides being admirable, that policy is also wise in a public-relations sense, for Israelis are aware that much of the world does not wish them well and views them as oppressors rather than victims. At the same time, Israeli security personnel are prepared to cause lengthy traffic jams to disrupt terrorist timetables or to kill terrorists before they can blow up crowded nightspots or school buses. While the IDF tries to avoid collateral damage, it accepts the possibility of civilian casualties if the objects of targeted kills are dangerous enough.

Israel has found ways to cope with terrorism without stifling internal dissent or abrogating the rule of law. While putting security first, it has avoided turning itself into a modern Sparta or a repressive police state. America could learn much from its long-time ally as it strives to better safeguard itself.