Separation is not the Answer
By Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, September 30, 2016
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 368
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Contrary to the accepted wisdom regarding the
effectiveness of barriers, there is no substitute for troops on the ground
and for civilian settlements that anchor a dominant presence. Israel needs a
flexible, dynamic form of security in full friction with the resident
populations. An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would therefore be
ill-advised, and a Palestinian state would in any case inherently undermine
Israel’s security. The best hope for both parties is coexistence within the
same geographical space.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Autumn 2016
issue of Fathom.
Providing security for a nation involves two aspects or questions. One
aspect is the practical matter of how best to defend a country’s existence.
This has primarily technical components, such as the location or height of a
barrier, and is a matter for experts.
But this is preceded by a core question that is intended for philosophers,
prophets and leaders, and is based on values and worldview. That is the
question of what a country is defending. In other words, what is its
essence? What is its reason for existence?
Nations should be constantly trying to maintain equilibrium between these
two sets of considerations.
The ‘values’ question as it relates to Israel’s defense – the question of
the purpose of a nation’s existence – was on display in April 1948. The
situation for the yishuv, the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, was
dire. The Negev as well as communities in the north were under siege, while
convoys were unable to reach Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. Faced with these
threats, David Ben-Gurion decided to focus the main operational effort of
his forces on Jerusalem.
This decision was influenced not by the technical recommendations of his
military experts, but by Ben-Gurion’s worldview as a Jew regarding the city’s
centrality. It hearkened back to the Jewish oath reflected in Psalms never
to forget Jerusalem.
A leader should not, of course, ignore what the experts say, but ultimately
his thinking must be influenced by the nation’s values. There is no simple
equation for how to achieve this balance.
One cannot discuss the defense of Israel without first touching on what it
is being defended for. We Israelis are not here simply to live securely,
soothed by promises that America will always protect us. If all I want is
security for Israel, I might as well bring the entire population to Tel Aviv
and build a huge fortress.
For that matter, we could just move to Palo Alto, which has a better quality
of life and greater opportunities. A US general once told me that “at the
end of the day, everyone wants the same things – restaurants that are open
until midnight and kids who can get safely to school.” He deeply
misunderstood me, because I can get all of that in New Jersey.
Jews in Israel may have swapped the threat of pogroms in Kishniev for the
threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. But when discussing security, it is
important to emphasize that there is something beyond safety, something that
lies in the realm of values and vision.
I believe the essence of Zionism is to live in the Land of Israel, the land
of our forefathers. We did not come here only for a Jewish majority or even
for mere sovereignty, but simply to live in this land.
Boots on the Ground and the Problem with Fences
Some say that Israel’s West Bank security barrier prevents terror attacks on
population centers. But when the Palestinians are on the other side of a
fence, an even worse security situation is created.
A fence is a closed system. Protecting it requires routine patrols and
cameras. Every mechanical system has points that can be bypassed. (In fact,
a reason for the delay in building the security barrier in the south Hebron
hills was that parts of it were stolen). An enemy that understands a
defensive fence can get around it.
I prefer a more open, flexible, dynamic form of security activity. Such a
system facilitates creativity and surprise, making it impossible for the
enemy to predict the movements of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This
involves constantly changing one’s pattern of activity, or altering the
locations of checkpoints (and on some days, not having any at all). It
encourages the IDF to take the initiative and prevents it from becoming too
Many Israelis believe that if we erect a fence, our problem with the
Palestinians will suddenly vanish. But the problem on the other side of a
fence often gets worse. Take Gaza, for example. Since the evacuation in
2005, Israel has been without any effective intelligence presence operating
in Gaza. Rather than protecting Israel, the fence that contains Gaza
actually restricts Israeli operations.
The withdrawal of an Israeli presence from Gaza and reliance on the barrier
shows that the moment Israel builds a fence and ceases to operate on the
other side, it allows the Palestinians to create a well-structured military
force. Such a force, which now includes Hamas battalions, brigades, and
command and control headquarters, can only be destroyed by war.
By contrast, if Israel receives information about, say, a bomb laboratory in
the West Bank, it can simply enter the territory with two jeeps and arrest
the suspected operatives without starting a full-blown conflagration.
Israel’s presence on the ground in the West Bank also makes it harder for
Hamas to organize there. A Hamas activist based in Hebron is rarely in touch
with his commander because the group has been forced to create heavily
compartmentalized units in which members and operations are only revealed on
a need-to-know basis. The moment Hamas begins to plan an attack in the West
Bank, the IDF can act to prevent it. In Gaza, Hamas is far more organized.
It has a headquarters from which it can plan, train for and carry out
attacks against Israel.
The current reality in the West Bank lies somewhere between war and peace.
It is not stable, but it is not radically unstable, either. It closely
resembles the form of life experienced by most residents of the Middle East.
The low-level daily friction that pertains from the current situation in the
West Bank is better for Israel than either of two alternative scenarios. The
first alternative is a situation of temporary periods of quiet followed by
serious war that causes significant damage to both sides (as occurred in
Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012,
and Operation Protective Edge in 2014).
The second scenario is withdrawal from the West Bank, which would inevitably
be followed by Israel’s having to recapture the territory during an
emergency. (Note that even Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza failed to provide
the country with international legitimacy for defending itself against
subsequent rocket attacks.)
There is now a closed fence around Gaza, and everything has become binary.
The entire area by the border is now built up. The fence around the Strip
means that everything near the border is well-fortified, making it harder
for the IDF to attack. Hamas knows exactly where the IDF will enter from.
Security as a dynamic movement has been completely lost. Instead, the IDF is
required to rely on air power.
This situation – which does not apply in the West Bank because Israel still
controls it – is the big disadvantage of the separation approach; what some
on the Israeli political left call the ‘we’re here, they’re there’ approach.
In 2006, I worked alongside an American general to determine how an army can
maintain surveillance without a physical presence. The Americans initially
believed that intelligence and operational superiority, coupled with
Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) that can strike from afar, would be enough
to create dominance without the need to put “boots on the ground.” But the
opposition was quick to adapt and went underground.
This happened to Israel during Operation Protective Edge. Hamas’s leaders in
Gaza disappeared, neutralizing Israel’s superiority. Nowadays, most of Hamas’s
rockets in Gaza are stored underground, and Israel finds it difficult to
defend itself against rockets launched from Gaza towards Ben-Gurion
International Airport and Tel Aviv.
Securing the Jordan River
One of the big challenges emanating from Gaza is weapons smuggling. Even the
Egyptians, who are in the midst of a battle with IS in Sinai, have been
unable to stamp out this phenomenon. One rocket-propelled grenade (RPG)
entering the West Bank would require changing the IDF’s entire modus
operandi. Israel would no longer be able to enter refugee camps in trucks
and would be forced to rethink how it buses children to school.
The only way to prevent smuggling into the West Bank is to control the
Jordan Valley and implement inspections. This has to be done by Israel; we
do not want Americans dying in order to protect us. Yet in order to securely
hold the Jordan Valley, the IDF also needs to maintain a presence further to
its west, on the mountain ridge along the eastern watershed of the Samarian
and Judean mountains. This area includes the Jewish settlements east of
Nablus, such as Elon Moreh and Itamar, as well as the Alon Road.
Holding the Jordan Valley without simultaneously controlling the mountain
ridge would render the IDF incapable of properly defending itself. Nor would
it provide even minimal strategic depth.
Before the Gaza disengagement, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon debated
whether to maintain a residual IDF presence along the Philadelphi Corridor
(the strip of land between Gaza and Rafah in Egypt) in order to prevent
smuggling. He ultimately decided against this because, just as in the Jordan
Valley, the corridor was too narrow to provide sufficient protection to the
soldiers who would have been stationed there.
The Changing Face of War and the Necessary Role of Settlements
In his book The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World,
British General Rupert Smith describes a new paradigm of conflict that he
calls “war amongst the people.” Smith argues that rather than being defined
by clashes between uniformed armies on a battlefield, the defining character
of warfare today is that it is increasingly fought between parties who are
among the civilian population.
Traditional experts disagree with me that warfare has changed significantly.
But this is like the difference between theater in the time of Sophocles and
21st century cinema. One can argue that they are both ‘theater,’ but the two
are completely different, with all manner of new tricks that can now be
brought to the stage.
Rather than the more static classic separation between defensive and
offensive operations as described in the works of Clausewitz, a better model
through which to deal with this new type of warfare is the hybrid dynamic
This so-called post-modern warfare is reflected in separatist fighting in
Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, as well as in other areas of the Caucasus where
civilians are on the front lines. Comparable aspects to this type of ‘in and
among the civilian population’ can be seen in Judea and Samaria.
The IDF only has 10,000 troops in the West Bank, but the mass presence
needed for security is in fact provided by Israeli civilians. Without them,
Israel would be unable to ensure its security. In fact, before the
disengagement from Gaza, the Israeli settlements – in the north, center and
south – contributed to Israeli security by allowing Israel to better defend
itself from attacks originating from Gaza.
The fulfillment of the Palestinians’ national aspirations clashes with
Israel’s security because a sovereign Palestinian state would endanger
Israel. Even if a Palestinian government tried to maintain a peace
agreement, there would be rejectionist groups that tried to undermine it.
One mortar hidden in a car and launched towards Ben-Gurion airport would be
a disaster, and this scenario is a real possibility even if a Palestinian
government tries to prevent it.
Moreover, in today’s world, anyone can build homemade weapons with dual-use
civilian materials such as iron pipes and chemicals, using instructions
found on the internet. Even a cell phone can be used for this purpose, as
the Americans learned in Iraq through the use of improvised explosive
devices (IEDs) against them.
Separation is not the Answer
The main idea behind the two-state solution is the creation of a binary
order in which two separate areas exist with no interaction between them.
When Haim Ramon and Ehud Barak advocate the ‘we’re here, they’re there’
concept, they are trying to convince the public to accept the Oslo Accords
even without the rosy vision originally promised of a new Middle East.
Instead, they advocate separation on the grounds that Israelis won’t have to
see Arabs anymore.
But the forced, binary separation between Israel and a state of Palestine in
the West Bank and Gaza would be a technical rather than an ‘architectural’
solution. It is entirely artificial.
A good example of an architectural rather than a technical security solution
occurred immediately after 1948. Following the armistice agreements between
Israel and Jordan, the old railway track to Jerusalem (which is on the
Israeli side of the Green Line) touched the Palestinian village of Battir on
the Jordanian side. This raised a security challenge.
A purely technical approach to the problem – the sort of approach Israel
would likely take now – would have been to build a huge fence. Instead,
Moshe Dayan came to an understanding with the villagers under which they
were granted permission to have direct access to their farmland (on the
Israel side) in return for ensuring the security of part of the train line.
Such complex human systems are all about balance. Total solutions only
appear in mechanical systems.
I believe Israelis have no choice but to live with Arabs. I also believe
that a hybrid phenomenon, what I call ‘emerging equilibrium,’ is developing
between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. This equilibrium reflects a
new order and offers much hope.
An example can be found in Nazareth, in northern Israel. Two national
entities share the same geographical space but are arranged in such a way
that each has places that reflect their own state or people. Jews and Arabs
in Nazareth coexist and work together, but their ways of life – their shops
and food and so on – are organized differently.
If we allow greater numbers of Palestinians to enter Israel to work, and try
to facilitate daily interactions that create life connections between
people, this type of model can ultimately emerge within the entire Land of
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research associate the
Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for 42 years,
commanding troops in battle on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. He was a
Corps commander, and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the
Greg Rosshandler Family