By Jackson Diehl
Monday, September 27, 2004; Page A19
Two and a half years ago this week, the Israeli army launched an offensive against the Palestinian towns of Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem -- which, it said, had become havens for extremist groups and suicide bombers who made daily life in Israel unbearable. Images of flattened houses and civilian casualties soon filled the world's television screens: Palestinian spokesmen claimed, falsely, that thousands were being massacred. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan declared himself "appalled." President Bush publicly called on Israel to withdraw "without delay." Some editorial writers -- such as this one -- argued that the offensive would do more harm than good.
As Americans and Iraqis now debate what to do about insurgent-held Iraqi towns, it's worth revisiting that Israeli campaign -- because what followed offers a counter to some of the conventional wisdom. Yes, there are innumerable differences between the West Bank and Iraq. And yet the salient point is that through the robust use of military force, Israel has succeeded in reducing the level of violence it faces by more than 70 percent.
Despite occasional feints at diplomacy, the strategy pursued by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been unadulterated. Israeli forces have invaded and swept Palestinian towns and refugee camps repeatedly. They have carried out hundreds of "targeted killings" of suspected militants, often through air strikes. They have assassinated the Islamic clerics and political leaders who inspired the bombers. Not only has this relentless warfare not been leavened with reconstruction projects or a nation-building program, but Sharon has done his best to destroy existing Palestinian political and governmental institutions.
Yet it's now undeniable that the "military solution" that so many believed could not work has brought Israelis an interlude of relative peace. In 2002, 228 Israelis died in 42 suicide bombings; in March 2002, as Sharon launched his offensive, 85 died in nine attacks. This year there have been 10 suicide bombings and 53 Israeli deaths; last week's bombing in Jerusalem was only the second such bombing in more than six months. While the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement remain dismal, and no one expects the violence to end, life in Israel has returned to something approaching normal.
The cost in lives has been lower than commonly believed. For example, in the invasion of Jenin's refugee camp, Israel wiped out the leadership and infrastructure of terrorist organizations responsible for more than two dozen suicide bombings. But human rights groups later documented only 52 Palestinian deaths, of which 22 were civilians. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers died. Since 2002, Palestinian deaths have declined along with those of Israelis. The uproar over the offensive, and what has followed it, has seriously eroded Israel's standing in Europe and elsewhere. But the consequences of that loss are mostly intangible.
So should the U.S. Army stop worrying about the collateral damage of an invasion of Fallujah? Of course not: The United States, after all, is still primarily focused on political goals in Iraq and not merely an end to car bombings. Yet the Israeli experience does suggest that it's wrong to insist, as many in Washington do, that a military campaign against the terrorists' bases could not substantially improve security conditions for both Americans and Iraqis. The visuals would be awful and the outcry loud, on al-Jazeera and maybe at the United Nations. But if the reality were modest civilian casualties and heavy enemy losses, the result might be an opportunity to pursue the nation-building that now is stymied.
This raises another question: Could U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies duplicate the Israeli army's success? Here the outlook is debatable. Israeli officials I've spoken to are themselves doubtful. One major reason for their military success, they say, has been superior intelligence: Thanks to decades of investment in human sources as well as high technology, Israeli forces know who their enemies are and are very good at finding them. Moreover, by 2002 there was a strong political consensus in Israel that there was no choice but to take the offensive against the terrorists and bear the inevitable costs. As the U.S. presidential campaign is demonstrating, Americans are deeply divided over whether the war in Iraq is worth fighting.
One thoughtful Israeli I spoke to said that as he watches the U.S. mission he thinks not of Jenin but of Lebanon. There, Israel's 1982 invasion and subsequent attempt to fashion a new political order deeply divided its society and led to a losing situation from which retreat was all but impossible. It was 18 years before Israel finally exited from Lebanon and stopped the slow but excruciating accretion of its casualties. That history is not nearly as encouraging as the more recent tactical victory over terrorism -- but it's another possible forecast of the American future in Iraq.