When the Palestinian Army
Invades the Heart of Israel
by Yuval Steinitz 2002
Whatever they may have accomplished or failed to accomplish
politically, the Oslo accords of 1993 between Israel and Yasir
Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization have transformed Israel's
security situation in ways that have still not been squarely faced.
Much of the territory in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel
occupied in the 1967 Six-Day war is now governed by the
Palestinian Authority (PA).
This embryonic state already possesses a large, militia-like police
force comprising some 40,000 men; depending upon the outcome of
present negotiations, it may come to acquire a combination of
paramilitary and military forces as well.
Although Israel will undoubtedly retain military superiority over its
fledgling Arab neighbor, the threat it poses in combination with the
rest of the Arab world is already significant, and is certain to grow
Despite its obvious strategic strengths, Israel has chronically suffered
from two Achilles' heels that make its defeat militarily thinkable.
The first is demographic.
Israel's minuscule population, combined with the sensitivity of Israeli
society to the loss of life, casts a giant shadow of doubt over the
country's ability to withstand an extended conventional war with the
surrounding Arab world. If its enemies could force upon it a conflict
lasting months or years, they would significantly improve their
chances of prevailing.
The Israeli response to this long-standing problem has been to
accelerate the moment of cease-fire by rapidly transferring the
battleground to enemy territory and/or attacking the enemy's
infrastructure by means of air power.
Of much greater importance, however, is the second Achilles' heel,
which is geographic. The tiny area of the Jewish State, together with
its over-reliance on reserve forces (itself partly a product of the
country's demographic weakness), casts a giant shadow of doubt of
another kind altogether: namely, over its ability to withstand a
An enemy's penetration into the heart of Israel could prevent the
mobilization and equipment of its military reserves in addition to
interrupting many other vital operations. To this second problem the
traditional Israeli response has been a very fast system of
mobilization-since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the entire procedure
has been designed to take no more than 24 hours-plus the reliance
on superior air power to abort an enemy's attack on the first day of
This is where Oslo comes in: the influx of Palestinian forces into
Israel's center has greatly exacerbated the problem presented by the
country's second Achilles' heel, to the extent that a total collapse of
the overall strategic balances now possible. How so? The
approximately 40,000 policemen now at the disposal of Arafat are
already organized into a semi-military structure. They are known to
have some 30,000 automatic weapons in their arsenal, along with a
significant number of machine guns, light antitank missiles,
grenades and rocket-propelled grenades, land mines and explosives.
They may also have, or be able surreptitiously to obtain from Arab
countries, more advanced weapons, including handheld Strela and
Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Obviously, these forces are not going
to defeat the armed might of Israel in battle. But if; even as
currently constituted, they were to be deployed in a coordinated
fashion in the opening phases of a broader Arab assault, they could
wreak havoc of a decisive kind.
A good portion of the Palestinian police is installed in the towns of
Qalkilya, Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Jenin on the West
Bank-in other words, in areas adjacent to Israel's most vulnerable
sectors, military and civilian alike.
These nerve centers of Israel's life could be successfully infiltrated
by a mere 10 percent of the Palestinian police force, thus
transforming them into a crucial front in a comprehensive regional
Crossing Israel's 1967 borders in small fighting units of ten to
twenty men, these 4,000 men could make their way in civilian
vehicles along a labyrinthine network of roads and paths with
which they are intimately familiar. They would need no more than
an hour to reach extremely sensitive points in the heart of Israel.
Once there, they could wholly subvert the 24-hour mobilization
strategy Israel relies on to fend off the far larger armies of its Arab
If Israel were still at the initial stages of an alert, the enormous
numbers of its as-yet-unarmed reservists streaming to arms depots
and mobilization points would form attractive prey. Gaining control
of key intersections or other advantageous locations, the Palestinian
guerrilla units would be in a position to create chaos on the roads
that serve as the primary arteries of mobilization and, in all
probability, to kill large numbers of would-be fighters. They could
also attack some of the mobilization centers themselves, most of
which are not only within easy striking distance of the West Bank
but are also lightly guarded. The damage that can be inflicted by
small units operating against the vulnerabilities of a larger and more
powerful adversary is not a matter of speculation. Among the wealth
of cases that one could cite, some are from Israel's own military
During the 1982 war in Lebanon, for example, a few dozen young,
untrained Palestinian fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades
operating from hills and orchards proved far more effective in
delaying Israeli traffic on a vital military highway than batteries of
cannons and Katyusha rockets launched from a distance. If
mini-units of this kind can succeed against heavily armored
columns, how much more damage could they inflict on buses and
cars filled with unarmed reservists making their way to equipment
Nor do key thoroughfares, intersections, and mobilization centers
exhaust the list of possible targets. In all its wars, Israel has
depended heavily on the ability of its air force to gain mastery of
the skies at the outset. But most Israeli air bases are quite exposed to
guerrilla attack, being located within 20 to 40 kilometers of
Palestinian territory. British commando operations in World War II
are testimony to how easily an enemy can penetrate such
installations. Leading small teams of men, Colonel David Starling of
the Special Air Service successfully destroyed 250 German
warplanes parked on the runways of military airfields located many
kilometers behind Rommel's front lines on the North African front.
Palestinian soldiers need not actually penetrate air bases, as Starling
did, to achieve their goal. Lying hidden in the foliage of orchards
or farmlands outside an airfield's perimeter fence, they could
employ light mortars or handheld anti-tank or surface-to-air missiles
to strike Israeli planes. In previous conflicts, the Arabs have never
been able to counter Israel's superiority in the air; a surprise ground
attack on its planes would thus undoubtedly present an appealing
option to Arab war planners.
Finally, targeting the military is not the only means by which a
broad series of Palestinian commando attacks could contribute to an
effective Arab assault. Terrorist raids on residential neighborhoods
or the seizure of national television and radio stations might serve
to promote widespread demoralization and civilian flight.
Another set of potential objectives consists of technical installations:
the electric power plant in Hadera, the oil refineries of Haifa, the
chemical tanks of Gelilot, or the switchboards, transformers, and
distribution boxes of the Bezek national telephone company. Power
outages, huge blazes near Israel's large cities, and temporary
interruptions of communication lines would all serve to paralyze if
not cripple Israel in the early phases of a war.
Are there no effective counters to the peril posed by the armed
Palestinian police? Of course there are, at least in theory. For
example, Israel could fortify its border with the Palestinian
Authority in particularly vulnerable sectors. It could also draw upon
reserve soldiers on kibbutzim to establish lightly armed, mobile
patrol teams designed for immediate intervention in any threatened
locality. Alternatively, several thousand infantry soldiers could be
transferred from fighting units and assigned to a light militia
scattered at different points in the Israeli rear.
Whether such measures would work if put to the test is another
question. But that aside, there is, in fact, little evidence that Israel's
military or political planners are giving serious attention to this or
any other aspect of the ongoing transformation of the county's
A number of factors are at work here. For one thing, Israeli military
officials, focusing on the extreme relative weakness of the
Palestinian forces and the fact that an operation involving dozens of
separate guerrilla units against Israel has never been attempted,
simply discount the possibility of a synchronized assault. For
another, they appear to believe that Israeli intelligence would
definitely enjoy between 12 and 24 hours' warning in advance of
any large-scale attack, an interval sufficient to seal the borders. And
even if a limited incursion were to occur, they argue, attack
helicopters could provide sufficient defense for border areas.
These are all questionable assumptions. History seldom serves as a
certain guide to future behavior, and to rely inflexibly on precedents
is to set oneself up for a shock.
It is especially foolish to depend on fixed notions of warning time:
Israel's worst military fiasco occurred when it was caught
unprepared by the Egyptian attack in October 1973.
Besides, it is not inconceivable that a future Palestinian government,
in coordination with the major Arab states, would opt to invade with
almost no advance field preparations, in a kind of "get-in, go-shoot"
operation wherein commando teams would be dispatched into battle
with only an hour or two of notice. This would not only achieve the
element of surprise but likely increase the number of Palestinian
saboteurs who could be infiltrated. Finally, since these infiltrators
would need to traverse but a very short distance before being in a
position to wreak major harm, and since any battles that ensued
would be taking place in heavily populated areas, attack helicopters
would be next to useless, if not calamitous, as a means of response.
Perhaps the most dubious supposition of all, however, is one now
being bruited about in Israeli political circles. This is that the
Palestinian leadership would itself be reluctant to see a decisive
Arab victory over Israel, out of fear that the new Palestinian political
entity would then inevitably slip under the control of either Egypt
or Syria, two military giants with claims on Palestinian/Israeli
territory. Since, in other words, the Palestinians have a vested
interest in Israel's survival, they would not participate in any such
operation. But this line of thinking is speculative in the extreme,
and the very fact that it is seriously on offer suggests how eager
many Israelis have become to avoid facing the still very menacing
realities of the Middle East. One does not have to go far back into
the past for an example of a much greater degree of realism.
Here are the words of Shimon Peres in 1978:
"The influx of a Palestinian fighting force (more than 25,000 armed
fighters) into Judea and Samaria [would signify] . . . an excellent
starting point for mobile forces to advance immediately toward the
infrastructure vital to Israel's existence."
Even after he negotiated the Oslo accords, Peres did not alter his
gloomy estimation. As he argued in The New Middle East (1993), the
situation created by an armed Palestinian State would be
strategically fraught with catastrophe: the [country's] narrow "waist"
will be susceptible to collapse by a well-organized surprise attack.
Even if the Palestinians agree to demobilize their state from both
army and weapons, who can guarantee Israel that after a certain
amount of time an army will not be formed, despite the agreement,
which will camp at the gates of Jerusalem and the approaches of the
coastal plain, and pose a substantive threat to Israel's security? This,
indeed, was the ground of Peres's opposition to the establishment of
a Palestinian state. Yet what was self-evident a mere six years ago to
Israel's most determined advocate of negotiations with the
Palestinians is now being dismissed in the rush to conclude the
Almost 2,500 years ago, according to Thucydides, the Greek
statesman Themistocles succeeded in persuading his fellow
Athenians to transform their city-state into a naval power. Yet
despite the vast strategic superiority it thus acquired, Athens still
remained vulnerable to a simple, surprise ground attack from Sparta.
In order to protect and ensure access to its new strategic assets-that
is, its advanced navy and port facilities-Themistocles advocated
linking the city of Athens to its port at Piraeus by means of two
Like ancient Athens, Israel enjoys strategic superiority over its
neighbors, primarily in the realm of aeronautics and technology.
Over the decades, whenever armed hostilities have broken out, this
advantage has permitted Israel to strike at its enemies' rear in a
manner that has eventually led to victory at the front.
After 1967, Israel also enjoyed its own "walls of Themistocles," in
the form of the geographic expanses of Sinai, the Golan Heights,
and the West Bank.
These double walls are what enabled Israel to survive the successful
surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack that opened the 1973 Yom Kippur
war but that was neither penetrating enough nor quick enough to
take control of Israel's "Piraeus"- its airports, its reserve bases, and
The deployment of light Palestinian forces throughout the West
Bank has already collapsed Israel's eastern "wall" of mountains and
the Jordan River, neutralizing their vital function of protecting
against a sudden lightning strike aimed at the country's soft eastern
flank. Indeed, if we were to consult Themistocles, he would
assuredly advise us that the current Israeli defense posture is absurd.
On the one hand, the state invests billions of dollars in building a
modem army; purchasing state-of-the-art warplanes and constructing
modern airfields; equipping and training reserve battalions; and
deploying Arrow missiles. All this is right and proper and
necessary. But on the other hand, it has permitted a situation to
develop in which these selfsame modern, expensive systems are
liable to be rendered irrelevant.
On the basis of such wishful thinking, battles, and wars, are lost.
Yuval Steinitz, a new contributor is a senior lecturer at Haifa
University and the author of four books in the fields of philosophy
and the philosophy of science, as well as numerous articles in
Hebrew-language publications on military strategic issues in the
Arab-Israeli conflict. Formerly an activist in the Peace Now
movement, Mr. Steinitz now serves as a member of Israel's
parliament (Knesset) for the Likud party.