Is civil defense the answer to 'new' knife terror?

Has the paradigm of war shifted? How can Israel fight 'lone wolves'? The answer, says former MK, is empowering Israeli citizens themselves.

Ari Soffer ,

How can Israel defeat lone jihadi stabbers?
How can Israel defeat lone jihadi stabbers?
Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90

Since the current so-called "wave of terror" began last year, analysts, politicians and security experts alike have struggled to define the new phase of Arab violence buffeting Israel.

Indeed, even the precise moment at which the "wave" began is markedly vague: many media outlets refer to the horrific murder of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin in front of their children on October 1 as the starting point, but a significant number of Israelis were murdered and maimed by Arab terrorists in the months prior to that attack as well, making the choice seem relatively arbitrary (not to mention downplaying the violence, particularly in and around Jerusalem, which raged beforehand).

The problem to a great degree lies in the difficulty observers have in conceptualizing the ongoing violence within conventional paradigms. The State of Israel has long since moved on from the paradigm of conventional warfare it fought during the first four decades of its existence - but even the paradigm of organized terrorism, which came to a height in the Second Intifada and continued to bubble for years since, no longer appears relevant in the face of what has been inadequately defined as the "Intifada of the knives."

That, says one security expert and former Knesset Member, is because such paradigms are indeed no longer relevant - and to defeat it, Israel's basic security doctrine must undergo a radical shift.

Yoni Chetboun, a one-time Jewish Home party MK and member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, has had a distinguished military career. He served for several years as a soldier, and then as an officer, in the IDF's elite Egoz counter-terrorism unit, and took part in major operations in Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Lebanon. Chetboun was awarded the IDF Chief of Staff citation for his heroism during the Battle of Bint Jbeil during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. 

Yoni Chetboun graduates as Lieutenant Colonel Courtesy

After 10 years of active military service he left the army in 2008, but continued serving as an officer in the reserves - where he recently graduated as a Battalion Commander, receiving the senior rank of Lieutenant Colonel (sgan aluf).

It was during the grueling three-month course that Chetboun says he experienced something of an epiphany concerning Israel's ongoing struggle with Arab terrorism.

Mobilizing the people

Speaking to Arutz Sheva shortly after graduating, Chetboun described how it had struck him that the security establishment was entering a new phase of warfare without even knowing it - one which brought individual citizens to the front line not just as victims, but as active players in the struggle for their own security.

"During my three months training to be a Battalion Commander, I met some of the strongest, most inspiring people in Israel - professionals in their 40s who leave their work for months on end, from hi tech, public positions, and senior management, to help command the Israel Defense Forces.

"It gave me a great feeling, to witness that there is a new generation in Israel who want to dedicate their lives to their country and people, with the greatest motivation and professionalism."

He says that experience led him to recognize that the response to the sort of grassroots terrorism facing Israelis today must focus on harnessing that Israeli fighting spirit to facilitate a grassroots counter-mobilization of Israelis to protect their own communities.

Chetboun, who himself left his work as head of a successful consultancy firm to join the course, describes the common thread between all of his fellow officers as a sense of personal responsibility for the security of the State of Israel. In the current environment, that sense of responsibility is one which should be felt - and acted upon - by Jews everywhere not just as a moral imperative, but as a strategic necessity, he said.

"All Jews, wherever they live, need to understand the challenges facing Israel and think how they can play their part. Some will join the IDF or become officers, some will become educators, some will donate money, some will write - but everyone can and should play a part," and not simply leave it to others, no matter how senior, he insisted.

"The situation right now isn't the worst it has ever been," he noted. "For example in the early 2000s we had buses exploding throughout Israel, and in the 80s we had the First Lebanon War. Today, while it is bad, it is not as bad as it was then.

"Each time the people of Israel have known how to respond, how to resist.

"But what has changed is the nature of the enemy. Until a decade or so ago the enemy was conventional state armies, then we began facing non-state, terrorist organizations," though organizations often directed by state backers.

That phenomenon hasn't ceased, of course. Chetboun acknowledges that the primary, existential threats to the State of Israel still come from major terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon (and possibly Syria), Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and even, though more distantly, from ISIS. Such groups possess between them tens of thousands of rockets, and a vast array of other weapons, all aimed at Israel's civilian population.

Yet the current immediate threat to Israelis at home is something altogether different.

"What we are seeing over the last few months is not organized terrorism, but individuals motivated by ideology launching attacks" with little-to-no preparation beforehand, he notes of the ongoing wave of stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks.

As the Arab world continues its descent into anarchy - with states collapsing and reemerging religious fault lines challenging previous allegiances - and while Israel's security services continue to successfully thwart major terror plots, this phenomenon will only increase, Chetboun warns. 

Although so-called lone wolves (a term that is somewhat misleading given the role played by organized incitement and indoctrination) are nothing new in a tactical sense, the fact that the Palestinian war against Israel is now almost entirely defined by such attacks requires a "strategic shift" in Israel's own security doctrine, Chetboun insists. 

While less capable of mass-casualty attacks, such "lone wolves" have several advantages, including rendering preventative action almost impossible.

"A new phase is beginning, in which an individual can go out and carry out an attack independently without telling anyone of his intentions beforehand," Chetboun explained.

"There is no intelligence which can stop someone from picking up a knife from his kitchen and going out to kill a Jew after being incited on Facebook or hearing a sermon in his mosque on Friday," he added. In that sense "it is harder now than ever to take preventative action."

"If a decade ago, as a company commander, I could lead my troops to arrest a terrorist in his bed in Jenin, in Shechem or in Hevron and prevent attacks, today, although such operations still happen, the attacks we're seeing were mostly planned maybe an hour or maximum two hours beforehand," and known only to the lone terrorist or, in some cases, to two or three attackers at most.

So while conventional military and counterterrorism measures must continue focusing on their corresponding objectives, he says a third layer of civilian defense is the only way to combat this new strategic threat.

Rapid response

A hint as to what that strategic shift might look like can be seen already, in the way in which individual Israeli civilians have often been the first to respond to terror attacks and in many cases prevent far greater casualties. Last Thursday's deadly attack on a Rami Levy supermarket is a prime example: the two terrorists were prevented from butchering more shoppers by two armed civilians, not police officers or soldiers, and after private security guards failed to detect the knives they were concealing.

The key, says Chetboun, is to turn the Israeli have-a-go-hero phenomenon into something more organized.

Even with the massive nationwide deployment of soldiers and Border Police some terrorists will always get through, Chetboun warned, and it is therefore up to individual citizens to know how to respond.

"A stabbing attack takes two or three minutes at most. The quickest response is the one that will succeed in defeating a terrorist and ending a deadly incident - it doesn't matter if it was a police officer or a civilian who ended it."

Israeli leaders have already begun recognizing the importance of enabling citizens to protect themselves, he said, pointing to the calls by police chiefs and officials - including the Mayor of Jerusalem - for licensed firearm owners, "particularly those with experience and training" such as IDF officers, police and security guards, to carry their sidearms with them at all times.

But the fact that the IDF only ordered soldiers to take their weapons home with them after IDF sergeant Tuvia Weissman was murdered last week trying to fight off terrorists bare-handed, illustrates how that learning curve is happening at an infuriatingly slow pace within the Israeli security establishment. 

That's precisely the reason Chetboun is looking towards private donors and supporters of Israel to help speed that process up.

Jerusalem as a model

Chetboun's vision - which he hopes to soon put into action with the help of supporters in the Jewish diaspora - is of "a model through which citizens can react fast to terror attacks and save lives" in a consistent, organized fashion, as opposed to relying on the spontaneous reactions of brave individuals.

He emphasized that any such civilian initiative must be coordinated fully with the security services to prevent vigilantism - which would itself further undermine the fabric of security for local residents.

Such a model already exists in towns and villages in Judea and Samaria, where local rapid response teams (kitat konenut) work with the army to secure their own communities.

Of course, an initiative of that nature would look very different in a city such as Jerusalem, where much of the violence has been taking place and where Chetboun himself lives. But he insists that while "it's much easier to do" in an urban setting, with a small town or village, the model can indeed be adapted to the capital and in other Israeli cities.

He points to the example of US universities' response to the tragically high number of shooting attacks on campuses, where mobile apps have been utilized to alert students and faculty to such incidents in real time.

Using similar apps - which he says he is working on already with Israeli developers - on a citywide level could enable locals to respond in an equally rapid and efficient fashion.

"Jerusalem is divided into neighborhoods, and every person knows his neighborhood intricately - all its streets and alleys and landmarks," Chetboun explains. "Such people could be the first to the scene of an attack, even before the police get there.

"If you had a group of first responders - not just licensed firearm owners, but medics, and others who may not be armed but know how to send out an alert and a line to security forces - attacks could be dealt with immediately and ended quickly."

"It's not a militia," he stresses. "Only those vetted by local authorities and police will be equipped to respond," but everyone can play a part by reporting incidents or suspicions to their local security team.

A number of security and police officials he's spoken to have already responded positively to the idea, which he describes as "a strategic revolution."

Winning the battle of wills

But while responding effectively to attacks is of course vital, Chetboun underscores that such an initiative has a far wider-reaching objective of strengthening the national resolve of the Israeli people, by empowering them to shake off the psychological effects of terrorism.

"It's also about a sense of security," he says.

As it is precisely that sense of security the terrorists hope to undermine - using a war of attrition to bring Israel to its knees - preserving and strengthening that sense of confidence and security is key to Israel's victory.

"This is not just about physically responding, but entering a state of mind whereby every individual feels they are in control of their security situation."

Focusing on the security of Jerusalem specifically is also important in terms of this battle of wills, he says, and opined that terrorists are so intent on targeting Jerusalem and its environs because they understand its symbolic importance to the Jewish people. 

"As long as the people of Jerusalem feel afraid and look weak, the terror receives more motivation. The safer and more confident we feel and more involved in our own security we become, so too the motivation of terrorists will decrease," Chetboun predicted.

"In the end, the victor in this struggle will be the one with the stronger national morale."

But while he believes passionately that empowering Israeli citizens is the way to neutralize the current wave of terror, Chetboun believes Israel will never defeat its enemies for good until the political will exists to do so. 

That too, he says, can be achieved by "the people," by demanding their political leaders "ditch the fantasy of a Palestinian state and apply Israeli sovereignty over every place in Israel."

"You can only be victorious against an ideologically-driven enemy with a strong ideology of your own. You can't win this kind of struggle in a single moment - ultimately, the one who wins will be the one with the greater national spirit, endurance and patience.

"Every terrorist who picks up a knife does so because he believes that somehow through his actions the dream of a Palestinian state on the ruins on Israel is brought a bit closer. If we snuff out this 'dream' their motivation will be taken away to a great degree."

Recent admissions by political figures outside of the Israeli Right - from Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog to German Chancellor Angela Merkel - that a "two-state solution" is not workable, means "this is the perfect time" for the Israeli government itself to rule it out altogether.

"The Arabs are watching our news and they see and feel our national mood. If they see that the Jewish people are defiant and strong and taking their security into their own hands, they will understand that they cannot win."