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An Israeli child leans on the grave of a relative during a ceremony marking Memorial Day on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City on Monday, April 15, 2013. Israelis paused to honor fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. (Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)
An Israeli child leans on the grave of a relative during a ceremony marking Memorial Day on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City on Monday, April 15, 2013. Israelis paused to honor fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. (Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)

Yossi Klein Halevi

A free society is the best defence against terrorism Add to ...

Watching Boston’s agony and defiance while visiting the United States, I recall the precise moment when I, and other Israelis, learned to cope with terrorism.

It happened on the first night of Passover, 2002. Israel was then in the midst of the worst wave of terrorism in its history. Suicide bombers were routinely targeting buses, cafes and shopping malls. Hundreds were killed, thousands wounded. In a nation with a population of barely seven million at the time, almost everyone was personally affected. My teenage daughter left the scene of a terror attack minutes before the explosion. My teenage son woke up one morning to see the face of his murdered friend on the front page of the newspaper.

The goal of terrorists is to deprive a society of its public space, instilling the fear of congregating with one’s fellow citizens. And in Israel in the spring of 2002, the terrorists appeared to be winning. Israelis became a nation of shut-ins, avoiding crowded places. Tourism ceased. Like other Israeli parents, I tried to keep my teenaged children off the streets. We internalized the logic of terror, trying to outguess the bombers. Was it safer, for example, to eat in a larger or a smaller restaurant? A larger restaurant would be protected by a security guard, but was also a more tempting target; while a smaller restaurant wouldn’t likely provide security but was also less likely to attract a suicide bomber.

And then the terrorists struck at a seder in the Park Hotel in Netanya. By bombing a seder, the terrorists’ message was: No place is safe.

But the terrorists chose the wrong target. Passover is about the birth of the Jewish people, about freedom. That night, at seders across the country, Israelis reached the same conclusion: If we want to continue to exist as a free people, we must free ourselves from fear.

After the Passover massacre, as it came to be known, Israelis gradually began to reclaim their public spaces. Restaurants and cafes filled again, parents allowed their children back on buses. I stopped trying to monitor my kids’ every movement and let them be teenagers (as if I had a choice). We learned that maintaining the pretense of daily life creates its own reality.

Defeating the suicide bombings, of course, required more than the reclamation of our public spaces. Individual resilience was matched by a national response. The Passover massacre led to a massive Israeli military incursion into West Bank cities and villages, to the construction of a security barrier intended to separate most of the West Bank from Israel proper, and to targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders. Within two years, the threat of suicide bombings had subsided.

Those harsh measures succeeded in part because Israelis across the political spectrum had concluded that there was no alternative. Even Israelis deeply opposed to their government’s West Bank settlement-building policy realized that the terrorist attacks from radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah weren’t directed against what Israel does but against its very existence.

Israel’s challenge has been to contain terror while maintaining basic democratic norms. One of the great threats to a democracy under sustained terror attack, as Israel has been since birth, is the perception among frightened citizens that democratic institutions like the courts weaken the nation’s resolve and undermine personal security. Tellingly, there has been a rise in anti-democratic sentiment, especially among young Israelis.

And yet Israeli democracy has withstood more than a decade of terror attacks on its civilian population – from suicide bombings to rocket attacks aimed at cities and towns. One reason is because successive governments have been committed to a tough policy against terrorism, reassuring citizens that a democracy can indeed defend itself.

The lesson for the left is that a hard line against terror may, under extreme circumstances, prevent a fatal erosion in a nation’s faith in democracy.

There’s a lesson here for the right too. A democratic society under terror attack needs to constantly re-examine its tactics and goals – not only for its moral health but to ensure the basic unity of its people. In Israel, maintaining that debate has helped keep most of the left within the security consensus. Draft resistance is almost non-existent. So long as Israel remains a free society, its people feel a profound stake in defending it.

Israelis vigorously debate the moral complexities of fighting terror. How should the army deal with terrorists firing missiles at Israeli neighbourhoods from within Palestinian neighbourhoods? In targeting terrorists, how much “collateral damage” is acceptable? When does aggressive interrogation of terrorists cross the line into torture?

In fact, Israel has vacillated in its response to terror. Sometimes operations against terrorist leaders are scaled down or even cancelled altogether for fear of civilian casualties; at other times, the targets appear too irresistible to avoid. The Israeli Supreme Court has banned torture, including waterboarding, but sleep deprivation and aggressive shaking are permitted.

Israel’s most agonizing dilemma in fighting terror has been its response to hostage-taking. An axiom among Israelis, constantly invoked by our politicians, is that we don’t surrender to terrorist blackmail. Yet Israel has repeatedly done precisely that. Most recently, in 2011, Israel released hundreds of convicted terrorists for a single kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, held for over five years by Hamas in Gaza. Israelis emotionally celebrated Shalit’s release as if he were a family member. Young Israelis were reminded that, if they ever fell into enemy hands, their country would do almost anything to retrieve them.

The result was a strengthening of national pride, crucial for a society under terrorist siege. And the lesson for Israelis was that, in fighting terror, flexibility can be a form of strength.

Every nation’s circumstances are its own. But the premise of terrorists, regardless of motive, is the same: There are no innocents. Simply by belonging to a particular society, you are a legitimate target for death or maiming. The essence of the terrorist cunning is to subvert daily life, the expression of our innocence, into horror. And so a marathon race becomes an atrocity of severed limbs, a Passover seder a reminder of our bondage to fear.

Still, a decade after the Passover massacre, Israel hasn’t had a single fatality in suicide bombings. The country’s economy is strong, and tourism is growing. For all of Israel’s formidable challenges, terrorism failed to undermine its solidity.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is author of the forthcoming book, Like Dreamers: The Paratroopers of the Six-Day War Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, to be published by HarperCollins in October.

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