By Amotz Asa-El, October 21, 2004.
Having earned the reputation of being a breezy town that celebrates creativity
and exudes self-confidence, Tel Aviv was caught off-guard the week after
Hitler’s invasion of Poland, when Italian warplanes bombed it indiscriminately.
Among those who witnessed the attack that killed 107 people in one fell swoop
was teenager Yitzhak Rabin, who even in his 70s still recalled that raid as
Yet while Mussolini’s visitation remains until today Tel Aviv’s worst-ever
encounter with war – even worse than the 1948 Egyptian bombardments, one
of which killed 41 – the bus attack it suffered a decade ago this week was a
landmark in its own right, and not only for the first modern Hebrew city.
Ten years and well over 1,000 Israeli casualties after that first-ever Palestinian
bus bombing, few disagree that it represented the beginning of a massive effort
to cripple the Jewish state, and that initially, the resort to suicides and the
systematic targeting of civilians shocked the Israeli populace and confounded
“Rabin has no solution,” wrote Nahum Barnea, Israel’s most influential
columnist, with typical succinctness the morning after the attack on a No. 5
bus on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Dizengoff. The 22 lives lost in that attack would later
be followed by nearly 300 others in 28 further suicide attacks on buses,
including one in spring 1996, on a No. 18 bus on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, in
which Barnea himself lost his son, Yonatan.
And this, of course, is before counting the numerous other attacks on
restaurants, pubs, cafes, malls, private vehicles, bar-mitzva halls and rural
homes, all of which added up to a comprehensive assault on the Israeli home
A decade later, it is time to ask: What has all this bloodshed delivered to its
Clearly, Israel’s initial lack of remedy to the suicide weapon represented an
intelligence lapse on the scale of the Yom Kippur War’s, stemming from our
being possessed in 1994 by a peace-in-our-time fantasy; after all, that first bus
bombing took place hardly a year after the signing of the Oslo Accords and
days before the signing of the peace agreement with Jordan.
In that regard, our initial refusal to heed warnings that the leopards we were
dealing with had not changed their spots and were in fact out to attack us, was
much like Joseph Stalin’s insistence, even as thousands of German troops were
already marching toward Russia, that Germany would not attack him.
So yes, Israel failed twice as the war of suicides approached: It did not detect
the rise of the suicide bomber, and it failed to see the plan to target its
inhabitants. Even so, a decade later these failures pale in comparison with the
enemy’s failure to see where its effort would lead, not only tactically and
strategically, but also, and more importantly, psychologically and morally.
Tactically, the Palestinians did not prepare for the response that the pilot,
commando and secret-service agent prepared for the suicide bomber.
Strategically, they did not prepare for Israel’s reconquest of places it had
already relinquished as part of the Oslo process, nor did they brace for the
construction of a fence that would make Israel so much less accessible for
them not only as terrorists, but also as consumers, merchants and laborers.
Diplomatically, the Palestinian working assumption, that the world would be
with them no matter what they did to the Jews, proved baseless. While they
enjoyed much knee-jerk support from assorted journalists, diplomats and
statesmen, none of those proved relevant when it was time for them to stop in
its tracks Operation Defensive Shield, or to halt Israel’s targeted killings, or to
stop Israel’s construction of the fence.
If anything, Israel’s war became a subject of admiration, as experts from
all over an increasingly terrorized world came here to learn about the
low-intensity-conflict tactics that the IDF was compelled to develop.
Economically, the initial Palestinian success in leading Israel to a severe
recession was soon eclipsed by the hitherto underestimated Israeli worker, who
even under these punishing circumstances managed to restore growth and lead
Israel’s annual per-capita product to a record $19,000, the world’s 19th
Psychologically, the suicide bombers’ assumption that the Israeli soldier had lost
the will to fight, and that the Israeli home front could not endure the pain of
mass killings, proved exaggerated, not to say far-fetched.
Yet all these dwarf in comparison with the worst miscalculation on the part of
the suicide-weapon masterminds, namely that the very act of suicide would
elicit universal admiration.
What was initially meant to impress the world as an act of desperation soon
proved to generate mainly disgust.
That is how German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer reacted when he
witnessed the Dolphinarium bombing from his hotel balcony; that is how
millions of Spaniards, Russians, Indians, Americans and others who were
victimized by Islamist suicides responded to this phenomenon, and that is what
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman expressed when he wondered why
millions of desperate people elsewhere in the world do not vent their
frustrations by mass-murdering innocent people.
In Israel, this revulsion resulted in a pervasive sense of disillusionment with
Palestinian peace promises, a sense so symbolically manifested in the concepts
“fence,” “disengagement,” and “unilateral,” which have become the mainstays
of a new zeitgeist.
In Japan, a warrior’s suicide was originally considered as beautiful as a cherry
flower’s falling at the peak of its blossoming. Eventually, this macabre
romanticism culminated in a national catastrophe. The Arab suicides are likely
to fare no better, unless their leaders finally recall that what once began with
the glorification of kamikazes ultimately ended with national harakiri.