Politics & Policy

O Little Town of Bethlehem

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee.

Bethlehem has come a long way since Phillips Brooks assisted in a midnight church service on Christmas Eve, 1865. His inspiration born that night resulted in the words to the now-famous Christmas carol about the quiet village in whose “dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.” That light is gone from Bethlehem. In its place are terrorists, and those who hunt them. I spent last week in Israel and I met with many senior Israeli military officials, a smattering of politicians, and some of the Palestinians’ principal representatives. It doesn’t take much to learn why Arafat’s “intifada” is now in its fourth year.

Terrorism has many faces, and any one is as dangerous as any other. Ziad abu Ziad is a well-educated man, a lawyer, and former journalist. His command of the Queen’s English is as good or better than that of any member of the California congressional delegation. Ziad is a former Palestinian minister of state, and is now a “senior adviser” to the Palestinian Authority, i.e., Yasser Arafat. He calls terrorists “activists” and, like the other Palestinians I met, craves only moral equivalence.

Ziad talks about “cycles of violence.” “It is our duty to fight terrorism.” To do that he said–with a straight face–Israel should join with the PA to fight terrorism, and share its antiterrorism intelligence with the PA to help it fight terrorism.

The Palestinians, Ziad says, will stop terrorist attacks if the Israelis stop the targeted assassinations of “activists.” He blames Israel for the failure of the Oslo Accords, and says that both sides are only in a competition to see who can hurt the other more. Ziad bragged that in trying to implement the Oslo Accords, the PA had stopped terrorist attacks from 1996 to 2000.

Which raised an obvious question. I asked Ziad, if you stopped terrorist attacks then, why don’t you do it now? He answered, “because we did from ‘96 to 2000, and got nothing for it.” Ziad clearly agreed with the premise: The PA could stop terrorism if it chose. But it chooses not to. I have written many times that terrorism cannot be negotiated out of existence, it must be defeated. QED. To do that you need people like the ones I met the evening before I met Ziad.

Walking into the small outpost on a hill overlooking Bethlehem, I noticed the vehicle this bunch of Israeli Defense Forces troops ride to work in. It’s a big truck, the cargo compartment surrounded on all sides by one-inch armor plate. The troops in the yard inside the fence looked pretty squared-away. Every one had a primary weapon and a sidearm. The mags in the weapons were doubled, most by a metal clip that protected the exposed rounds in the inactive mag by holding it at an angle up toward the barrel where the mag wouldn’t get banged up. Many had red-dot optical sights for close-in work, a few with flashlights taped under the barrel. No gimmicks or gadgets, no electronic super-ninjafied nonsense for this bunch.

There were six of them, five officers and one enlisted man, all rotated in recently after a tour in a nearby area. We met in their c.o.’s office, where each had his primary weapon never more than arm’s length away.

They’re a reconnaissance unit, responsible to patrol Bethlehem at night and interdict terrorist operations emanating from it. The commander greeted us and turned the briefing over to a more junior officer. They asked us to not use names, or even ranks. The briefer had a sort of Joe Friday “just the facts, ma’am” delivery. For starters, he said “the deadliest terrorist attacks are coming from Bethlehem. The terrorists are working side-by-side with the Palestinian Authority and the PA police.” The IDF operates in Bethlehem almost every night. Their operational approach is much like that of our Army Special Forces (who one officer said he’d trained with). Pacify, don’t make enemies if you can avoid it. Shoot when you have to, but try most everything else first. The IDF code is to act against the terrorists, not against the population. The trouble is, of course, in telling them apart.

The Jewish cliché of “my son the doctor” is paying off big time for the troops. Israel is the only nation I know of that has a substantial number of M.D.’s serving as frontline unit medics. The Russian emigration of the early 1990s left Israel with more doctors than it needs for the civilian population. This benefits the troops in a way nothing else could. This unit’s doc–a real doc, not an emergency medical technician–stressed his role as a shooter, not just a medic. There’s no noncombatant symbol on his helmet.

The briefer asked rhetorically, “Who is a terrorist bomber?” His answer: The 15-year old kid who looks like me or my brother or my sister. The c.o. said the IDF guys walk side-by-side with Palestinian civilians, and are never really sure who is a terrorist. He apologized for his rudeness for taking an endless stream of cell-phone calls during our meeting. The joke is that every Israeli soldier has two cell-phones with him at all times. One to talk to his headquarters, and one to talk to his mom.

When they get information on where a terrorist may be hidden, they go in at night. The objective–to capture the person or group alive–must be done in 20 minutes or less. Now, said our briefer, “I’m an idiot risking myself. We surround the house and call him out. We get out as soon as possible. If I’m there more than 20 minutes, one of my soldiers, or me, will get hurt.” That time–the period it now takes for the other terrorists or Palestinian thugs to mobilize and arrive–will shrink. As with everything else, learn the opponents’ habits and adapt to them. The Palestinian terrorists are terribly good at doing that.

The IDF officer told us that the Palestinian population in Bethlehem is cooperating with the terrorists. The Israelis, waiting for a suspect to surrender, often take fire from adjacent houses. He passed by questions about how to deal with the larger threat of terrorism pretty simply. It’s what you’d expect from a frontline combat soldier. “You Americans are trying to save the world,” he said. “I’m just trying to save my house.” He hiked a thumb over his left shoulder. “I live about a mile that way.”

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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