Every time India suffers a major terror attack from across the border, there is an immediate call for India to adopt Israel’s policy of reprisal. Some form of what Israelis call pe’ulot ha tagmul – “acts of retaliation” – could become an option in future, but only if a proper domestic political environment is created.
Israel’s reprisal policy was not born fully formed. It was calibrated to diplomatic and military circumstances. The Israeli leadership was careful never to let public emotion be the primary determinant.
After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Egypt and Jordan carried out and encouraged cross-border attacks by armed Palestinians. Israel, then militarily weak and friendless, carried out counter-attacks against Jordan but held its fire against Egypt.
In the latter case, it chose to absorb casualties on its soil in favour of the larger goal of preserving the postwar peace. Only when Israel decided Egypt was rearming for another war, its leadership gave the green light for retaliation against Cairo.
While the Israelis occasionally used airstrikes, the bulk of their reprisals were carried out by what would today be called special force units. Israeli forces often incurred heavy casualties in these attacks as it was militarily on par with its Arab neighbours. The attacks also spun out of control, devolving into massacres.
The lesson for India –which faces a much tougher opponent and worse terrain – is that ground attacks are only possible if New Delhi recognises many missions will fail, and that casualties and prisoners among Indian troops should be expected.
This primitive tit-for-tat largely came to an end with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and Israel’s capture of land pushed the borders deep into Arab settled areas.
By then, however, Israel had begun a more covert form of reprisal: assassination. The kidon, “spear tip” as this small group of assassins was called, set up inside Mossad became a central part of Israel’s retaliation policy after the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972 but has since been used across the world.
I had the opportunity to meet the then head of Israeli internal security several years ago and asked him his success rate. He replied, “Over 80%. But I am trying for 90.”
This is the Israeli policy many hawks in India feel the country should embrace. However, training and equipping a pool of official killers is the easy part of the whole game. Guns are easy. It is the mental stuff that is difficult.
I have asked former Mossad officers and high-level Israeli security officials over the years about what is their secret sauce. Their reply has always been the same:”Such a policy is only feasible if you have an iron-clad political consensus in favour of assassination.”
Roughly, they all said executioners can take years to track down targets and fulfil their missions. During that time, they must know that irrespective of whether the bureaucrat in charge, the minister above them and even the whole government changes, they can count on the full support of their system.
“Even if a new prime minister opposes that specific mission, he must support it just to maintain the credibility of the programme,” explained one former Mossad official.
This political consensus does not exist in India. Prime Minister IK Gujral was notorious in security circles for rolling up India’s entire covert network in Pakistan – an action Indian intelligence has yet to recover from. Prime ministers such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had ambitious peace plans regarding Pakistan and felt covert operations would threaten such larger diplomatic plans.
“Singh would have seen the two policies as being in conflict. His views were the same as Vajpayee’s,” said a former member of the Prime Minister’s Office during Singh’s tenure.
The Narendra Modi government could begin an internal and, later, public debate about the wisdom of taking such a path as a step towards such a consensus. But a consensus should not be expected anytime soon.
Israel too has been wary of allowing assassination to be run on laissez-faire lines. Mossad’s rules for assassination, laid down by one of its earliest chiefs, Meir Amit, require judicial levels of evidence and very clear political sanction. These rules, according to Gordon Thomas’s book Gideon’s Spies, included that “Each execution had to be sanctioned by the prime minister of the day. And everything must be done by the book. Minutes kept of the decision taken…Our actions must not be seen as some act of state-sponsored murder but the ultimate judicial sanction the state could bring. We would be no different from the hangman or any other lawfully appointed executioner.”
Again, this would cause a severe problem for India. Even in normal police cases, it is a struggle to come up with sufficient evidence to convict terrorists and insurgents. In the case of covert operations outside Indian soil, securing that level of evidence would require an intelligence gathering capability that India has shown only occasionally.
Again, this would require a long-term investment and firm political commitment that would have to run for decades. Notably, when Mossad has carried out missions demanded by Israeli political leaders simply to win votes, the missions have gone terribly wrong. The botched attempt to kill Hamas leader Khalid Meshal is a well known example.
The Israeli experience tells us a successful reprisal policy needs the following elements.
One, it must be embedded in a larger diplomatic and security policy. Allowed to drift apart, such executions would become little more than killing without purpose.
Two, a consensus is needed across the political and bureaucratic spectrum on the necessity of such a policy. Without that, the necessary long-term investment in intelligence, equipment, training and strategising that is needed will never happen. The policy will never be sustainable.
Three, assassination must never be allowed to drift away from a legal process, even if the process lies behind closed doors. A system of weighing evidence, passing sentence and civilian control is important. Otherwise, the executions become just another form of state-sponsored terror and the assassins could become a threat to the government that created them.
Finally, covert violence will never provide genuine security. It can be used to send a message, but it will not mean the end of violence. Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, in a speech explaining why he had decided to allow a reprisal policy in the 1950s, made its limitations and its benefits clear:
“We do not have power to ensure that the water pipe lines won’t be exploded or that the trees won’t be uprooted. We do not have the power to prevent the murders of orchard workers or families while they are asleep, but we have the power to set a high price for our blood, a price which would be too high for the Arab communities, the Arab armies and the Arab governments to bear.”
It can be argued, over 60 years later, that even the benefits were exaggerated.