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How Israel Should Fight Non-Violent Wars


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A massive fly-in of pro-Palestinian activists into Ben Gurion Airport is the most recent anti-Israel provocation to be announced. It is yet another ostensibly non-violent act by some of Israel’s enemies for which the Israeli authorities will have to find an adequate answer.

Israel tries to fight such non-violent attacks – which have as their goal the country’s delegitimization – on an ad hoc basis as best it can. The initiative in these provocations always lies with its enemies. Their conceptual approach is simple: Non-violent initiatives against Israel that are largely unsuccessful are abandoned. Those that garner any significant results are repeated.

Some protesters succeeded in crossing the Israeli border on Nakba day. A few provocateurs were killed, which led to several condemnations of Israel by Western politicians. The result of this particular initiative was considered satisfactory by Israel’s enemies, and so similar efforts were made again on Nakba day.

In May 2010, a flotilla of terrorist supporters masquerading as human rights activists was prevented by Israel from reaching Gaza. Yet the killing of nine flotilla passengers (seven of whom had expressed their desire to become martyrs) brought Israel a load of bad publicity.

In view of those condemnations, a new flotilla with many more ships was assembled and is due to arrive in the coming weeks. It seems that however Israel reacts, it will lose the battle for world opinion.

All this is part of the largely non-violent war of attrition currently being waged against Israel. Such an asymmetric form of war is not winnable with Israel’s current approach. There are several reasons for this. One is that the initiative always remains with its enemies; another, that international law is often interpreted in ways that favor terrorists and provocateurs above democracies.

In addition, the unbounded right of free speech, which includes the right to extreme defamation and major lies, helps Israel’s enemies. Further, the physical risks taken by anti-Israeli provocateurs are rather minor. If they were to apply these same methods against Muslim countries, many more would die, as witness what some diehards still insist on referring to as the “Arab Spring.”

There is also an Israeli component that explains why this war is not winnable at present. Israeli leaders have understood little about how non-violent warfare against their country functions in the post-modern world. Treating these attacks mainly on an ad hoc basis cannot produce overall satisfactory results.

This lack of understanding on the part of successive Israeli governments of the all-out “soft war” being fought by their enemies contrasts strongly with Israel’s effective approach to physical acts of war. The IDF has been extremely innovative in fighting violent attacks against the country. Its techniques are monitored worldwide and copied by other armies.

After the 2001 United World Conference against Racism in Durban, the policies of systematic delegitimization of Israel were formulated in a multiple point program. It included the creation of worldwide solidarity against Israel as “a bastion of apartheid,” the use of universal law mechanisms, discrediting the law of return and replacing it with a law of return for Palestinian refugees, reinstating the Arab boycott and trying to impose a much wider international boycott of Israeli activities.

Today this seems like a rather rudimentary approach. It has since been extended in many directions through distortions of language, falsification of history, misinterpretation of archaeology, and, most recently, the series of provocations mentioned above.

In principle each of these methods can be used against any democracy. The Danes had a little taste of it after one of their newspapers published cartoons deemed disrespectful to Muhammad in 2005. Israel, however, is by far the main target of such “soft” aggression – which means it must continually come up with creative methods of repelling such attacks.

Much of what is done in this area consists, at present, of efforts carried out to a large extent by private bodies. Some are major Jewish organizations. Others are grassroots groups – Camera, Honest Reporting, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Memri, Palestinian Media Watch, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and NGO Monitor are a few that immediately come to mind. But even if all these bodies operated in an integrated manner, Israel’s defense system against non-violent warfare would still amount to so much Swiss cheese – with more holes than cheese.

Non-violent war is of a different nature than its physical counterpart, though both share the aim of destroying Israel. But precisely because non-violent war is still a form of war, it cannot be fought by bureaucratic ministries even if combined with private organizations.

In such a war, intelligence agencies must play a far more crucial role than has been the case up to now. They have to collect systematic information about who Israel’s non-violent enemies are, analyze their methods and what they may do next, and regularly produce creative ideas to expose and fight the attackers. As in any other field, the knowledge and skills needed to accomplish these tasks only accumulate over the years.

This approach should have begun – at the latest – in the early 1980s after the First Lebanon War, when the delegitimization of Israel accelerated. None of the successive Israeli governments has properly fought this non-violent war or even understood it in significant detail. That makes the need all the more urgent for Israel to start responding in a far more systematic way.

Manfred Gerstenfeld is chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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About the Author: Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is a board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2000-2012). He is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism.


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