It made big headlines in Israel on Wednesday, February 21, but I don’t imagine it got more than scant attention, if that much, anywhere else.
“Police thwart major suicide attack.” That’s not front-page news in America or England—unless, that is, it happened in New York or London. If it happened in Tel Aviv, you need at least a bomb going off, and preferably a death or two, for anyone elsewhere to sit up and take notice. And this explains a certain paradox: the more successful Israel’s army and security services are in preventing deadly acts of Palestinian terror against Israelis, the more the world looks upon the means of prevention as vindictive and unnecessary harassment of Palestinians on Israel’s part.
Take this Wednesday’s thwarted bombing. An Islamic Jihad operative from the West Bank city of Jenin was arrested in a Palestinian “safe house” in a southern suburb of Tel Aviv after planting a bomb, which he may have intended to retrieve and blow himself up with, in a trash can in the center of the nearby city of Rishon Letzion. He told his interrogators where the bomb was, a team of sappers was sent to defuse it, and no damage was done. This kind of thing happens all the time in Israel. The main reason it was treated as such a big story this time was that, warned by intelligence sources that the bomber was on his way, the police threw up roadblocks, causing major traffic jams in the Tel Aviv area.
You read such a story in the newspaper and turn the page and go on. Only in the act of turning it, perhaps, do you suddenly stop to wonder: Just a minute—how did Israel’s intelligence services know that someone from Jenin was on his way with a bomb? And how did they know where he was hiding so that they were able to get to him in time?
You won’t find the answers in the newspaper. For obvious reasons, their details are a secret. And yet in a general sort of way, there’s no great mystery. Israeli intelligence must have known about the bomb because it had a Palestinian agent who tipped it off. It may have known about the safe house from another agent. And where did it recruit these agents from? Most probably from the hundreds of Islamic Jihad operatives who have been arrested in recent years at roadblocks, in raids on houses, in dragnets, and in sweeps—in short, in all those operations that have given Israel a reputation for being an unconscionable oppressor. And how did it persuade them to work for it? Possibly with money, possibly with other incentives, possibly with threats against them and their families—that is, by doing the kinds of nasty things that nice people don’t do to one another.
The world hears mostly about the nasty things. “Dozens of Israeli lives saved yesterday” doesn’t play well with the editors of the New York Times or the Guardian in London. We in Israel, who know those lives could have been our own, our friends’, or our family’s, have a different take on it.