Shimon Peres, then Israel's president, speaks with young people at a shopping mall in Ashdod, Israel, after cross-border clashes between Israel and Hamas, August 2011.
AMIR COHEN / REUTERS

Between November 2014 and November 2016, some 400 people were killed or wounded in terrorist attacks across Western Europe, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. In relative terms, this toll is small: more than 90 times smaller than that of the Middle East and North Africa over the same period. Yet in Europe and in the United States, as in many places worse affected by terrorism, terrorist attacks have moved to the center of political discourse, and some level of violence seems to be here to stay. Policymakers should determine not just how they can prevent attacks but how they can better manage their aftermaths, ensuring that their constituents can bounce back in the wake of violence.

Officials who are interested in doing so should look to Israel, where communities have worked to thrive despite terrorist attacks for decades. The patterns of terrorism in Israel are not identical to those elsewhere. Yet Israel’s efforts to streamline its counterterrorism bureaucracy and to mobilize its public to withstand repeated attacks nevertheless offer some important lessons—above all, that resilience to terrorist attacks must start at the community level.

INSTITUTIONAL FIXES

Much of Israel’s success in dealing with terrorism comes from the choices made by the country’s security apparatus. Israel’s various intelligence agencies have learned to work together, diminishing the internal rivalries that plague the intelligence communities of some other countries. They have also mostly overcome the differences in professional culture that would otherwise divide them from law enforcement organizations, which has enabled intelligence officials to work more seamlessly with officials on the ground. And Israel has developed a large civil security presence: during the height of the second intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2004, some 2.5 percent of the country’s civilians were contributing to some form of internal security, serving in such places as schools, public transportation hubs, and shopping malls.

Despite the technological advancements achieved in intelligence-gathering in recent decades, Israel has not skimped on traditional human intelligence, which is irreplaceable when it comes to dealing with insulated terrorist cells and so-called lone wolves. Nor has it ceased sharing intelligence with its foreign partners—an essential step in monitoring transnational terror networks. Israel’s military has managed to deter attacks from some larger terrorist groups and has developed a missile-defense system to protect civilians. Israel has also physically sealed off its borders, which has radically diminished the ability of terrorists to enter the country.

An Israeli soldier watching an Iron Dome launcher firing an interceptor rocket near Beersheba, Israel, November 2012.
An Israeli soldier watching an Iron Dome launcher firing an interceptor rocket near Beersheba, Israel, November 2012.
Baz Ratner / REUTERS

ALL RESILIENCE IS LOCAL

Of course, no security agency and no wall can prevent every attack. That is why, with the government’s backing, the Israeli public has sought to improve its own ability to withstand violence.

Broadly defined, resilience is the capacity of a system to contain and rapidly bounce back from acute disturbances. After terrorist attacks, resilient communities restore their essential functions quickly—in areas from schooling and public transportation to community entertainment. Israel’s interest in societal resilience took off in the early 1980s, as Palestinian terrorists stationed in southern Lebanon harassed communities across the Israeli border. But it took years for resilience to develop from a local issue to a matter of national importance.

One of the defining features of Israel’s response to terrorism has been the establishment of so-called regional resilience centers, operated mostly by social workers and community activists, which provide counseling and other forms of assistance—from education about potential risks to aid during evacuations—to Israeli civilians before and during crises. Meanwhile, groups known as local emergency teams, composed mostly of volunteers, augment and sometimes replace the services provided by local authorities. Local nongovernmental groups such as these have done a great deal to help Israeli communities recover from attacks. At the same time, Israel has worked to integrate its national emergency agencies with local groups. The IDF’s home front command, for example, has established a special network of officers who work with local governments across the country, advising local authorities, connecting them to the military for logistical assistance, and helping them coordinate first responders after attacks.

No security agency and no wall can prevent every attack.

Israel’s recent experiences offer a few lessons. The first is that resilience does not inhere to any particular community. It must be developed: communities must encourage their members to unite under common values, help each other in times of need, and develop a sense of belonging. Communities that have prepared themselves for major disruptions, such as those near the Gaza Strip, have bounced back from terrorist attacks more quickly than those that have not.

Next, bottom-up approaches are more effective than top-down ones. Local officials not only have a closer view of their constituents than national authorities do; they also tend to be more invested in their well-being. (National officials can certainly help, by, for example, allocating funding for rehabilitation projects after attacks.) That helps explain why a number of surveys have shown that Israelis tend to trust their local leaders more than national officials when they are confronted with immediate dangers. What’s more, this kind of trust helps communities cohere, further increasing their resilience in the wake of violence. Governments can do much to protect their citizens from terrorism—but when it comes to overcoming major disruptions, the public’s own efforts are indispensable. 

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  • MEIR ELRAN is Director of the Homeland Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and the former Deputy Director of Military Intelligence and Chief of Staff of Tel Aviv municipality.
  • More By Meir Elran