This page is also available in: עברית (Hebrew)
There are many ways to begin a story about Israel’s fight against terrorism. In this case, let’s open with a story about an armed robbery of a bank and the generous dish of eggs and cheese consumed by the robbers at the crack of dawn, hours before the bank opened.
As described in “Harpoon” — a new book by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Samuel M. Katz about Israel’s financial war on terror — the main target was a branch of an Arab bank in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, although there were secondary targets as well.
The year was 2004. Suicide attacks by Palestinian terrorists on Israeli civilians were still an almost daily occurrence, and Israel decided to diversify its response to the threat — including by turning to bank robbery.
So at 10 a.m. Feb. 25, during business hours, Israeli commandos “raced out of their vehicles, rushing to the main doors of the targeted banks,” the authors write. Forty million shekels were seized, boxes of documents were taken and files were downloaded directly from the bank’s computers. Some of the bank managers were held for a few hours of questioning.
The war against terrorism is an endless struggle, without clear boundaries and rules. All countries struggle with legal and moral questions as they fight against it. They strive to maintain a delicate balance between the need for security and the right to privacy. They are challenged by situations in which civilians are suddenly and inevitably hurt by their actions. They attempt — if they have any respect for morality — to win the fight without losing their soul.
And so what should be made of Israeli’s decision to follow the money? International response to the robberies perpetrated by Israel was not sympathetic and, one must say, also not surprising. In 2004, the world was not yet ready to recognize this kind of aggressive financial warfare as an acceptable tool in the war against terrorism.
Maybe that’s why the planners of the operation, led by Meir Dagan — the head of Mossad at the time who formed Harpoon, a task force and secret unit that “redefined the way that Israel — and the United States — waged war on terror” — decided not to consult with Israel’s allies in Washington, D.C., ahead of time.
“Dagan could have sent Uri to Washington, D.C., to plead Israel’s case and measure the American administration’s feelings about an operation against the Arab Bank,” write the authors, referring to a man whose full name they cannot reveal. “But Dagan decided against it. There wasn’t time to shake hands and beg for permission.”
In the absence of permission there was condemnation. “We prefer that Israel work with the legal Palestinian authorities to stop the flow of money to terror groups,” the State Department said.
To the Israelis, this suggestion was no more than a joke, because the “authorities” referred to by the Americans often were the problem, not a possible solution. The Americans didn’t see things that way, though, and when the Israeli team that led the operation met with the U.S. ambassador at the time, Daniel Kurtzer, “the ambassador’s mood was dour and he reiterated President [George W.] Bush’s anger,” the authors write.
Still, Israel was pleased with the outcome of this operation. From its leaders’ perspective, it was worth the risk to show that the Arab Bank was a legitimate and valuable target, along with many other banks. Indeed, this is the central premise — and lesson — of “Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters.”
Consider the example of the bank in Ramallah: It was “the bank of choice for many who were fighting Israel — especially for governments eager to finance the intifada,” the authors write. Terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Islamic jihad relied on funds that were transferred through this supposedly safe channel. And much like the Americans at the time, these enablers of terrorism also assumed that no one would be bold enough to rattle the banking system in such a brazen manner as to acquire information kept by the banks, in order to go after the people and institutions that transfer it to terrorists.
But that is exactly what Israel decided to do, adding an important tool to the toolbox of anti-terrorism action. It looked at the ways money was moving around, at the institutions enabling terrorist activities, at the people controlling the accounts, at the launderers cleaning the blood money, at the criminals cooperating with terrorism for financial gain, at the countries transferring funds for buying weapons or for compensating the families of suicide bombers. All these became legitimate targets for action. Moreover, they became a priority.
Following a money trail can lead to many attractive outcomes. Consider another story, like that of Salah Ezzedine, a man in his 40s with ties to Hezbollah, who made a fortune and invested for others. In 2007, Ezzedine was in Dubai, and was persuaded by some men, whose identities were never revealed, to invest with them. They were persuasive to begin with, and became even more persuasive when Ezzedine saw the hefty return on his investments with them. So he handed them even more money, and persuaded some of his friends to invest with these unknown figures. Many of these friends were Hezbollah officers, who never asked where all this profit was coming from.
Then, one day, the money was gone. Hundreds of millions of dollars “simply disappeared into thin air.”
Ezzedine “was devastated by the discovery. Devastation soon turned to panic,” according to the authors. The strangers he met in Dubai, with whom he did business and of whom he knew very little “were nowhere to be found; their mobile phones, the BlackBerries, iPhones, and Nokias they displayed so proudly, no longer accepted calls. Panic soon turned to horror. … Ezzedine soon realized that he had been the victim of a diabolical scam perpetrated by highly sophisticated players who had had millions of dollars at their disposal.”
It took more time for Hezbollah to realize that it just had lost a lot of money, and then even more time to decide that it would be better for the organization not to be publicly associated with this incident. Ezzedine was charged by the Lebanese authorities in a relatively minor manner.
Have no pity for him. As this book argues, Israel was not just bold in going after the money; its actions also were creative, entrepreneurial and essential. It was a strategy based on the sober realization that fighting terrorism must not be confined to the violent routines of police and military action.
So, yes, an occasional bank robbery is somewhat violent. And the occasional manhunt whose target is a man dealing with transfers of monies rather than direct transfers of ammunition can also become violent — as the book chronicles. But the purpose of financial targeting is the opposite of violence: to stop the flow of funds that enables violence. It is to drain the swamp rather than having to kill every mosquito.
Co-author Darshan-Leitner, also a character in the story, is a scarred warrior in the financial battle against terrorism. As director of Shurat HaDin, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to lawfare against Israel’s enemies, she has her own good stories to share. She has filed lawsuits in the United States against institutions supportive of terrorism, battling them in court, harassing them, disrupting their tranquil operations. (Her co-author, Katz, is the author of many books on security and military affairs.)
The American role in the book is thus the role of an initially reluctant and eventually enthusiastic partner in the financial war against terror networks and the countries supporting them. Israel cannot take all the credit for altering U.S. policies in this field, but the book argues that its influence was significant enough to make a convincing case for intensifying these efforts.
The larger story of this book is how Israel transformed the war against terrorism, and its main character is a man well-known to Israelis: the late Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan.
No book can be boring with a leading character such as Dagan. He was the son of Holocaust survivors, whose grandfather, Dov Ehrlich, was photographed in 1944, just moments before Nazi soldiers shot him dead. As most Israelis know, this chilling, heartbreaking photo hung in Dagan’s office. His grandfather was on his knees, wearing a tallit, his hands were above his head. It was photographed in the fall of 1944, less than three years before his grandson was born. This was Dagan’s daily “never again” reminder.
He was a heroic and at times controversial warrior. He specialized in missions tougher than usual, often operating in gray areas, where the laws weren’t clear, and the rules of the game were written and rewritten by him.
He was called to fight in Gaza in 1971, when the situation seemed dire, and was called to fight in Lebanon in 1982. Ariel Sharon — a general in 1971 and defense minister in 1982 — trusted him with the most sensitive missions; clearly, he loved Dagan. He loved his “wild imagination and courage — and his capacity to turn outside-the-box thinking into success on the battlefield. It was said that the two men were cut from the same cloth; some said that the two could communicate telepathically, carrying out entire conversations without ever uttering a word. It is clear that Sharon viewed Dagan as his prodigal son, and their great admiration and friendship lasted a lifetime.”
In an era when the term “outside the box” is a cliche, Dagan was the real deal. He was the one who realized that the new face of terrorism must be met with new ways of warfare. He was the one who understood that waiting for others to ponder the possibilities, and waiting for others to wonder about the repercussions, and waiting for others to debate the boundaries — are all too often luxuries that a country under attack cannot afford.
As a result, this book about Dagan and his plan is “Startup Nation” all over again, only this time the ingenuity, innovation and flexibility of mind is not about technology but about fighting terror. It chronicles how Israel was hit by terrorists and was forced to come up with solutions earlier and quicker than most other nations. It also divulges fascinating details about covert operations, and more than a handful of frustrating stories — the stories of bureaucrats, politicians and governments that fail to understand the need for changing the rules of the game.