About Us






Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Former Head of the
IDF Strategic Planning Division; former Head of the Negotiation
Unit, Office of Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

Israel’s Vulnerability to Air Attack

During the Camp David Summit in the summer of 2000, American military
experts raised the question of whether the Israeli demand for control of a
unified airspace over all the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and
the Jordan River was essential. Among the justifications provided by Israeli
representatives was the danger of aerial terrorism. The Israelis explained
the need to be prepared in the event of a suicide attack – carried out by a
civilian aircraft laden with explosives – over a major Israeli urban center.
One of the Americans present responded to this with disdain, asserting that
the Israelis had a vivid imagination when it came to implausible threats,
which they employed to justify exaggerated security demands.

A year later, on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda sent airliners plunging into
the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, causing
the death of thousands of people and illustrating the importance of
creative thinking in assessing terrorist and national-security threat

Such thinking is especially crucial for Israel, whose geography puts it at
high military risk, in general, and at a great disadvantage in terms of
its ability to prevent or respond to attacks from the air, in particular.

Israel has a very narrow “waist? – the distance between the Jordan River
and the Mediterranean Sea is approximately 40 nautical miles (approximately
70 km). This means that a combat aircraft can fly across the country in
less than four minutes. A plane could penetrate the country via the Jordan
Valley and reach Jerusalem in less than two minutes.

This aerial threat creates a great defense challenge for Israel. It takes
at least three minutes for a scramble takeoff of an interceptor aircraft
that can identify such a potential enemy penetration – and this is without
factoring in the flight time from the airbase until the interceptor engages
the penetrating aircraft to identify it, or shoot it down if it is on a
hostile mission.

In the event of an aerial attack aimed at Jerusalem, the hostile plane
must be shot down at least 10 nautical miles east of the city – not directly
over it. Otherwise, both the plane and its munitions would crash into
population centers, with dire consequences.

All of the above explains why Israel suffers from insufficient time and
space to respond to and prevent an aerial attack on Jerusalem from the east,
particularly if Israeli interceptor planes are not free to act over the
Jordan Valley.

The way the IDF tends to deal with this disadvantage today is to scramble
interceptors at unidentified targets while they are still over Jordanian
airspace, to ensure that any encounter with a hostile plane will take place
immediately after it crosses the Jordan River line. This also takes precious
time, since the aerial targets first have to be identified as hostile,
friendly, or merely a civilian plane that strayed from its flight path.

Scramble takeoffs of this type occur daily because it is impossible to
obtain a precise aerial picture on a regular basis, despite ties and
coordination between the military and civilian air traffic control centers
in Jordan and Israel.

Access to Israeli airspace from the Mediterranean Sea to the west is
permitted only to planes that have identified themselves and have been
identified before they come within 100 km of Israel.

The Role of Air Defenses

Surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft weapons are not the solution to
Israel’s air defense problem. Unlike interceptor planes – which are equipped
with comprehensive identification capabilities including the possibility of
visual identification – anti- aircraft batteries cannot determine with
certainty which aerial targets are hostile and need to be shot down.
Anti-aircraft batteries also involve shooting down hostile planes far from
the target of their attack – over non- Israeli territory.

Non-hostile aerial activity – both civilian and military – must also be
taken into account. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which
ground-to-air missiles would be launched at the airspace of a neighboring
country without definite identification of targets as hostile aircraft on a
mission to attack Israel.

This substantial defense limitation, therefore, does not allow for Israel’s
complete and continuous protection from hostile air attacks. Thus, the
deployment of missile batteries and anti-aircraft weapons, while
complementing aerial interception, cannot replace it.

In the past, prior to a planned Iraqi mission to attack Israel’s nuclear
research compound in Dimona, Jordan permitted Iraqi combat planes to use
its airspace to take aerial photographs of Israeli territory.

True, peaceful relations exist today between Israel and Jordan, which
include mutual respect for both countries’ territorial airspace, civilian
air links, and coordination of the passage of planes through the
international air corridor separating them. However, there is no guarantee
that such coordination will continue in the future. In fact, in the past,
prior to a planned Iraqi mission to carry out an aerial attack on Israel’s
nuclear research compound in Dimona, Jordan permitted Iraqi combat planes to
use its airspace and to fly on a route parallel to the Israeli border in
order to take aerial photographs of Israeli territory. In other words,
despite the current relative calm, Israel cannot entrust its security to the
goodwill of the Jordanians or the Palestinians in the future.

Defending Ben-Gurion International Airport

Israel faces another great challenge in defending Ben-Gurion Airport, both
from hostile fire at its runways, and from possible attempts to shoot down
civilian planes during takeoff or landing. Takeoff and landing routes are
influenced by the direction of the wind, which means that sometimes planes
must pass over Palestinian communities and adjacent developed areas. Israel
suffers from a major topographical security disadvantage because all
international civil aviation could be exposed to possible attack from
hostile Palestinian elements using shoulder-launched anti-aircraft
missiles, fired from the West Bank mountain ridge that rises up to 3,000
feet higher than Israel’s main airport and major coastal cities.

At the beginning of 2000, with the outbreak of the Palestinian terror war
that came to be known as the Second Intifada, many commercial airlines
canceled their flights to Israel. It may be expected that if Palestinian
terrorists opened fire on Ben-Gurion Airport, all foreign airlines would
immediately halt their flights, effectively isolating the country.

This is why full security control of the airspace is absolutely necessary,
though it is not sufficient. Equally crucial is Israeli security control on
the ground in the areas closest to the airport (i.e., Beit Liqya, Harbata,
and Beit Aryeh).

The Israel Air Force must preserve full operational freedom in a unified
airspace, and maintain the security arrangements required to protect civil
aviation, in general, and Ben- Gurion Airport, in particular. Primary
Israeli control over a unified airspace (an area whose width totals 40
nautical miles), which cannot be divided.

- Freedom of operation for the Israel Air Force in the entire airspace west
of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea (and over a possible Palestinian

- Elimination of potential aerial threats from a Palestinian state towards
Israel. For example, Israel would lack the capability to intercept a
hostile plane taking off from the Atarot (Kalandia) airfield and immediately
crashing into Jerusalem.

- Restriction of foreign air traffic due to the crowded conditions of
civilian and military air traffic, which already impose restraints on the
amount of training carried out by the Israel Air Force.

- Establishing security arrangements to preclude the interception of planes
landing and taking off from Ben-Gurion International Airport.

An Israeli F-16 takes off on a mission to southern Lebanon, July 16, 2006.
The Israel Air Force must preserve full operational freedom and maintain the
security arrangements required to protect civil aviation, in general, and
Ben-Gurion International Airport, in particular.

To protect the country’s skies and to prevent terrorist attacks on its
population centers and on strategic and military targets, Israel must insist
on five fundamental requirements:
The Palestinians see the control of the airspace above their state as a
symbol of sovereignty. They also seek to establish an international airport
linking the Palestinian state to
other countries, serving as an international passageway for passengers and

In the event of an aerial attack on Israel, the hostile plane must be downed
at least 10 miles from a city to avoid munitions striking heavily populated

- It takes approximately 3 minutes for an Israeli interceptor plane to
identify an enemy aircraft.
- 4 minutes from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean

During previous rounds of negotiations with Israel, the Palestinians agreed
to limitations on their military air capabilities, acknowledging that they
have no need for combat aircraft or attack helicopters and other offensive
aerial weapons that could threaten Israel. Nevertheless, they demanded
freedom of operation in the airspace above their state for planes and
helicopters, civil aviation, and internal-security (policing).

The Palestinian position posits:

- A prohibition on Israeli military activity in Palestinian airspace.

- The operation of airfields, and maintaining a major aviation artery
between the Palestinian state and the rest of the world.

- Permanent and institutionalized air links between the West Bank and Gaza
via an air corridor over Israel.

- Reliance on international conventions – primarily the Chicago Treaty –
which maintain that a state should exercise sovereignty in its territorial

What emerges is a considerable gap regarding the issues. Israel’s point of
departure in any negotiations is its security needs, while the Palestinian
interest involves sovereignty, honor, and economics.

To bridge this gap, arrangements must be designed that protect Israel’s
security requirements while agreeing to expressions of Palestinian
sovereignty. Any arrangement between the parties on the issue of territorial
airspace requires their agreement on the following principles:

- A unified territorial airspace will need to be preserved, with Israel
assuming overall responsibility to enable it to deal with deviant
situations, in light of the severe time constraints Israel faces in
responding to potential security threats.

- By virtue of its sovereignty, a prospective Palestinian state would need
to grant Israel prerogative in security control in Palestinian airspace.
- The Palestinians would have the right to operate civil aviation that meets
the safety and security standards of the Israeli Civil Aviation
Administration, on the basis of international criteria.

- The Palestinian side would receive financial remuneration for the use of
its airspace, in accordance with what is customary in international

- Air traffic control will be undertaken by Israel.

- A Palestinian air controller can be integrated into the Israeli civilian
air traffic control station, and will maintain contact with Palestinian and
foreign civilian aircraft operating in or traversing the airspace above the
Palestinian state, subject to Israeli control.

- The border between Israel and a Palestinian state would need to reflect
the security needs of Ben-Gurion Airport. In addition, special security
arrangements are required to secure the flight paths to and from the

Palestinian Airports

The Palestinians have demanded control over the Kalandia (Atarot) airfield
in Jerusalem, to have it become the international airport of the Palestinian
state. They also intend to establish additional airports for internal
Palestinian air traffic. Israel opposes handing over Atarot airfield to the
Palestinians since a Palestinian airport adjacent to Israel’s capital poses
an unacceptable risk.

The operation of a Palestinian airport in the West Bank would also entail
substantial risks – both in terms of security and in terms of flight safety.
Israel would lack the sufficient response time required to intercept a
hostile plane on a mission to attack an Israeli target. In addition, there
is the danger of traffic overload in the international corridor between
Israel and Jordan, and an overlap of activity (circling) involving
Ben-Gurion Airport, Israeli military airports, and civilian airports in the
West Bank.

In the event that Israel is prepared to take the security and safety risks
associated with the establishment of a Palestinian airport, its
establishment should meet the following strict conditions:

- Any airport must be located far from Israeli population centers,
preferably on the Jordanian or Egyptian side of the border a prospective
Palestinian state would share with its neighbors. Although in the past,
Israel had agreed to the operation of the Dahaniye airport on the Gaza-Egypt
border, Israel cannot assume the same risk in the West Bank due to the
proximity of this territory to Israel’s major coastal cities and its
strategic interior. Therefore, any Palestinian airport should be located in
Jordanian territory to ensure proper supervision of the passage of travelers
and cargo into the PA. In other words, the Hashemite Kingdom’s superior
security services would be responsible
for the security, inspection, and safety aspects of the endeavor.

- Landing approaches and take-off paths must be located on the Egyptian and
Jordanian sides of the border, with Israeli authorization required for any
entry into the unified airspace of Israel and the PA.

- The airport will be operated in accordance with prevailing Israeli and
international criteria in the realm of security and safety. Should the
airport be used for international flights, it will serve as an international
crossing and all the arrangements for international crossings shall apply to
it, including the capability to effectively inspect personal baggage and
merchandise, and to prevent the smuggling of war materiel and illicit goods.
In addition, measures will be required to prevent the infiltration of
terrorist elements into the prospective Palestinian state, such as allowing
Israeli supervision – and even intervention – possibly with the involvement
of a third party.

- No equipment that could constitute a direct threat to Israel or abet
parties hostile to Israel will be installed at the airport. (For example,
airport radar might be capable of monitoring sensitive aerial activity
within Israel, information which could be passed on to parties hostile to
Israel.) In addition, electromagnetic coordination of radio frequencies will
be required to prevent mutual jamming, which could constitute a major
hindrance to air safety.

Finally, an agreement between the parties would enable the opening of an
international flight path that traverses the shared airspace, facilitating
transport to the east, with an accepted “payment? to the Palestinian side.
Israel can consider opening such an aerial corridor if Israeli commercial
planes are permitted to use international flight paths that pass over Arab
states. This would significantly shorten flights to India, China and the Far

Control of the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Similar to Israel’s vital security requirement to control a unified airspace
if a Palestinian state is established, the topographical conditions and
limited distance between the population and communication centers of the two
entities do not allow for division of the electromagnetic spectrum. Since it
largely occupies the central mountain ridge, the Palestinian Authority
enjoys a topographical advantage – with its communication systems far less
vulnerable to disruptions and jamming than those of largely coastal Israel.
A small Palestinian transmitter station on Mount Eival, near Nablus, for
example, could jam virtually the entire communication system in Israeli
areas broadcasting on the same frequencies.

This problem of disruption is not new to Israel, which has suffered from a
recurring problem of jammed civil aviation communication channels at
Ben-Gurion Airport. At times it
has been necessary to close the airport to landings. Generally, these
disruptions are caused by unlicensed local radio stations broadcasting on
the frequency ranges of the control tower. When they originate from a radio
station in the Palestinian territories, Israel demands that the PA halt the
station’s activity. If the disturbances do not cease, forces are dispatched
to impound the transmitter.

Since borders cannot stop the spread of electromagnetic waves, the
electromagnetic spectrum cannot be divided.

In the framework of the interim accords between Israel and the PA, a
committee for electromagnetic coordination was established to allocate
frequencies to both parties, and prevent mutual jamming and disturbances.
Indeed, throughout the world it is customary to maintain electromagnetic
coordination between states in areas up to 80 km from the border. This means
the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,
including all of the Palestinian areas. It is thus clear to both parties
that electromagnetic coordination
is required. The question remains, however, whether one of the parties will
have overriding responsibility and the final say.

Israel must guarantee that the Palestinians do not exploit their
topographical advantage to block or neutralize Israel’s communication
systems, or to gather intelligence on their own behalf or on behalf of
hostile states.

Israel’s interest is to preserve the normal functioning of its public,
private, and military communications systems. Equally crucial is
guaranteeing that the Palestinians do not exploit their topographical
advantage to block or neutralize Israel’s communication systems, or to
gather intelligence on their own behalf or on behalf of hostile states.

This concern is well-founded. For example, when IDF forces entered Lebanon
during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, they discovered advanced Iranian
intelligence-gathering systems whose coverage capability extended deep into
Israel. In light of this, Israel’s position is that it must retain
overriding control of the electromagnetic spectrum, and there must be an
effective supervisory apparatus in place to guarantee that its decisions are

The Palestinians, on the other hand, view this issue – as in the case of
airspace – in the context of sovereignty. They demand full independence in
managing the electromagnetic spectrum and consider Israel’s demands to be
excessive and their own to be based on international conventions.

The way to bridge the gap between the parties is to establish a new joint
committee for electromagnetic coordination whose tasks will be:

- Allocating frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum for use by the

- Guaranteeing Israel’s security needs, and assuring the demilitarization of
the Palestinian state’s military capabilities in the area of communications
(for example, by prohibiting jamming and disruption equipment). For this
purpose, effective inspection at international border crossings is required
to prevent the introduction of equipment prohibited under the agreements.

- Upholding the understandings between the parties about limitations on
Palestinian military capabilities, which means limiting frequency ranges
allocated for military use.

- Imposing limitations on the operation of systems that damage the
continuity and reliability of the communications of the other party. In this
context, the Palestinians currently operate communications systems using
antiquated technology that breaks into other frequencies and causes local
communications disruptions.

- Preventing illegal broadcasts and ensuring enforcement capability in
supervision, monitoring, and inspection in the Palestinian areas.

- Creating a mutual apparatus to terminate disruptive broadcasts and to
reach agreements on the continued operation of communications systems.

- Supervising the installation of antennas and other equipment that could be
exploited for use by hostile parties.

Due to its topographical and technological vulnerability and its security
needs – and in order to prevent damage to its existing communications
capabilities – Israel must have overriding prerogatives on this committee.

The mutual lack of trust between the parties stems from contradictory
interests, as well as differences in how they approach the issue. Israel
views the electromagnetic spectrum from the perspective of security and the
maintenance of normal functioning of communications systems, while the
Palestinians are primarily concerned with demonstrating their sovereignty.
In order to overcome this divide, a third party can be enlisted to supervise
the honoring of agreements by both sides, and verify whether significant or
deliberate harm has been done to the interests of either party.


The Palestinians repeatedly argue that they understand Israel’s security
needs, but insist that peace will bring security. They therefore believe
their own interests take precedence over Israel’s. Conversely, Israel views
its security as a necessary condition for maintaining peace and stability,
and cannot agree to proposals that would base its vital security needs
solely on diplomatic agreements.

It is only through a mutual understanding of the other party’s needs – and
by building an effective coordination apparatus to provide fitting solutions
to demands on both sides – that a stable and viable agreement can be
implemented. In light of the special time, space and topographical
conditions of the area, it is not possible to divide the airspace and the
electromagnetic spectrum between Israel and a future Palestinian state. For
both of these, unified solutions are required. In this context, the brunt of
responsibility for making decisions and implementing them must be in the
hands of one of the parties. Given Israel’s complex security needs,
including the need to maintain stability and security following the
establishment of an independent Palestinian state, overall responsibility
must be in Israel’s hands. At the same time, the Palestinian need to exhibit
elements of sovereignty in the realms of airspace and the electromagnetic
spectrum should be respected. This can be accomplished through joint
apparatuses for coordination, management, and problem-solving.

Udi Dekel, who joined the Institute for National Security Studies as a
senior research fellow in 2012, was head of the negotiations team with the
Palestinians in the Annapolis process under the Olmert government. Brig.
Gen. (ret.) Dekel's last post in the IDF was head of the Strategic Planning
Division in the Planning Directorate of the General Staff, and as a
reservist he is head of the Center for Strategic Planning. Previously he
served as head of the foreign relations section in the General Staff and
head of the Research Division in Lahak, Israel Air Force Intelligence. Brig.
Gen. (ret.) Dekel served as head of the Israel-UN-Lebanon committee
following the Second Lebanon War and head of military committees with Egypt
and Jordan. In addition, he headed a working group on strategic-operative
cooperation with the United States on development of a response to the
surface-to-surface missile threat and international military cooperation.

Search For An Article

Contact Us

POB 982 Kfar Sava
Tel 972-9-7604719
Fax 972-3-7255730
email:imra@netvision.net.il IMRA is now also on Twitter

image004.jpg (8687 bytes)