Why the Rockets Keep Falling: Israel’s Terrible Choices in Gaza
Weekly Briefing on Israeli and Middle Eastern Affairs
March 5, 2008
Dr. Eran Lerman, Director Israel/Middle East Office
American Jewish Committee
“The Gates of Gaza were too heavy for his shoulders, and they overcame him,” mourned General Moshe Dayan, then Israel’s chief of staff, in the last line of one of our best-known funeral perorations. It was given on April 29 1956, over the grave of an idealistic young man from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Ro’i Rotberg, abducted, killed, and mutilated by Palestinians penetrating from the Gaza Strip. More than fifty years have passed; the last seven—and, in particular the thirty months since the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip—marked by a steady escalation in rocket attacks on the town of Sderot, the neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim, and now the city of Ashkelon. The Gates of Gaza still lie heavy on our shoulders, and the terrible dilemmas posed by Palestinian realities are still unresolved. When a problem of such persistent proportions and tragic implications remains at a boil, under these conditions—when all around, advice of many sorts is being freely proffered to Israeli decision-makers—it should be obvious that the broader context in which it is mired makes this Israel’s most intractable dilemma.
To some extent, this is a self-inflicted wound. First came the basic design flaws of the Oslo process (“the right agreement with the wrong people”—or, simply put, the wrong kind of agreement to strike with Yasir Arafat as a partner); as a result, Palestinian sovereignty remains in limbo, and Israel is held by many to be an “occupying power” on lands it left with no intention of ever reoccupying. Then came the Disengagement, which many in Israel—the “Orange” camp—see as criminal folly, and others as a master stroke of bold leadership; but, in any case, it quite probably should have been followed by a very stern response after the first Qassam fell—but it was not, perhaps because of legal and political question marks. Finally came the decision (driven by the American interest in seeing “purple fingers” of voters in the region) to allow Hamas, an armed terror group, to run in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections as a legitimate party (and to win). But none of these Israeli mistakes absolves the Hamas leadership from their full responsibility for the fighting—perhaps better called the “Hamas War”—and their complicity in the war crime of knowingly and deliberately targeting civilians.
In effect, three stark realities stand out, and beyond them, almost everything is shrouded by controversy:
- The suffering of the people in the Gaza Strip is real and often horrifying; true, it is regularly manipulated (in full view of international cameras) so as to discredit Israel, but this does not change the fact that for over one million people, trapped in the vicious grip of the conflict—with many or even most of them unemployed or underemployed, and living near subsistence level—their basic realities are an ongoing nightmare. Given that terrorists are in control, Israel was obliged to prevent the entry of workers from Gaza, and as bills remain unpaid, supplies are dwindling. (It is, at the end of the day, absurd to demand that Israel supply, out of her citizens’ pockets, an area from which its citizens are being shot at with the intent to kill.) Hamas, in power, has done little to alleviate their agony, except for the short-lived breach of the Egyptian border; and the repressive regime they have instituted in Gaza since their violent takeover in 2007 has made things worse. (An Egyptian left-wing paper recently exposed the full extent of arbitrary detentions, torture, and intimidation aimed at breaking the spirit of Fatah supporters.)
- So is the suffering of targeted Israeli populations, which is not as quickly trumpeted in the international media, let alone on Al-Jazeera. (We do not allow cameras within range of Israeli body parts, or in the faces of people suffering from shell shock.) But nevertheless the agony runs deep, and poses a dangerous question to any leader in Israel: Have you delivered on the most basic of contracts between a government and its people, namely, doing what needs to be done to keep us alive? Sderot once had a population of 25,000 people—the real numbers are now distinctly lower—most from the peripheral groups of Israeli society: North African olim who came in the ’50s and ’60s, and their Russian and Central Asian counterparts a generation later. Their sense that they have been abandoned, because they matter less, is compounded by the fact that the IDF responded more vigorously when Gilad Shalit was abducted, or when Ashkelon was attacked, than when they were the main or only targets. But the truth is that once the “Sderot syndrome” became a regular fact of life, we simply got used to it; whereas breaches of the border, and now the targeting of larger cities, are “new” elements that have generated a sharp response. At the end of the day, in Sderot as in Ashkelon, a question asked by one old woman from Ashkelon is left hanging, with its terrible weight in our given history: “I survived the Nazis. Here I am, and will not go anywhere anymore. Can the state defend me?”
- The full meaning of the crisis can only be comprehended in the context of the challenge that Iran and her violent proxies and allies now pose. Iranian supplies, coming into Lebanon through Syria by way of Turkey (by air, train, and truck) and into Gaza by way of Egypt (whose negligence in enforcing its own sovereignty in Sinai, and preventing the busy beavers from digging smugglers’ tunnels into Gaza, has become a serious problem) have changed the military balance. They have enabled a state-within-a-state like Hezbollah in Lebanon to amass military capabilities that outstrip those of many real and recognized states; and now they have enabled Hezbollah (and Iran’s direct proxies in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad) to put more and more Israelis within range—and thus make the policy dilemma even more pressing.
Even so, it is more difficult to define the scope of the problem than to design a workable policy that will not collapse at the first challenge—or it would have been done long ago. The options are well-known. None is appealing, but the choice cannot be delayed much longer:
- Sustain the present mix of limited economic pressure, occasional large-scale raids (those who mistook or overplayed “Operation Warm Winter” into the Big One—as if this brigade-scale infantry operation were an “invasion” and not what it was, a limited incursion—did Israel a disservice in that they allowed Hamas to celebrate a “victory” that never was in a “five-day war”) and constant air operations against identified targets. This would be a war of attrition—on both sides—in which the IDF would enjoy clear superiority; but our weak spot would continue to be the unanswered question about security for our civilians. We sustained a similar situation in the Beit Shean Valley in 1969-70, until the Jordanians turned around and eliminated the Palestinian terrorists; but the resilience of citizens then was a different matter, and a city like Ashkelon (and tomorrow, Ashdod, with its 240,000 residents?) was not in range.
- Greatly tighten the economic siege. Why should any electricity be provided, under the present circumstances, from the Ashkelon power station to people who fire at it? The facile answer from the UN and the humanitarian NGOs is that Israel is still “the occupying power.” But this raises the question whether international laws are a sane answer. After all, we not only left Gaza, down to the last inch, but forcibly dragged out each and every living Jew therein, and even the graves of dead ones. Why are we still the occupying power? Because the presence of a terror government forces us to ensure that the avenues of communication into Gaza n ot be abused for the supply of more means to kill us? The logical loop here is impossible to resolve, since the terror state hides behind the irresponsible claim of statelessness. But another factor is simply the superior ability of Hamas to turn a humanitarian crisis (which could have been an ugly, but bloodless way to put an end to what’s happening now) to their political advantage. The manner in which they did so over a minor reduction in electricity supply—with the pitiful, manipulated pictures of a minister deliberating by candlelight (at 9:30 A.M. on a fine day!), swallowed whole by the media—left Israel reluctant to go down this path again.
- Fire at the sources of fire—a simple, straightforward military procedure in all battles (what else was artillery invented for?), but a putative war crime, according to some lawyers—within Israel, and certainly in the international community—bearing in mind that Hamas and PIJ shelter tightly behind civilian populations. (The IDF now reports that when the Air Force drops leaflets in areas from which rockets are fired, or in which they are manufactured, to tell residents to clear out, Hamas immediately sends children to the rooftops, knowing full well—a true compliment, in itself—that their presence will bar Israeli pilots from carrying out their missions.) Increasingly, what these legal positions amount to, from an Israeli perspective, is this: Leave your citizens in harm’s way, or send your soldiers in for bloody house-to-house battles; any other choice would “land you in the dock at the Hague.” This might have been acceptable perhaps, had the international community, in the meanwhile, also acted to apprehend Hamas war criminals and bring them to justice. This latter notion, of course, is a joke. But it is not funny if you live in Sderot.
- Talk to Hamas—an idea now promoted by various voices in Israel (including people on the left who once advocated the Oslo process as a way of breaking the power of Hamas and its likes, but also some on the center-right, who see Hamas as the real face of the Palestinians and suggest that we must deal with this reality). There are channels for doing so—the Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, serves already as a go-between on Gilad Shalit—and some short-term benefits for both sides. But three serious questions arise: What would this mean in the general context of the struggle against Islamist radicalism worldwide, and what signal would it send about our own resolve? How would Hamas use a prolonged ceasefire, given the lessons we learned from the bitter years of Hezbollah’s build-up in Lebanon (now resumed, in breach of 1701 and under UNIFIL’s noses)? And what would this do to the already tattered standing of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Palestinian society?
- Invade in full force, and break Hamas’s hold on power: This may yet happen—if their leaders, egged on by Iran, insist on learning nothing from what happened last week, and maintain the disconnect, in their own minds, between their shrill “heroic defiance” and their equally pitiful cries of victimhood, at one and the same time. If the rocket campaign continues, given the Israeli government’s reluctance to choose options that would be decried internationally, a large-scale invasion will become inevitable—with its terrible costs in life, limb, and physical destruction. The real deterrent restraining Israel is no longer the fear for the lives of its soldiers—at the end of the day, a decent army protects civilians, not the other way around—but the lack of an exit strategy. More years or decades in the Gazan mire are not what the IDF wants or needs, given the multiplicity of challenges all around; and the fear that a bloody campaign could ignite the West Bank, as well as Israeli Arabs, into violent protests. Once Hamas has been broken, who takes power? Abbas would be discredited, Egypt (and Jordan) reluctant, the international community intimidated. No easy answers here, too.
- Perhaps the real answer lies elsewhere. The breakthroughs for peace until now—Egypt’s shifting sides in the Cold War in 1977-79, Oslo in 1993 (if that counts), Jordan made free by the collapse of the pro-Soviet camp in 1994—were the result of great external events that changed the basic paradigm in regional and global affairs. The solution in Gaza (if there is one) may also lie with the larger pattern of the war against Islamist totalitarianism, and specifically, the global effort to contain Iran, which made one more baby-step forward with UNSCR 1803, the third sanctions resolution demanding the suspension of Iran’s nuclear activities. (It may well be that Hamas timed the escalation to disrupt the Security Council’s work.) If Iran’s fortunes continue to rise, the Gaza wound will continue to bleed. If the trend is reversed, it may heal.
Meanwhile, we would do well to heed Dayan’s chilling words:
Yesterday morning Ro’i was killed. The quiet of spring morning blinded him, and he did not see the murderers lying in wait for him along the furrow. Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.
We should demand his blood not from the Arabs of Gaza but from ourselves…. Let us not be afraid to see the hatred that accompanies and consumes the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who sit all around us and await the moment when their hand will be able to reach our blood. Let us not avert our gaze, for it will weaken our hand. This is the fate of our generation. The only choice we have is to be prepared and armed, strong, and resolute, or else our sword will slip from our hand and the thread of our lives will be severed.