Israel and Palestine
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|Evelyn Gordon||March 29th 2012|
The most chilling comment Iâ€™ve seen on the mid-March surge of violence from Gaza, when terrorists fired 300 rockets at Israel in four days, was made almost three weeks earlier. The rocket fire had been steadily increasing, indicating that the deterrent effect of Israelâ€™s 2009 war in Gaza was fading, and Israel Defense Forces officers were discussing whether another large-scale operation in Gaza was needed. â€œThe debate within the IDF,â€ the Jerusalem Post reported, â€œis whether it needs to wait for a successful attack by Gaza terroristsâ€”be it a rocket attack that causes casualties or a successful cross border attackâ€”or if the sporadic rocket fire is enough of a justification to launch an operation today.â€ Israel has allowed the world to think rocket fire from Gaza isnâ€™t so terrible. Undoing that misperception is a crucial first step toward taking effective action to protect its population.
Think about that: Palestinian terrorists have fired more than 8,000 rockets at Israel since its mid-2005 pullout from Gaza, along with thousands of mortar shells; even in 2011, a â€œquietâ€ year, there were 680 rocket and mortar launches, almost two a day.
A million residents of Israelâ€™s south live in permanent fear, punctuated every few months by more intensive bouts of violence that, like the one in mid-March, close schools for days and empty workplaces of parents, who must stay home with their kids. In Sderot, the town closest to Gaza, an incredible 45 percent of children under six have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as have 41 percent of mothers and 33 percent of fathers; these statistics will presumably be replicated elsewhere as the rocketsâ€™ increasing range brings ever more locales under regular fire.
In any other country, such relentless shelling would unquestionably be a casus belli. But Israelâ€™s army was seriously debating whether this alone justified military action, or whether it had to wait until the rockets caused a mass-casualty incident.
This is the rotten fruit of a government policy that for years dismissed the rockets as a minor nuisance for reasons of petty politics: For the Kadima party, in power from 2005â€“2009, admitting the rockets were a problem meant admitting that its flagship policy, the Gaza pullout, was a disaster. Thus former Prime Minister Ariel Sharonâ€™s chief advisor, Dov Weissglas, famously dismissed them as mere â€œflying objects,â€ while then-Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres accused southerners of â€œstoking hysteriaâ€ about the rockets and demanded, â€œWhatâ€™s the big deal?â€
Consequently, the international community also came to view the rockets as unimportant. Initially, as former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer told the Jerusalem Post, Washington expected â€œa very serious Israeli response to the first act of [post-pullout] violence coming out of Gazaâ€ and â€œwas very surprised there was no reaction to the first rocket, second rocket, and 15th rocket.â€ But Sharon insisted the rockets were â€œnot really that bad.â€ Thus â€œall of a sudden,â€ Kurtzer said, â€œpeople got acclimated to the idea that there can be rocket fire.â€
If the rockets arenâ€™t so terrible, however, then a major military operation isnâ€™t justified. Thatâ€™s precisely why Israelâ€™s 2009 war in Gaza provoked such an unprecedented international outcry, culminating in the infamous Goldstone Reportâ€”which even its author later recanted. According to IDF statistics, the war killed 1,166 Palestinians, including 295 civilians; it also caused extensive property damage. Thatâ€™s a very low rate of casualties, both civilian and overall, if the war was justified to begin withâ€”i.e., if one deems the daily shelling of a million civilians for over three years intolerable, as one should. But itâ€™s a wildly disproportionate casualty rate if the rocket fire isnâ€™t â€œreally that bad.â€
Yet unless the government is prepared to tolerate this situation foreverâ€”thereby flagrantly violating its foremost responsibility, protecting its citizensâ€”another large-scale operation will be necessary, despite the Iron Dome anti-missile systemâ€™s 85 percent interception rate: Since it canâ€™t provide hermetic protection, Iron Dome doesnâ€™t prevent the precautionary school closures, the work absences, the fear, or the PTSD. Moreover, the next operation will have to be of much greater scope and duration than the last if the threat is to be eradicated.
The model is the West Bank, where the IDF has effectively eradicated terror: Israeli fatalities originating from the West Bank fell from over 400 in 2002 to 9 in 2011; shooting attacks fell from 2,878 to 9; and not one rocket has been launched from there. But this was achieved only by reoccupying all Palestinian-controlled territory in 2002 and not leaving.
In contrast, Israel ceded most of Gaza to the Palestinians in 1994 and never reentered those areas afterward, enabling Gaza to develop a rocket industry even before the 2005 disengagement, and then greatly expand it afterward. It turns out a long-term military presence is necessary to destroy the terrorist infrastructure, prevent its reconstruction, and persuade the populace that terror doesnâ€™t pay.
But Israel canâ€™t launch such an operation in Gaza as long as the world deems the rockets a mere nuisance. Hence it must launch a campaign to change world opinion on this issue, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu successfully did with Iranâ€™s nuclear program. This obviously entails explaining the enormous damage rocket fire inflicts, like Sderotâ€™s unconscionable PTSD rate. But it also entails exploiting the lesson learned from Netanyahuâ€™s Iran campaign: What most of the world cares about isnâ€™t preventing harm to Israel, but preventing Israeli military action. It was only the threat of such action that, as French officials acknowledged, finally spurred Europe to impose serious sanctions on Iran.
Thus Israel should begin warning relentlessly that if the rocket fire doesnâ€™t stop completelyâ€”as opposed to the current â€œnormâ€ of one or two launches a dayâ€”it will be forced to reoccupy Gaza. That might actually galvanize constructive international action, such as pressure on Egypt to crack down on arms smuggling to Gaza and terrorist bases in Sinai.
But if not, it would at least underscore how seriously Israel takes the rocket threat, since most Israelis have no more desire to reoccupy Gaza than they do to start a war with Iran. And it would thereby prepare world opinion for the operation if and when it ultimately takes place.
Evelyn Gordon is a visiting Fellow at JINSA, from where this article is adapted.