What a tragic missed opportunity. Over the past month the global media focused on Ehud Olmert as he met heads of state in Washington, London, Paris, Cairo and Amman on his maiden prime-ministerial visit. It was a perfect opportunity for our eloquent premier to depict the nightmarish life that citizens in Sderot and the Western Negev were living as their schools, hospitals, homes and infrastructure faced daily missile barrages from their Palestinian neighbors.
This should have been the ideal setting for Olmert to proclaim to the world that, like any other state, Israel would no longer tolerate its citizens being targeted in this manner, and that those facilitating the missile attacks against Israeli women and children would bear the responsibility for Palestinian civilians harmed in the course of our legitimate efforts to defend ourselves.
Alas, instead of this, the media concentrated almost exclusively on our prime minister's futile efforts to persuade heads of state to endorse his realignment program.
It is a disgrace that, until recently, the government of Israel has been understating the Kassam rocket as a primitive missile with limited range and low accuracy. In doing so it was implicitly conditioning us to come to terms with these attacks.
The casualty toll since disengagement has been miraculously low. But it is nevertheless obscene to delay more drastic remedial action for the inevitable disaster of a rocket exploding on a school, movie theater or major infrastructure facility. International public opinion is tremendously important, but it must never be subordinated to the potential loss of life of innocent civilians.
If the status quo remains, communities like Sderot will be transformed into ghost towns. Besides, the current primitive rockets are already being upgraded to more advanced models; and the Iranians have been flooding Gaza with more sophisticated missiles, including Katyushas, which will enable more precise targeting and travel greater distances, threatening our major cities.
IN ANY normal country missile launches on civilian population centers would automatically represent a declaration of war. The longer we delay a tough remedial response, the more the Palestinians will acclimatize the international community into accepting rocket attacks on Israeli civilians as routine. Marking time until a disaster forces us to act merely ensures an even more difficult future confrontation with the international community.
We witnessed this in recent days when Palestinian civilians were killed, allegedly by an errant shell from our artillery. The IDF conclusively demonstrated that Israel was not responsible and that, in all likelihood, the Palestinian casualties originated from explosives flowing into Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal.
But despite this, other than from the Americans, the standard one-sided condemnations flowed from the entire world. In what can be described as a classic example of Orwellian doublespeak, Kofi Annan had the gall to condemn Israel for breaching international law by "targeting civilians." With Gallic hypocrisy the French deplored the "disproportionate" response of the Israelis. The Russians, whose enlightened responses to Chechen terrorism are well known, also complained of a "disproportionate" response.
None of the international chorus of bleeding hearts has expressed moral outrage at Palestinians launching missiles against Israeli civilians. Instead they related to "cycles of violence," implying moral equivalency by failing to distinguish between those targeting innocent women and children and those seeking to defend themselves.
None noted the extraordinary efforts of the IDF to minimize civilian casualties, in contrast to the Palestinian side, which deliberately targets civilians.
Many Israelis soldiers have died because the IDF frequently opts not to employ its superior fire power out of concern for civilians. None of Israel's critics noted that the vast majority of Israelis are genuinely distressed when innocent Palestinians are inadvertently harmed; while the Palestinian street invariably erupts into spontaneous street celebrations every time terrorist ghouls successfully maim and kill Israeli civilians.
IT IS TIME to call a spade a spade. No sovereign state in the world would conceivably tolerate a neighbor, whose leaders refuse to inhibit terrorists operating under their jurisdiction, launching missiles at its civilian population. Now - unlike their PA predecessors - Hamas leaders don't even bother speaking with a forked tongue: They proudly proclaim that their intention is to launch attacks to kill our citizens and destroy us.
Setting aside the effective targeted assassinations which hitherto exempted Hamas leaders, our government exacerbated the situation by issuing hollow threats that were never implemented. Instead vacant buildings and empty fields were bombed - "punitive" responses that terrorists regarded as a joke.
Minister of Defense Amir Peretz, after panicking and halting all artillery bombardments, has now explicitly warned that the Palestinians will face devastation unless they rein in the Kassam attacks. If his warnings are not implemented whatever remains of our diminished deterrent capacity will totally evaporate.
THE TIME is overdue for the Israeli government to take action. Ehud Olmert must belatedly tell the world that Israel will continue making every effort to minimize civilian casualties. But he must proclaim that if the terrorists continue callously disregarding the lives of their kinsmen by exploiting them as human shields - storing weapons in hospitals and schools, and operating from heavily populated areas - they will be responsible for the escalation in civilian casualties.
We realize that when we act the world will not sympathize because they will watch their TV screens and see the horror and devastation that war inflicts on everyone. Our spokesmen must nevertheless stop apologizing and direct the blame for any civilian casualties on those who indulge in terror acts and expose the double standards and hypocrisy of our critics.
As Jews we pride ourselves on being a compassionate people genuinely saddened by the suffering of innocent noncombatants. But if the Palestinians continue in this manner, the point must be reached where Israel will be obliged to sever its remaining links with them.
It is bizarre to expect us to continue providing water and electricity to neighbors who proclaim that their objective is to destroy us and who rain rockets on our civilians. As a preliminary step in this direction Olmert should inform the Palestinians that from now on, every time a Kassam rocket or other missile is launched against Israeli citizens, we will turn off the electricity and water from Gaza for three hours. That will surely be more effective than bombing empty fields and buildings.
Unless our oft-stated concern for the sanctity of human life is intended to exclude our own people, the time for standing by with folded hands is over.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel Relations Committee of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs and is a veteran international Jewish leader.