This time, do it right

Reoccupying part of Gaza would create both a buffer and a deterrent against rocket fire.

IDF tanks and a flag on the Gaza border 370 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
IDF tanks and a flag on the Gaza border 370
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
As many commentators have noted, nothing could be more ridiculous than the assertion that Israel assassinated senior Hamas terrorist Ahmed Jabari last week because its prime and defense ministers sought to improve their electoral prospects. The timing of the latest escalation was clearly chosen by Hamas: It wasn’t Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak who decided to blow up a huge tunnel dug from Gaza into Israel (miraculously causing no casualties); fire an antitank missile at an army jeep inside Israel, wounding four soldiers, one critically; and launch over 120 rockets at southern Israel in two days – all of which occurred in the week before Jabari’s killing, constituting a major escalation that Israel couldn’t ignore.
But if Israel’s unexpectedly tough response really had been dictated by the upcoming election, my reaction would be, “Three cheers for democracy!” Because regardless of the motive, action against the rocket threat is long overdue. The disgrace is that successive governments refrained from such action for most of the previous seven years.
A Facebook graphic posted as part of the social media war accompanying the real one shows missiles raining on the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House and asks, “What would you do?” Everyone knows the answer: America, Britain, France and Australia wouldn’t tolerate missiles on their citizens for a moment. Yet when Palestinians launched over 6,000 rockets at southern Israel in the three years following its mid-2005 pullout from Gaza, successive Israeli governments remained passive. This non-response, as former US Ambassador Dan Kurtzer noted, accustomed the world to viewing rocket fire on Israel as acceptable.
In December 2008, Israel finally launched Operation Cast Lead. That significantly reduced the fire, but only temporarily: The number of rocket and mortar launches jumped from “only” 158 in 2010 (the equivalent of one roughly every other day) to 680 in 2011 and about 900 this year even before Jabari’s assassination. Yet once again, Israel’s government ignored the problem for years.
If, like most of the world, you look only at casualty figures, rocket fire may not seem so terrible: Rocket attacks killed eight people in 2010 and 2011 combined; a single suicide bombing often kills double or triple that number.
But normal life doesn’t begin and end with not being killed. Rockets that cause no casualties can still destroy a house, shattering a family’s life. They still cause repeated school closures, disrupting children’s education. And worst of all is the constant fear.
In Sderot, the town nearest Gaza, an incredible 45% of children under six suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, along with 41% of mothers and 33% of fathers. As more communities come within the rockets’ ever-expanding range, these horrifying statistics are presumably being replicated elsewhere.
The debilitating effects of such fear are hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it. How, for instance, do you quantify the degraded functioning that comes from never getting a proper night’s sleep, because night after night, you lie awake tensely awaiting the siren that warns you have only seconds to reach shelter? Or the developmental impact of children afraid to go out to play, afraid even to leave their parents’ sides? Yet these effects are shatteringly real.
Now, the government is finally trying to do something about it. The danger, however, is that it might repeat its predecessor’s mistake in Cast Lead: settling for half-measures that allow Hamas to continue the rocket fire with impunity as long as it lowers the volume to a level the government deems “tolerable” – whether or not residents of the south agree.
Killing Jabari, the head of Hamas’s military wing, was a good first step; it’s the first time Hamas’s leadership has paid a personal price for the rocket fire. But it clearly wasn’t sufficient, as the hundreds of rockets launched at Israel since amply prove.
Nor is there any point in another “in-and-out” operation like Cast Lead, which would produce no more than another temporary reduction in the fire: Hamas would just rebuild its forces and its arsenal once again. And it certainly doesn’t care about the suffering such an operation would cause Gaza’s civilian population.
Therefore, pace several leading opposition politicians, Israel should seriously consider permanently reoccupying a stretch of Gaza near the Israeli border. As its experience in the West Bank shows, a permanent IDF presence can reduce terror from a given territory to near-zero levels over time. It’s no accident that not one rocket was ever launched at Israel from the West Bank, even during the height of the intifada, while more than 12,700 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza since 2001: The IDF didn’t control most of Gaza even before the 2005 pullout, since it never returned to areas it quit under the 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement. The West Bank, in contrast, was completely reoccupied in 2002.
Permanently reoccupying territory along the Gaza-Israel border would accomplish two things. First, it would push short-range rockets and mortars out of range of Israel. These weapons not only account for most of the fire, but are also the hardest to stop: Medium- and long-range rocket launchers are easier to detect and destroy, while Iron Dome, though ineffective against short-range missiles, has proven fairly successful at intercepting longer-range ones.
Second, this would create a powerful deterrent: Hamas cares greatly about maintaining control of its Gaza fiefdom, and once it knows Israel won’t hesitate to deprive it of territory, it will think twice about risking further territorial losses by continued rocket fire. Again, the model is the West Bank, where Palestinians have been deterred from launching another intifada in part by the loss of territorial control they suffered during the last one.
Granted, a permanent reoccupation would put our soldiers at risk. But armies are supposed to protect civilians, not vice versa. For seven years, Israel has let civilians bear the brunt of Hamas terror while keeping its soldiers safe from harm; it’s past time for that to be reversed. For if a Jewish state and a Jewish army can’t keep Jewish children from being target practice, there’s frankly not much point in having either. The writer is a journalist and commentator.