Civil Fights: Sderot in sound bites

Several statements over the past two weeks accurately encapsulate the main flaws in Israel's policy.

Sderot damage 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Sderot damage 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Sound bites are usually poor reflections of complex policy issues. But several statements over the past two weeks accurately encapsulate the main flaws in Israel's policy toward Sderot. On January 16, responding to a High Court petition demanding that it reinforce private homes in Sderot against rocket attacks, the government argued that reinforcement would set a dangerous precedent, since "other parts of Israel are, or are likely to be in the near future, threatened by high-trajectory missiles." Therefore, the focus should be on strengthening residents' "endurance" - for instance, by bolstering Sderot's economy. There, in two sentences, are two crucial errors. One is that Israel is powerless to stop the rocket fire, which will therefore inevitably spread to other towns. That is patently false: While thousands of rockets have been launched at Israel from Gaza, not one has been launched from the West Bank, and the methods that work there would also work in Gaza. This is hardly a state secret: Earlier this month, following a 16-month study of the Second Lebanon War, a bipartisan Knesset panel unanimously concluded that only large-scale ground operations - precisely the tactic Israel has employed in the West Bank since 2002 - can halt rocket fire, and a majority backed applying this lesson to Gaza. Yet the government prefers to plead helplessness, thereby abdicating its most basic responsibility: protecting its citizens. THE SECOND error is that the economy can be disconnected from security and bolstered regardless of the rockets. Israel's own experience amply disproves this theory: At the intifada's height (2001-2002), as tourists disappeared and local residents' fear of attacks depressed domestic consumption, Israel suffered a recession. Since then, the economy has grown impressively, and experts of every political and economic stripe attribute the turnaround in large part to the dramatic decline in terror that began in 2003. Iraq, incidentally, demonstrates the same lesson: As terror spiraled, the economy tanked, but the recent drop in terror has produced modest economic improvement. SDEROT IS no exception to the laws of nature; there, too, economic recovery depends on improved security - a point driven home two days later when mattress factory Hollandia International announced that it could no longer take the rocket attacks and was relocating to central Israel. "I hope it will be a warning light for the government," company president Avi Barssessat declared. Next, at a January 20 cabinet meeting, Defense Minister Ehud Barak enunciated another crucial error: After fellow minister Avi Dichter noted the obvious - that current IDF tactics are not working - Barak insisted that the army's modus operandi in Gaza should remain unchanged. That fits the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing but expecting different results. After all, the army has been using these tactics ever since the August 2005 disengagement, yet the number of missile strikes on southern Israel soared from 270 in 2005 to over 1,000 in both 2006 and 2007. This infatuation with failed tactics not only ensures the problem's continuation, but encourages escalation. Two weeks ago, after Hamas dramatically upped the volume of fire, launching some 90 rockets and mortars in 48 hours, Palestinian commentators noted that the organization felt free do so precisely because, having heard Israeli leaders repeatedly declare that under no circumstances will they launch a major ground operation in Gaza, it concluded that it need not fear provoking one by intensifying the barrages. Finally, on January 21, came Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror's response to international condemnation of Israel's short-lived blockade of Gaza: "It's very interesting that we didn't hear these condemnations when the rockets were falling [on Israel]. Is that not collective punishment?" Dror is, of course, correct. But coming from a government spokesman, the complaint is highly disingenuous. One cannot expect the world to care more about Israel's security than Israel's government does - and the government, far from treating the daily rocket fire as a priority, has done its best to pretend that the problem does not exist. Government officials devote scant attention to this issue in either public speeches or private meetings with diplomats and journalists; Israel has not even lodged regular complaints with the UN. Indeed, Ehud Olmert talks more about suffering Palestinians than suffering Sderot. At Annapolis, for instance, he spoke movingly about Palestinian "pain and deprivation," but said not a word about Sderot residents' pain and deprivation. He devoted exactly one sentence to Sderot - and even that was not a demand that the rocket fire stop. He merely declared that it "serves as a warning" against "moving forward too hastily." By contrast, Palestinian officials complain loudly and continuously about Gaza's hardships. And the world not unnaturally concludes that since Palestinians are complaining while Israel is not, Palestinians must be the victims, and Israel the villain. One can understand Olmert's desire to avoid discussing Sderot. He would rather not remind Israelis that his party's flagship policy, the disengagement, quadrupled rocket attacks on southern Israel. Moreover, talking about it might force him to take action, and he desperately wants to avoid a major operation in Gaza. But unless and until the government makes Sderot's plight a priority and brings it to international center stage, the world will continue ignoring the rocket fire while condemning every Israeli response. TOGETHER, the four errors described above add up to a failed policy that has turned Sderot into a living hell. And to improve the situation, all four must be addressed. The government must understand that security is the bedrock on which all else is built, and unless the rockets stop, no amount of economic aid will help the south. It must acknowledge that current tactics for suppressing the rockets have failed and need to be changed. It must realize that a viable alternative exists - namely, the methods that succeeded in the West Bank. And it must bring Sderot's plight to world attention consistently and forcefully, to lay the groundwork for applying these tactics to Gaza as well. If it is unwilling to do these four things, it must go, immediately. A government that abandons its citizens to enemy fire has no right to exist.