Inside Out: Disengagement, occupation, missiles

Occupation never was nor is it the answer to the threat of missile attacks at the hands of Israel’s neighbors.

Libyan Grad rocket 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Libyan Grad rocket 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
One of the most oft-repeated arguments against Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip in 2005 is that this decision resulted in mounting Palestinian rocket fire on an ever-increasing number of Israeli cities, towns and villages.
On the face of things, this criticism is entirely true and accurate. Just two weeks ago more than 170 rockets were fired on Beersheba, Ashdod, Ashkelon and dozens of smaller communities, with Islamic Jihad spokespersons threatening to strike even deeper inside Israel, implying that Tel Aviv was also within range.
The underlying premise of this argument is that Israel either should never have withdrawn from the Gaza Strip or, at the very least, should not have done so unilaterally, in the absence of a political agreement with the powers that be in Gaza.
That premise is accurate, provided the cost-gain equation is restricted solely to the volume and scope of the rocket fire that followed disengagement. However, if one includes additional factors, such as the end of Gaza’s occupation, which was a diplomatic and strategic millstone around Israel’s neck, and the drastic reduction in Israel’s control over and interaction with Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, the cost-gain equation changes significantly.
It is unlikely that the development of increased-range Palestinian rocket fire out of Gaza could have been entirely curtailed and averted had Israel not withdrawn from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005. While it certainly would have been more difficult for Palestinian organizations to obtain, deploy and fire longer-range rockets with the IDF closer at hand, one must not forget that rockets had been fired into Israeli civilian population centers even prior to disengagement.
Speculation aside, the fundamental question posed by the critics of disengagement is whether occupation is the best answer to the threat of rocket fire out of Gaza.
Israel is within range of rockets and missiles from Lebanon, Syria and Iran as well. Would anyone suggest that the conquest and occupation of all of Lebanon, Syria and Iran is the solution? Surely, the overwhelming majority of Israelis would not.
Enemy states, such as Syria, made a strategic decision decades ago to arm themselves with surface-to-surface missiles and rockets because of their own presumed inability to defeat the IDF on the battlefield.
Israel responded by developing the Arrow Missile System for intercepting ballistic missiles, and the David’s Sling System, also known as Magic Wand, for intercepting mediumrange missiles, with the goal of diminishing if not entirely eliminating the strategic threat posed by its enemies’ missiles.
The Palestinian organizations in Gaza made a similar strategic shift and opted to focus on missile development in the 1990s after the separation fence that Israel built around the Gaza Strip made carrying out crossborder ground terror attacks nearly impossible. Rocket fire remained the only readily available tool for applying military pressure on Israel since ground operations, such as the one in which Gilad Schalit was kidnapped in 2006 and the more recent attack via Sinai, had become much more difficult to mount.
The impressive success of the Iron Dome system in preventing casualties from the huge number of short-range rockets that were fired out of Gaza two weeks ago significantly detracts from the strategic value of the rocket arsenal in Gaza and Lebanon. While the Palestinian organizations in Gaza, as well as Hezbollah, still have the ability to terrorize Israelis and to disrupt normal life with rocket fire, they no longer have the capacity to inflict casualties with the same ease and impunity they possessed before the deployment of the Iron Dome batteries. That is a strategic setback of enormous importance for those organizations.
Israel has always had an acrimonious and belligerent relationship with the residents of the Gaza Strip. Cross-border attacks by the Fedayoun were staged repeatedly even before the Six-Day War, and terror attacks, by rockets and other means, continue to this day. That belligerence was not tempered by either the occupation in 1967 or disengagement in 2005, and the situation is unlikely to change unless peace is reached.
In the meantime, however, a number of important developments that are strategic and politically advantageous to Israel have occurred in Gaza in the past year, developments that could not have occurred were it not for disengagement.
Against the backdrop of changes brought on by the Arab Spring, Gaza under Hamas has forged increasingly close ties with Egypt at the expense of its former dependency on Israel. The new regime in Cairo has backed away from some of Mubarak’s staunchly held policies that had been designed to keep Gaza Israel’s responsibility.
Last May, Egypt fully opened the Rafah border crossing to goods and people, effectively ending Gaza’s isolation. Earlier this month an agreement was reached between the Hamas regime and Cairo to connect Gaza to the Egyptian electricity grid and for Egypt to supply fuel and water to the Gaza Strip. The end of Gaza’s isolation and privation, when not at Israel’s expense, are developments that are to Israel’s long-term benefit.
Occupation never was nor is it the answer to the threat of missile attacks and other forms of belligerence at the hands of Israel’s neighbors. The political, military and ethical costs of occupation by far outweigh the benefits, even when occupation is militarily feasible. Just as this is true of Syria, Lebanon, Sinai and Iran, so it is true of Gaza. In the absence of peace, forced non-belligerence, which is achieved by a combination of deterrence and diminishing the strategic efficacy of missile fire through active defense systems, was and remains the optimal solution.