Pressure on Palestinian civilians doesn't work

Both the Palestinians and we have to a large extent become prisoners of our own public opinion.

Poor palestinian 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Poor palestinian 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
A few days ago I contacted an acquaintance who is high up in the Fatah hierarchy and asked him how he thought the present crisis in Gaza could be resolved. "The Hamas people," he replied, "have climbed up a very tall tree and don't know how to get down." And then he added, "next to that tree is another tall tree and on top of it I can see Olmert and Peretz, and they also don't know how to get down." A good, if simplistic, description of our present predicament. Both the Palestinians and we have to a large extent become prisoners of our own public opinion. The Palestinians wish that Cpl. Gilad Shalit had never been kidnapped, but now that he is in their hands, they fear that Palestinian public opinion will not allow them to return him without obtaining the release of some of the prisoners in our hands. On our side, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knows that public opinion will never forgive him if he is not seen as doing everything possible to obtain Shalit's release. "Everything possible," however, does not include giving in to the demands of his captors. Surrender to their ultimatum would have meant "open season" for a spate of additional kidnappings, and would have had disastrous consequences. Public opinion demanded action that would make the lives of the inhabitants of Gaza so unbearable that they would pressure the captors into giving up their prisoner. The trouble is that we have seen time and time again that this formula doesn't work. We destroy their power station? The Gazans grit their teeth, say terrible things about Israel, and hunker down. We bomb the prime minister's office? Ismail Haniyeh gains in popularity among his people. Past experience has shown that the more we pressure the civilian population, the greater the hatred against us and the determination to withstand any pressure that we bring to bear. We have been through that sort of scenario so many times before that we must know by now that we have very little to gain from "taking out" power stations and bridges, or by firing artillery salvos against questionable targets. Yet the public demands action, and I don't envy our prime minister. He knows that our only hope to end the standoff is through the efforts of the negotiators - Egyptians, Turks, Saudis, Europeans, and Americans. He knows that eventually a deal will be made - with an attached price tag, though that price need not necessarily be paid immediately upon the release of our kidnapped corporal. The prime minister had, after all, been planning to release prisoners as a gesture of good will towards Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Yet in his present weak position, Olmert has no choice but to play to the demands of the public, and with every day that passes with Shalit still in the hands of his captors, those demands will become shriller and increase in intensity. The continued launching of Kassam rockets against us has compounded the problem, especially now that two of them have landed in the heart of Ashkelon. Yet again, Kassams landed in our midst when our troops were still stationed in the Gaza Strip, and when Gush Katif had not yet been evacuated. The truth is that in this sort of warfare, the underdog has clear advantages, as was so dramatically illustrated by the victory of the Vietcong over the American army in Vietnam, and by the continued terror attacks in Iraq, under the noses of the American army. A military incursion into Gaza will not necessarily bring an end to the Kassams, though it will, undoubtedly, quench the thirst of the public for action and will probably provide a partial and temporary respite. Defense Minister Amir Peretz is especially susceptible to the Kassam threat, and is determined to wipe it out, by one means or another. The worst possible scenario for us is complete and absolute chaos in the Palestinian territories, a situation where we have no one to talk to, and where every armed gang is a law unto itself. Unfortunately, we seem to be well on the way to reaching such a state of affairs, at least in Gaza. One of the cardinal mistakes we made during the last intifada was targeting PA institutions, in particular Jibril Rajoub's security forces. We weakened the Palestinian Authority to such an extent that the void was filled by Hamas. If we decapitate the Hamas government, the empty hole may well be filled by the Islamic Jihad and the plethora of armed gangs. That, certainly, is not to our advantage. The alternative can only come through negotiations with Abbas. That, however, can only take place after the return of Shalit. Let us hope, for him, his family and for all of us - Israelis and Palestinians alike - that this particular episode of our difficult history will end speedily and successfully. The writer is a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry.