Seasons pass, threats remain

Following the cease-fire (that wasn't), it's clear that restraint and deterrence do not mix.

Kassam damage sderot 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Kassam damage sderot 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A popular Hebrew song sets out the conventional wisdom "Milhamot kvar lo korot behoref..." - wars don't break out in winter. But what Israel now faces is not conventional war. And it has been going on for nearly eight years, regardless of the season. Children in the western Negev have time after time started the school year worrying about the threat of Kassam fire on their mostly unprotected buildings; taken a Hanukka break under Kassam fire, praying for a miracle; celebrated the Passover vacation, punctuated by missiles; and marked the end of the school year, amid fears that their summer camps would have to take place in public shelters despite the stifling heat. Even when the sun shines on Sderot, the Kassams continue to fall. Last week the sun was not shining. Over the years, the names of the various operations in Gaza have, rather poetically, reflected the passing seasons: Summer Rains, Autumn Clouds, Operation Hot Winter. The seasons have passed, the threat remains. And even grows. Last year, I mainly worried about my friend and her family in Sderot and my "kibbutz family" on Sa'ad. Now I worry also about friends in Ashkelon. According to the report by Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet (Israel's Security Agency) to the cabinet on December 21, I can soon add acquaintances in Beersheba to my list. And when you get to that stage, basically, you can't help but worry about all of us. The home front has turned into the front. One in eight Israelis is now within the range of rockets from the South. And obviously Hizbullah to the north is closely watching how we react (or not, as the case may be). LAST WEEK, I read a headline saying Sderot pupils would be escorted to school by soldiers. It might make the kids feel better but I doubt it really affords much protection. Missiles aren't deterred by soldiers chaperoning schoolchildren. They are stopped when the soldiers have the missile launchers in their sights and not the other way round. There have been many - too many - opportunities over the last eight years to assess the merits and disadvantages of carrying out a military operation in Gaza. It could be - despite the wintry chill - that such a campaign will take place before you even get a chance to read these lines. For it is clear that something's got to give. When some 60 missiles are launched on Israel from Gaza in one day it is clear that one side, at least, has already declared war. More worryingly, Hamas and its Islamic Jihad allies are winning with their offensive ways. It is easy to see why the country's leaders are in no rush to send in the troops. There is always a risk that some will not return alive. Or, in view of the ongoing captivity of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit at the hands of Hamas, there is a fear some might simply not come back. And, of course, there is also the moral concern of the possible casualties among the civilian population in Gaza. Just about every politician and military expert (and that includes the amateurs in the local grocery and most taxi drivers) realize that it is easier to start a campaign than to know when, how and even where it will end. If we learned anything from the First and Second Lebanon Wars, it is that it is easier to go in than to get out again. Ahead of general elections, one gets the impression that Defense Minister and prime ministerial hopeful Ehud Barak is unwilling to run the risk of launching an operation in which any of the Winograd Committee's findings on the Second Lebanon War might later be applied to him, too. One gets the impression, however, that the soldiers would rather be actively protecting the country from the missile threat than passively walking scared kids to school, ready to rush them into the nearest shelter or relatively safe spot when rockets fall. Hamas leaders in Gaza are rumored to be in hiding for fear of Israeli targeted killings. That's good but not enough. What about the innocent - though no longer naive - residents of the Negev who have nowhere to hide? IN 1991, for some six weeks nearly all Israel came under threat of Scuds launched from Iraq. Many of them fell on the densely populated Greater Tel Aviv area. Instead of responding, Israel, at the request of the US, carried out a policy of restraint. It was not the first time, of course, that missiles had pounded the country - residents of Kiryat Shmona and parts of Galilee can sympathize with those of Sderot and the western Negev. There, too, until what was to become known as the First Lebanon War in 1982, children grew up calculating the distance to the nearest shelter, a type of math not on the school curriculum but part of the university of life when that life is dominated by Katyushas. The Gulf War, however, could be considered perhaps a turning point: one in which the country with the best of intentions set off in the wrong direction. Restraint is an admirable quality - one you'd want to foster in those schoolkids in Sderot and elsewhere where tension could oh-so-easily translate into aggression. At a national level, however, restraint and deterrence are linked like opposite ends of a seesaw. You don't need to hit out, but sometimes you need to hit back. We've tried turning the other cheek: Now the blows thumping on first one side and then the other are making us so dizzy it's becoming hard to see straight. One thing is clear: The cease-fire was misnamed from the start. Israel got the "cease" and Hamas got the "fire." The policy of restraint (havlaga) was guided by the Orwellian concept of "an acceptable level of violence." Just how many missiles a day are acceptable depends, I suspect, on how far you are from their range. How many times over the last eight years have those meant to be in control warned the Palestinian forces in Gaza that Israel will respond? The emptier the threats, the hollower they echoed. In the meantime, a la Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas has had the opportunity to improve its arms and defense systems. There is, of course, a virtue in waiting for the right time to respond. No one advocates rushing in, guns blazing. But no one can accuse Israel of responding too swiftly to the Hamas threat, although no doubt we will be accused of a multitude of other sins. There might be a price for taking action in Gaza this winter. But without it, I dread to think of what we will be made to pay in the heat of a Mideastern summer.