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by MICHAEL OREN
Thursday, Jun. 29, 2006 at 4:25 AM
June 28, 2006
JERUSALEM -- Dawn broke yesterday over the Israel-Gaza border on a surreal but not unfamiliar scene: Rows of Merkava tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees were assembled in preparation for an incursion into the strip. These forces -- when given the green light -- would punch through booby-trapped refugee camps in search of Hamas and Islamic Jihad gunmen, while Israeli jets and helicopters hunt the terrorists from above.
By invading Gaza, Israel hopes to counter increasingly bold Palestinian attacks -- such as the firing of some 1,000 Qassam rockets at Israeli border towns and the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas earlier this week. The troops will probably net a large number of terrorists and may rescue the captured soldier. But while the operation may flex its military muscle, it cannot restore Israel's deterrence power or prevent future rocket attacks and kidnappings. Indeed, the attack may well prove Pyrrhic -- inflicting greater injury on Israel than on the Palestinians.
The quandary Israel confronts today originated in the unilateral withdrawal of all Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza last August. A sizable majority of Israelis supported disengagement, excruciating as it was, as a means of achieving a national consensus on the country's borders and of preserving its vital Jewish majority.
Yet even those Israelis most in favor of the Gaza pullout understood that many Palestinians would interpret the move as a strategic retreat and a victory for Hamas and al-Aqsa terror. "We shot at the Jews and they fled Gaza," they would say, "so let's keep shooting and they'll abandon Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem." Israel could have refuted that claim by responding immediately and massively to every infiltration and to every rocket fired, irrespective of whether the attacks caused Israeli casualties. Gaza is now a de facto independent state, Israel should have declared, and like any other state it must bear the consequences of its aggression.
* * *
But Israel did none of this. On the contrary, infiltrations and rocket strikes began almost the day after the Gaza disengagement. The primary target was Sderot, a working-class town in the western Negev populated mostly by long-settled immigrants from North Africa and more recent arrivals from Russia. Israel responded with missile attacks aimed at eliminating the Palestinian rocket crews and destroying the Qassam factories. But the crews were too elusive and the factories too readily rebuilt.
The attacks against Sderot and other border towns intensified -- several Qassams struck Askhelon, Israel's major industrial city in the south -- and the Palestinians elected a Hamas government sworn to escalate the violence. Israel retaliated by blasting the Qassam launching areas with artillery fire, but the barrages did little but churn up dirt and accidentally hit civilians. The Jewish state, from a Palestinian perspective, seemed helpless.
Israel's impotence was the product of several factors, firstly Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's reluctance to reoccupy Gaza so soon after evacuating it. Then came Mr. Sharon's stroke and the Israeli elections, during which, traditionally, Israel refrains from staging large-scale operations. Finally, Ehud Olmert succeeded in cobbling together a left-of-center coalition that pledged to proceed with the unilateral disengagement from the territories (or, as it is now called, convergence), but largely abandoned Mr. Sharon's hard-hitting antiterror tactics.
Though himself a resident of Sderot, Minister of Defense Amir Peretz, a Laborite and advocate of renewed talks with the Palestinians, vowed to exercise maximum restraint and to "count the shells" that the Israel Defense Forces fired into Gaza. Indeed, when Qassams were smashing into Sderot last week and Mr. Peretz's neighbors were on a hunger strike in front of his house, the defense minister was in Jerusalem stumping for his candidates in the Jewish Agency elections.
Israel's inaction has provided a bonanza to Hamas. By demonstrating that disengagement impaired rather than enhanced Israeli security, Hamas has dissuaded many Israelis from supporting a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, from where Qassams could be launched at Tel Aviv and the Ben-Gurion airport. By firing the rockets from densely populated neighborhoods, the Palestinians have forced Israel to kill and wound civilian bystanders, sullying its reputation abroad. Indeed, many world leaders and virtually all of the press hastened to condemn Israel for allegedly firing a shell onto a Gaza beach that killed eight Palestinians. That the IDF denied firing the shell and that the Palestinians destroyed exculpatory evidence by gouging shrapnel from the victims' limbs could not repair the damage to Israel's image.
Collateral damage not only hurts Israel's international standing, it also divides the country internally. Many Israelis grieve over the deaths of innocent Palestinians, even those incurred in successful strikes against terrorists. Israel's Supreme Court is now considering two lawsuits against the IDF, both filed by Israelis, for the unintentional deaths of 15 civilians while killing Hamas commander Selah Shahada in 2002.
The deaths of more than a dozen Palestinian civilians by Israeli fire in the last few weeks has further widened these schisms, pinning the government between the leftists who denounce its callousness and the generals who disdain its sheepishness. An Israeli raid into Gaza will almost certainly result in a frightful number of civilian deaths. The press will once again focus on funerals and mourning families and forget the reason for Israel's action. Israelis will once again agonize over whether these casualties were justified or avoidable.
Palestinians will not be the only ones killed. Hundreds of Qassams fell on Sderot but it took the deaths of two soldiers and the kidnapping of a third to move the government to consider major military action. Soldiers are Israel's Everyman -- or rather Everychild -- and Israelis are acutely sensitive to their safety. Yet in retaliating for the rocket attacks and trying to free the hostage, the IDF will almost certainly suffer casualties.
After a few days of heated battles and accusations of Israeli atrocities, the government will be compelled to extract its forces from Gaza, but not all the soldiers will be going home. And the rockets will keep raining on Sderot. Posing as defenders of the land, Hamas will be made more, not less, popular by the Israeli attack, and Abu Mazen will be commensurately weakened. Mr. Olmert will be unable to proceed on convergence and the Israeli right will begin its inexorable return to office.
There is, however, one way to avert a public relations disaster for Israel, to limit casualties, and to restore Israel's deterrence power: Israel must return to the targeted-killing policy that enabled Mr. Sharon to triumph over terrorist organizations. Israel must target those Palestinians who order others to fire rockets from within civilian areas but whose families are located safely away from the firing zones. No Hamas or Islamic Jihad leader should be immune from such reprisals -- neither Prime Minister Ismail Haniya nor Khaled Meshal, who masterminds Hamas from Damascus. Though there is certain to be some international backlash, the damage to Israel's image will likely be temporary. Who today remembers Abdel Aziz Ranitisi and Sheikh Yassin? Those responsible for causing injury and death to both Israelis and Palestinians must pay the ultimate price. Only then can quiet be restored to Israel's borders and progress toward either unilateral or negotiated solutions resumed.
Mr. Oren, senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is author of "Six Days of War" (Oxford, 2002).
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