Learning the Hard Way

The obvious move to cut down on this danger is for the IDF to reoccupy unilaterally some of the areas in the northern Gaza Strip that were so foolishly abandoned unilaterally last August.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on June 22, 2006.)

Israel may be strong enough and have a sufficient margin of error to sustain repeated leadership mistakes, but nevertheless, we have a right to expect that our leaders learn from their errors and minimize the resulting damage to Israel’s citizens. But it sure seems like they are learning the hard way, and many Israelis are paying the price. This time it is the turn of the residents of Sderot, Ashkelon and the neighboring communities.

Ever since the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from southern Lebanon, it has been claimed that such unilateral withdrawals to lines with a greater degree of “legitimacy” increase Israel’s deterrent power against acts of terror targeting its citizens. As if there had not been sufficient justification for Israel’s military response against Hezbollah terrorism while the IDF was deployed in southern Lebanon, once the IDF withdrew to the international border, the whole world would presumably understand the unprecedented response if Hezbollah were to continue its terrorism. Who can forget the dire warnings then-prime minister Ehud Barak issued about the punishment that would be meted out to Hezbollah and Lebanon if attacks were launched from the latter’s territory after the withdrawal to the international border? UN inspectors were called in to assure, and for the whole world to see, that Israel was no longer occupying even one square centimeter of Lebanese soil. But as it turned out, those who were supposed to take these warnings seriously – Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and the Lebanese government – were not overly impressed. Attacks continued, the promised Israeli response never came, and Israeli deterrence on the northern border turned into ash.

But nothing was learned from this experience. They then argued that once Israel had unilaterally withdrawn to the 1967 lines around the Gaza Strip, terrorists there would know what to expect if they continued attacking Israel. What’s more, the whole world would understand that now, Israel’s response to acts of terror would be devastating. The punishment inflicted on Israel itself as part of the withdrawal – the forced evacuation of 8,000 Israeli citizens, the destruction of their homes, and the waste laid to their fields – would presumably convince all Palestinians, and Israel’s friends and foes in the world, that from now on no holds would be barred. This message was spelled out by political and military leaders so that there would be no misunderstandings. But the Qassam rockets continued coming, their frequency increased, and they began reaching not only Sderot and the villages around the Gaza Strip, but also Ashkelon and a number of strategic sites in that vicinity.

Our leaders, whose roots may be somewhere near the legendary town of Chelm, the city of fools, decided that Israel’s response to the Qassam rocket attacks would be massive 24-hour artillery barrages on empty fields in the Gaza Strip. These artillery barrages kept the citizens of Ashkelon from sleeping at night, but as should have been expected, they did not stop the Qassams. Almost the contrary – by occasionally injuring some innocent civilians in the densely packed Gaza Strip, this foolish response called forth internal and external criticism. Israel’s deterrence was again turning to ashes. It only encouraged the terrorists. So repeat after me: Unilateral withdrawals weaken Israel’s deterrence.

Not wanting to admit that the whole Gaza disengagement project had been one gigantic blunder, it was now argued that there had also been rocket attacks before the disengagement, and that nobody had been killed by a Qassam. But the foolish insistence that the disengagement from the northern Gaza Strip reach the 1967 lines and include the settlements of Nisanit, Dugit and Alei Sinai, brought the Qassam launching points that much closer to Ashkelon. While the residents of Sderot are cowering in the shelters, our leaders are scratching their heads as to what to do next.

Israel leads in ballistic interception technology, but the trajectory of Qassams is just too short to make interception possible. The obvious move to cut down on this danger is for the IDF to reoccupy unilaterally some of the areas in the northern Gaza Strip that were so foolishly abandoned unilaterally last August. It’s so simple – so why is it not being done? Would you believe it? Our leaders are ashamed to admit their mistake.

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