The Civilian Population is in Danger

What do we have to look forward to now that Ben-Gurion’s and Begin’s determination to protect Israel’s civilian population seems to have been abandoned?


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on April 27, 2008.)

Our Prime Minister may be on his way out, but he does not miss a chance to make superfluous public statements. During his visit to an IDF installation last week he announced to the people of Israel that in the next war Israel’s major cities will be subjected to rocket attacks. This is not foreordained, but unless the government does something to prevent this severe danger to Israel, his vision is most likely to become a reality. But what has the government been doing to prevent this danger?

Sixty years ago, during the War of Independence, Israel’s fledgling air force did not have control of the skies over Israel, and the civilian population suffered from enemy aerial attacks. Ben-Gurion realized that a civilian population exposed to aerial attacks constitutes an existential danger to Israel. He was not prepared to enter the Sinai Campaign in 1956 until he had the assurance that French air force aircraft would assure control of the skies over Israel and provide protection for Israeli civilians while its soldiers were fighting at the front. For the next 25 years the Israel Air Force provided that protection, and the IDF could fight off the aggression of Israel’s enemies, its soldiers secure in the knowledge that their families were safe.

This was to change only when Palestinian terrorists began rocketing northern Israel from southern Lebanon. Menahem Begin understood that this was an intolerable situation and launched the Peace for Galilee operation in 1982, which moved the rocket launching sites out of range of Israel. The partial withdrawal from the Lebanon security zone ordered by the Peres-led national unity government some years later brought northern Israel again into the range of rockets from southern Lebanon, now launched by Hezbollah. The subsequent unilateral withdrawal ordered by Ehud Barak left northern Israel completely exposed, as Hezbollah began amassing large quantities of increasingly longer range rockets that were eventually launched against all of northern Israel during the Second Lebanon War.

The absence of an IDF ground offensive during that war designed to end these attacks against Israel’s civilian population was justified by a new conception that has taken root in Israel, and expressed by Olmert’s recent statement, that civilian casualties had become an integral part of life in Israel. This bizarre and dangerous conception is justified by explanations that the advent of ballistic missiles has created a new situation in which casualties on the home front have become unavoidable. The government’s failure to stop the rocketing of Sderot and Ashkelon only served to ingrain this dangerous mind-set in the minds of many. So what do we have to look forward to now that Ben-Gurion’s and Begin’s determination to protect Israel’s civilian population seems to have been abandoned?

The fact of the matter is that ballistic missiles are nothing new. German V-2 rockets were launched against London toward the end of World War II. As everyone should know by now, ballistic missiles are the cheapest and most effective way to deliver explosives from a distance and an obvious choice for Israel’s enemies. But this danger is not inevitable, nor is the development and deployment of interception systems designed to intercept these missiles in mid-flight, the most efficient and effective answer. The enemy should be prevented from arming itself with these weapons; if that fails, the shorter-range rockets, like the Qassams, should be put out of range by ground force action; and in the absence of these measures, the enemy has to be deterred from using these weapons against civilians.

When faced by a similar danger to its civilian population by the suicide bombers of the second intifada, the IDF, after some delay, after it had become obvious that the situation had become insufferable, took resolute action to suppress this threat. Suicide bombings continue to be prevented by the presence of the IDF in Judea and Samaria. Had suicide bombings in Israel’s cities continued to this day, Israel would have been in an entirely different strategic situation by now.

As for the rocket threat to the civilian population, Israeli governments in recent years have done nothing to alleviate this threat, acting as if rocket attacks on the civilian population had become a way of life (“Get used to it,” Olmert said to the residents of Ashkelon), and not realizing that this constant danger to Israeli civilians was bringing about a major change in the balance of power in the region and constitutes a danger to Israel’s existence.

The Israeli leadership has been fully aware of the change in the region’s strategic balance that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would entail. The probability that Iran would use a nuclear weapons against Israel is very low, but the results could be catastrophic. The probability that ballistic rockets will be used against the Israeli civilian population is at this time almost a certainty, and the results would be devastating. That situation needs to be changed while there is still time.

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