Can Terrorists Be Deterred?

Preventing the recurrence of rocket attacks on Israel’s towns and villages in the coming months requires the cooperation of the Egyptian government.

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on November 19, 2012.)

Where did this seemingly inexhaustible number of rockets in the hands of the terrorists in the Gaza Strip come from? The answer is that they were stockpiled while Israelis thought Operation Cast Lead had deterred the launching of rockets.

True, the terrorists were not completely deterred. There had been intermittent rocket attacks on the south since Cast Lead, but the number had decreased. Many lulled themselves into believing that deterrence works on terrorists – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, the whole bunch.

Now it is said that deterrence needs to be refreshed. Will the current operation do that? Can terrorists be deterred?

The fact that a conflagration is followed by a period of relative quiet may not mean that the terrorists, remembering the blows they received last time, are being deterred, but rather that they are using the time to resupply their armory with more and longer-range rockets in preparation for the next round.

That’s what happened in Gaza, and that’s what’s happening with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nation-states can be deterred when faced by overwhelming force, but it is damn difficult to deter terrorists.

Their goals are unlimited and their planning horizons stretch into infinity. Deterring them is not an aim likely to be achieved. If the terrorists cannot be deterred, and the population in the southern half of Israel is not to face recurrent rocket attacks, each time increasing in intensity, the terrorists have to be disarmed, their rockets destroyed and rocket supply lines blocked.

That has to be the ultimate aim of a military operation or diplomatic initiative, but it’s easier said than done. Even if an Israeli ground operation reached Gaza’s rocket arsenals and rocket manufacturing facilities and destroyed them, that would still leave open future rocket supplies to the terrorists from outside the Strip. The supply line of weapons to the Gaza terrorists runs through Egyptian territory, and the current Egyptian regime does not seem likely to cooperate in an effort to block this supply line, or to look kindly on an Israeli operation to do so.

How foolish was the Olmert government that stopped Operation Cast Lead before the job had been finished? How naive were they to believe that the slightest infringement of the cease-fire would bring on another military operation in Gaza and that this threat would deter the Gaza terrorists from renewing their activities against Israel? As if such operations can be carried out every other week.

They missed the opportunity to disarm the Gaza terrorists and block their supply lines while there was a government in Cairo that saw in Hamas a common enemy. Now that Hosni Mubarak is gone it’s an entirely different story. Even if a ground operation destroyed the terrorist rocket arsenal in Gaza, the question of rocket resupply to the terrorists, not to mention the increasingly frequent rocket attacks on Israel from Egyptian territory in Sinai, would remain to trouble the government and people of Israel.

It’s therefore clear that preventing the recurrence of rocket attacks on Israel’s towns and villages in the coming months requires the cooperation of the Egyptian government. It must reestablish control over Sinai and block all attempts to supply weapons to Hamas and its affiliates in the Gaza Strip from Sinai.

If at all possible, only American diplomacy can bring this about. Egypt badly needs American (and European ) financial assistance. If that lever is used to obtain an Egyptian commitment to prevent the rearmament of the terrorists in the Gaza Strip and the activities of terrorists in Sinai, the beneficiaries will be the population in Gaza, the people of Egypt and the people of Israel.

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