The New Years Gift from Hamas

Word came yesterday that a rocket fired from Gaza injured 69 Israeli soldiers at their Negev base located but one kilometer north of the Gaza border, where the soldiers were in basic training.  Practically every day since Israel's disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, rockets have been fired from Gaza at the town of Sderot, population 22,000. Families there have but seconds' warning to flee into air raid shelters, and there have been many deaths and injuries from the constant attacks.

The rocket fire from Gaza occurred when Fatah was nominally in charge of Gaza, and has continued under Hamas control, established this past June. Responsibility for the attack yesterday was claimed by multiple groups, as is always the case when there is a "successful firing," and the attack was applauded by Hamas officials. On this count, the attempt to kill and terrorize Israelis (civilians or soldiers),  there has never been a dime's worth of difference in the objectives and behavior of Fatah and Hamas. 

The latest attack on the IDF base came on the eve of the Jewish New Year, 5768, when Jews worldwide pray for personal forgiveness from God and for peace.  But peace will not come when Israel's enemies are committed to its destruction and sense extraordinary weakness and feckless political calculation as the modus operandi of the Israeli government.

It is of course far easier to be a critic of the Israeli government's current policies than to suggest alternatives that will work any better. And alternatives that involve military action- such as a partial or complete military reoccupation of Gaza could be very costly in terms of loss of lives for the IDF.

But certain truths seem obvious at this point, whether or not they are seen that way by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who are busy setting in motion a plan to turn over to the PA control over virtually all of the West Bank.  

Control Relinquished

The IDF delivered Gaza to the PA in 2005. It took but two years for Hamas to win a decisive electoral victory in 2006 and then wipe out the PA and take complete military control of Gaza this year. The IDF withdrawal meant that Gaza was no longer occupied by either settlers or the IDF, and that there was no further Palestinian grievance over Gaza.

In similar fashion, the Israeli withdrawal from  the security zone in South Lebanon in the spring of 2000, and certified by the UN as ending its occupation , was supposed to have removed Hezb'allah's and Lebanon's grievance, which would then lead to the Lebanese army taking control of  the border area with Israel. That of course did not happen. Hezb'allah implanted itself directly across the border fence from Israel, was supplied with thousands of rockets from Iran shipped through Damascus, and after skirmishes over several years, finally provoked last summer's war with Israel.

Now the Lebanese army and UN forces have moved near the border, but Hezb'allah has been re-supplied with more rockets than it had before last summer's war, and has merely moved much of the base of its operations a few miles north. Even more damaging, the Lebanese withdrawal in 2000 hardened the negotiating position of the PA at the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000, and in short order led to the start of the deadly second Palestinian intifada at the end of September, 2000, in which over 1,000 Israelis died. 

The Palestinian leadership clearly interpreted the Lebanese withdrawal as signaling that Israel had lost the stomach to fight, and they believed that stepping up the violence in the territories and inside Israel would lead to further political concessions by Israel to the PA. This is of course exactly what happened: Israel sweetened its offer to the PA between Camp David and the Taba talks in January 2001, all while the PA was sponsoring and encouraging attacks against Israelis on the roads, on buses, in restaurants and on the streets .

The lesson of both the Gaza and Lebanese withdrawals seems fairly clear: Israel's security interests are damaged by territorial surrenders to implacable enemies. 

In the case of South Lebanon, Hezb'allah is far better armed today than it was when the IDF maintained its security zone. The IDF took casualties in its fight with Hezb'allah in the years prior to the withdrawal, but prevented attacks against Northern Israeli towns. In the 5 weeks of last summer's war, 4,000 rockets were fired at Israeli civilians in the North and a fifth of the country's population fled or were relegated to crude bomb shelters. This was the price of territorial surrender. 

The withdrawal from Gaza has led to similar results. Weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza has been at far higher levels since the disengagement than it was before it, when the primary routes for such smuggling were tunnels dug under the Philadelphi Road. Now, terrorists and their weapons move back and forth across the Gaza Egypt border.  Tunnel smuggling also continues, this time without any interdiction from the Egyptians. Israeli forces routinely discovered and blew up tunnels when they were still in Gaza.

While Palestinian advocates and propagandists cry about the impoverishment of the Palestinian population in Gaza, Hamas has found the money to buy what it needs from weapons smugglers. And it has directed its efforts at improving the range and lethality of its rockets.

A vivid contrast exists between the way the two groups direct their energies. While Israeli companies make major medical and technology advances and go public on Nasdaq, Gazan and Palestinian entrepreneurial activity is always directed at the death trade. 

It is inevitable that the rockets will in time reach farther into Israel, and will be targeted at the heavily populated towns along the coastal plain -- Ashkelon, Ashdod, Jaffa and finally Tel Aviv. 

Israel's Quest for Security

Security will not come without sacrifice. In last year's Lebanon war, the defense minister Amir Peretz, chose to fight the war as if it were a repeat of the NATO mission against Serbia over Kosovo. That air campaign lasted over 60 days without NATO casualties. In Israel's coalition politics, Labor got the defense ministry and Peretz, former chief of the Histadrut labor organization, took the defense portfolio.

The first few weeks of the war with Hezb'allah were largely an air operation, designed to minimize IDF casualties. Nonetheless, the air campaign resulted in the inevitable charges that Israel was indiscriminately bombing civilian targets and essential infrastructure. In the last two weeks of the war, the start-and-stop ground operation became more focused, and hundreds of Hezb'allah fighters were killed and forced from their tunnel bunkers. Had such an effort begun earlier, Israel would have accomplished more, and provided less excuse for the human rights lobby to gang up on it.

One obvious lesson is to avoid putting a war in the hands of someone whose basic career preparation is running the equivalent of the AFL-CIO.  Another is that a short term casualty-avoidance strategy can lead to longer term casualty figures that are multiples of the number that may have been avoided initially. 

Just this past week, the Olmert government hinted that action in Gaza would not be forthcoming at the moment due to the threat of a war with Syria in the north. Such a statement is sure to embolden enemies on both fronts, by signaling that Israel believes it is incapable of protecting its security interests on two fronts simultaneously. 

The Talks

Israel is now engaged in preliminary discussions with Mahmoud Abbas that will lead to a conference with the Roadmap Quartet members and possibly other Arab nations in November. So far, all the discussions have focused on what Israel can provide to the Palestinians -- easing roadblocks,  prisoner releases, territorial transfers in the West Bank, and in pre-‘67 Israel,  surrendering  sovereignty over the Temple Mount and relinquishing sections of Jerusalem. 

Mahmoud Abbas' government exercises far weaker control in the West Bank than Hamas' power over Gaza. During the second intifada, all but one suicide bombing was carried out by a Palestinian from the West Bank, the supposedly more moderate, less Islamist area. There were bombers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to be sure, but also from Fatah, whether Force 17, the Tanzim or the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade. Territory surrendered to Fatah today may well be territory belonging to Hamas tomorrow. And rockets fired from the  West Bank would endanger millions of Israelis, threaten Ben Gurion Airport and could bring  the country to its knees economically.

In the preliminary discussions, there has been no leak about PA concessions or commitments (worthless as they have been in the past) to end the propaganda war directed at Israel and the Jews on Palestinian media and in mosques,  nor any commitment to real reconciliation and an end to the 60 year Palestinian grievance process, nor acceptance that there will be no right of return to Israel for refugees (the few left alive) and their many descendants.

To be trite, Ehud Olmert is fiddling with West Bank concessions while Gaza burns.  To be more direct, I recall a scene in the classic film comedy Animal House. Kevin Bacon, in his film debut, plays a freshman Chip Diller, who is accepted as a pledge into Omega House, the respected fraternity on campus, though also a leader in sadism. On initiation night for the pledges, Bacon is seen naked, bent over, being paddled on his behind by the fascistic ROTC captain Doug Neidermeyer. After each blow is struck, Bacon's character shouts out: "Thank you sir, may I have another."  

It is to such depths rhat Israeli strategic policy has descended.

Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.