The 2002 Seder Night Massacre in Netanya marked a decisive turning point in Israel’s ongoing struggle with Palestinian terror. The sleeping Gulliver finally awakened and decided to defend itself.
In early March of 2002, less than a month before the Seder Night Massacre, which claimed 30 lives, I spoke in Queens on a Motzaei Shabbos
. I will never forget the grim faces in the audience. By that time, everyone had heard the news of a terrible suicide bombing in the Bais Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem. The suicide bomber had walked into a group of young mothers pushing baby carriages before blowing himself up. Most of the sixteen killed were young children and mothers.
I detected a series of questions on the faces of my listeners: Have Jews in Israel turned into sitting ducks in a shooting gallery just waiting for Palestinian suicide bombers to pick them off? Is this how it was for the Jews of Europe in the ‘30s? Did they gradually adjust to each deterioration in their situation until they could no longer see the direction in which events were headed?
Those questions became even more forceful during the month that followed. Over 130 Jews in Israel were killed by Palestinian terrorists that March alone – the equivalent in American terms of more than two 9/11s. The month culminated in the horrific Seder Night bombing in Netanya, in which 30, mostly elderly Jews, were killed.
At that point, Israelis realized that there was no choice but to fight back. And fight back they did.
The Seder Night Massacre was experienced by Israelis, in Yossi Klein Halevi’s words, as "a taunt – a reminder [on the Festival of Freedom] that we are no longer free in our land." And the country responded collectively to the assault on its collective existence. As Operation Defensive Shield got underway, 4,500 more reservists reported for duty than were summoned for duty. And most of those reservists were husbands and fathers, who had to look their spouses and children in the eyes, before eagerly rushing off to battle.
Barely four days into the Israeli offensive against the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, President Bush demanded that Israeli troops withdraw immediately from Palestinian cities. (At that point, the American offensive against Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was already in its seventh month.)
Prime Minister Sharon paid not the slightest heed to his staunchest ally. Had he done so, he would have been thrown out of office. Every Israeli knew that no country in the world – and certainly not the United States – would have remained passive in the face of the terrorist attacks that Israel had endured during March. And this time they were in no mood to submit to the usual double standard applied to Israel.
The operational achievements of Operation Defensive Shield were impressive: hundreds of wanted terrorists killed or captured, vast stores of weapons seized, and key terrorist leaders like Marwan Barghouti arrested. But most important was the message conveyed to the Palestinians: Israel would fight for its existence, and not just throw in the towel against those who proclaim their love of death.
WHY RECITE THIS HISTORY NOW? Because last week Israel appeared to be facing once again a moment of truth similar to that it faced after the Seder Night Massacre. As we detailed last week, the Israeli government has adopted a stance of extreme passivity in the face of the firing of hundreds of Kassams at Israel since last summer’s Gaza withdrawal. The 30,000 residents of Sderot have found themselves daily targets of missiles fired from the other side of the Gaza security fence.
Even the Palestinian attack on the Kerem Shalom outpost and the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit did little to change the picture. Through the first week of Operation Summer Rains, Israeli officials repeated over and over that the IDF would leave the Gaza Strip as soon as Shalit returned home. Nothing was said about the cessation of Kassams being fired at Israel as a precondition for Israeli military withdrawal. Nor did the IDF even enter the northern Gaza Strip from which almost all Kassam fire has been directed.
All that changed dramatically, however, on the ninth day of Operation Summer Rains, when a Kassam fell on the playground of an abandoned school in the center of Ashkelon. The next day another upgraded Kassam fell in the middle of Ashkelon.
Suddenly it was no longer the 30,000 residents of dusty Sderot, most of them descendants of Jews from Arab lands dumped there in the ‘50s, under fire. Now a major city of 120,000 people, with many strategic industrial targets, including oil refineries, was in range of the upgraded Kassams.
And the Israeli response was commensurate. The IDF moved into northern Gaza, and unidentified senior government spokesmen were quoted speaking about establishing a security zone in the northern Gaza Strip to prevent further Kassam launchings from there. Senior government officials began speaking about the cessation of further Kassam attacks, not just Shalit’s release, as a pre-condition for a full IDF withdrawal from Gaza.
Finally, the IDF began its efforts to uncover the workshops in which the Kassams are manufactured, and to eliminate those responsible for the attacks. In the first week of Operation Summer Rains not a single Palestinian was killed by the IDF (as opposed to five killed in Palestinian clan violence); in the second week, after the two Kassams fell on Ashkelon, nearly fifty Palestinians were killed in IDF operations.
Yet it would be far too early to label the current IDF operations as another decisive turning point in the collective Israeli psyche. Operation Summer Rains, for all the increased intensity of operations, cannot be compared to Operation Defensive Shield in scale or the determination with which it is being waged. After its brief foray into northern Gaza, the IDF ceased ground operations after a few days, indicating that the purpose of their entry in the first place was as much to exert pressure on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority to release Shalit, as it was to uproot the terrorist infrastructure.
Nor did the recent IDF operations involve the call-up of reservists. Operation Summer Rains is not a collective response to a collective assault, as Operation Defensive Shield was.
For all the shock created by the two Kassams landing on Ashkelon, Israel experienced none of the outpouring of national will that it did in April 2002. From a strategic point of view, there may be no difference between potential casualties and actual casualties. But the emotional impact is very different. The Kassams have claimed a dozen lives so far over a period of five years, nothing comparable in emotional impact to the more than 130 Jews killed by suicide bombers in March 2002.
Finally, the suicide bombings in Netanya and other major cities in Israel’s populous heartland caused every Israeli to feel himself a target. Despite recent Palestinian attempts to launch Kassams from the West Bank, most Israelis have not yet experienced the constant fear in which the 200,000 residents of the South in range of upgraded Kassams live.
At the outset of Operation Defensive Shield, a spate of editorials appeared by prominent figures renouncing their former illusions about the Palestinians. Most notable were those by Benny Morris, the father of Israel’s so-called "new historians," who admitted that in the eyes of many he appeared to have undergone a brain transplant, and who now placed the onus for the lack of peace primarily on the Palestinians.
In a similar vein, Larry Derfner (a very minor figure compared to Morris) wrote last week that even though he continues to view the Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank as both immoral and impractical, he has lost all belief "that the Palestinians are a basically rational, reasonable nation, that can be talked into putting down their weapons and making peace with Israel."
"What I believe now is that only Israeli military deterrence, which will no doubt require the periodic use of force, can get the Palestinians to stop fighting," writes Derfner.
That is what most Israelis now believe. What is lacking today, however, is the visceral sense that things must change, and change dramatically, and a government capable of acting with the same determination as in April 2002.
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