Even as the nation of Israel prays for the safe return of Gilad Shalit to his family, it becomes clearer with each passing day that the Israeli response to his kidnapping has only reinforced the worst failure of Israeli diplomacy since the Gaza withdrawal: the treatment of a rain of Kassams on Sderot and Ashkelon as a normal event.
Prime Minister Sharon repeatedly stressed that after the withdrawal from Gaza, full responsibility for any attacks from Gaza would fall on the Palestinian Authority, and would be treated like an attack by an enemy state.
Accordingly, the first Kassam to fall after the withdrawal should have elicited a fierce Israeli response. And when the U.N., the EU, and various nations condemned Israel’s response, as they would inevitably have done, Israel should have asked: How would the United States (for instance) have responded to a missile attack on Amarillo from Mexican territory?
That question – or its equivalent for every country condemning Israel’s response as "disproportionate" – needed to be repeated constantly until the point was clearly understood: No country in the world would remain passive in the face of missile attacks on its towns and cities, especially if it had the power to prevent those attacks.
But the harsh response threatened by Prime Minister Sharon never happened. Nearly 1,000 Kassams have been launched at Israel since the Gaza withdrawal, without Israel moving back into northern Gaza to destroy the workshops in which the Kassams are manufactured and to create a security zone from which Palestinian groups would no longer be able to fire unimpeded.
Instead Israel has confined itself to artillery attacks on the sites of launchings – i.e., shelling empty fields long after the perpetrators have fled the scene. The only other tactic employed by the IDF has been trying to pick off terrorists by missiles fired from the sky, the minute they poke their heads out of the ground. Yet, inevitably, the Israeli missiles have claimed the lives of Palestinian civilians (how innocent I cannot judge), while frequently missing their targets. The result has been a series of propaganda victories for the Palestinians.
Of threats and lines in the sand, there have been plenty. But Israel has repeatedly failed to make good on those threats, even after having the sand kicked in its face. It perpetually finds itself in the position of the parent who threatens his child with dire consequences if he or she does not arrive by the time he counts three, and then starts counting – 1, 2, 2 ¼, 2 ½ , 2 ⅝, 2 …
Haifa University professor Stephen Plaut points out that this pattern has been in force since the outset of the Oslo process. After each territorial withdrawal, the current prime minister would insist that after this withdrawal the relationship with the Palestinians would change completely because now they know that our response to any further terrorist attacks will be to hit them RRH (Really, Really Hard), and the world will support us.
But RRH has never been consistently implemented, and on the few occasions when it was – e.g., after the Seder night suicide bombing in Netanya – the world surely did not support Israel. Indeed, suggests the sardonic Plaut, it now appears that Israel’s long-range strategy is to cause the Palestinians to die of laughter every time it trots out the RRH threat again.
By continually threatening and never delivering after the Gaza withdrawal, Israel has simultaneously lost all deterrent power and normalized the Kassam attacks on Israel.
For a long time, it has been clear that nothing can stop the barrage of Kassams falling on the Negev and the outskirts of Ashkelon short of the IDF reentering northern Gaza and demolishing the terrorist infrastructure responsible for those attacks, in much the same way it did in the West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield.
Prime Minister Olmert has been unwilling to do so, however, for two reasons. The first is the fear of revealing the lunacy of further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, which could only result in those areas becoming terrorist launching pads against Israel’s densely populated heartland.
And the second is the fear of adverse world reaction. With respect to the second, a cynic could easily be forgiven for suspecting that the Israeli government has been waiting to act for a Kassam to land on a crowded Sderot classroom (they have already done so while children were davening in the next room) or an oil refinery in Ashkelon.
If so, last week’s attack on the IDF base near Kerem Shalom and the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit by Hamas operatives should have also served as the long-awaited pretext to free the citizens of Sderot from cowering in their homes. But it has not.
Through the first week of action, the IDF had not killed a single Palestinian terrorist (compared to five Palestinians killed in inter-clan warfare in the same period) or destroyed any Kassam factories. The air force contented itself with making a few sonic booms over Gaza and buzzed Bashar Assad’s summer palace.
Meanwhile, the IDF refrained from entering into northern Gaza, from which almost all the Kassams have been fired, in order, we were told, to allow more time for Egyptian diplomatic efforts to secure Shalit’s release. The most dramatic IDF action – the capture of Hamas ministers and parliamentarians – was designed primarily to gain bargaining chips for Shalit’s return.
From the prime minister on down, the consistent message of the Israeli government was: the IDF will leave the Gaza Strip as soon as Gilad Shalit is returned safely. (Only when the second Kassam in two days landed on Ashkelon, on the tenth day of Operation Summer Rains, did that message change and senior government spokesmen begin talking about establishing some kind of security zone in the northern Gaza Strip.)
Thus Israel signaled the world that IDF troops will be massed to enter Gaza to gain the release of one kidnapped soldier, but not to protect tens of thousands of citizens traumatized by months of an ongoing barrage of Kassams. By treating the Kassams as a normal event – "Kassams, Shmassams," said the heroic Shimon Peres two weeks ago -- Israel has ensured that when the inevitable happens and the IDF has no choice but to reoccupy, all or part of Gaza, the onus will fall upon it for breaking the status quo.
The Gemara (Sotah 13a) describes how when the Shevatim came to bury Yaakov Avinu in Ma’arat HaMachpela, Esav blocked the way. Negotiations remained at an impasse until Chushim ben Dan knocked off Esav’s head in one fell swoop. Why did resolution of the crisis have to await Chushim ben Dan?
Chushim ben Dan was deaf. He had no part in negotiations with Esav. When he saw his grandfather lying unburied, and Esav obstructing the way, he immediately felt the insanity of the situation and acted accordingly.
Israel now awaits a leader who understands the insanity of treating missile attacks as another "normal" event.