Israel’s Gaza Dilemmas

As Hamas amasses weapons and backing, time is not on Israel’s side.

Tuesday night was a “quiet one” in southern Israel—just two rockets fired from Gaza, no injuries or damage reported.

Monday night was “louder,” with 20 rockets and mortars fired. As the Jerusalem Post described it:

Air raid sirens sent residents fleeing for cover in the Eshkol, Sha’ar Hanegev and Ashkelon coastal regions.

Overnight on Monday, the Israel Air Force launched multiple air strikes in Gaza, targeting an area used to fire rockets in northern Gaza and multiple terrorist targets in the south of the Strip, the army said.

And on Sunday here in my city of Beersheva, 25 miles from Gaza, we were woken up by the rocket alarm at 5:25 a.m.; two Grads landed in open areas near the city and schools were closed for the day.

None of this, of course, compares (so far) with last week, when the hostilities included the firing of 80 rockets and mortars from Gaza in one 24-hour period.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, up for reelection in January, recently claimed the relative security quiet as one of the achievements of his four-year term.

True, Israel has been in no wars in that period and suffered little terrorism of the fatal kind. It is also true that the frequency of fire from Gaza is lower than in the previous term of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, when it reached about 3000 projectiles in 2008 before Olmert finally launched the Gaza War (December 2008-January 2009).

Since then, though, the frequency has been down to hundreds per year—not too consoling to southern Israelis and especially those in the “Gaza belt” (immediate vicinity of Gaza) who get the mortars as well as the rockets.

It was in a tour of that beleaguered area last week that Netanyahu pledged to beef up defenses, and on Sunday the cabinet approved a 270-million-shekel (about $70 million) plan to build 1700 bomb shelters in the area.

Clearly the timing had something to do with the elections. There is also something depressing about the move, since it seems to acknowledge that Israel is essentially on defense and expects the projectiles to keep coming.

No doubt, going on offense is fraught with difficulties too.

In the aforementioned Gaza War, the Israeli army inflicted heavy damage on Hamas infrastructure and killed hundreds of Hamas terrorists—and also, as collateral damage, hundreds of Gazan civilians, whom Hamas systematically uses as human shields to this day.

Israel, of course, got the blame with the Goldstone Report, and also lost ten Israeli lives in the war. But by now, with Gaza rebuilt and rockets again falling on southern Israel in large quantities, a cost-benefit analysis is irrelevant: the war gained Israel a breathing spell but did not solve the problem.

And since that time, while Hamas’s relations with its main patron Iran are now somewhat frayed, its stock has been rising in the Sunni world. Last week the emir of Qatar visited the Strip and pledged $400 million in aid, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are reportedly chipping in generously as well.

To that equation must be added, of course, the new Egypt now governed by a radical movement—the Muslim Brotherhood—of which Hamas is an offshoot. In Hamas, in other words, Israel now faces an enemy that—while small in itself—has powerful and varied backing, making a military offensive risky and problematic.

No doubt, dooming the residents of southern Israel to rocket fire and late-night sprints to bomb shelters is no solution either. The answer could lie in a reoccupation of some militarily important parts of the Strip, with a very strict carrot-and-stick approach to withdrawing again.

As Hamas amasses both weapons and backing, time is not on Israel’s side. The next Israeli government—which may be more hawkish than the current one—will need to take that into account if it wants to avoid essentially surrendering southern Israel to the forces of destruction.

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