West Bank Dreams and Gaza Realities

A "partner in peace" fires rockets into Israeli schools.

With the Jewish New Year, a time of prayer and reflection, falling this year from Wednesday evening through Friday, it wasn’t a very peaceful time for residents of southwestern Israel.

From Wednesday morning, just before the holiday, to Sunday morning, a total of four rockets and two mortar shells were fired from Gaza at Israeli civilian targets in the region. The mortar shell fired on Wednesday morning hit near school buildings in a kibbutz, a half-hour before children were due to arrive at the school.

If it had hit a half-hour later and caused a catastrophe, the country would have been in an uproar, Israel would have struck back at Hamas on a considerable scale, and calls for “restraint” would have issued from Washington, Turtle Bay, and Brussels.

Instead, with none of the rockets and mortars in these days exacting any physical casualties apart from the sowing of terror, Israeli warplanes on Thursday hit a couple of sites in Gaza with reports of several wounded.

Naturally, none of this was mentioned as relevant to the second round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks supposed to start on Tuesday at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton present. Yet these events are relevant to the purported peace talks, in several regards.

One is that Gaza is a flat territory, with no hilly or mountainous parts. Much has been made about the security importance for Israel of the mountainous terrain in the West Bank. Indeed, in the case of armies invading from the east, that terrain would constitute a formidable obstacle.

Gaza, however, has no such terrain, yet in recent years thousands of projectiles have been fired from it at Israel. All of Gaza is of security importance, because missiles, rockets, and mortars can be fired from anywhere in it. In the case of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank—now considered a sine qua non of “peace”—the same would hold true. Yet the West Bank is a much larger territory than Gaza.

Having this in mind, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken of—in the event of a “peace deal” and an Israeli pullback—Israel maintaining a military presence in the Jordan Valley to prevent infiltration of terrorists and weapons. Yet the effectiveness of a line of Israeli military installations there, isolated in a sea of Arab populations—even if the Palestinians were to agree to it, and they will not—is questionable at best.

Especially in light of the fact that Egypt—finally having grown fearful of Hamas as one prong of an Iranian-led alliance that has Egypt in its sights—has been striving more seriously to stop arms smuggling into Gaza, but with only mediocre results as the fire on Israel continues. Indeed, before the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, Israeli forces along the Philadelphi Route (the mere nine-mile corridor between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai) had only partial success in stopping the smuggling, with rocket and mortar fire on Israeli communities already having become a serious problem.

Another reason the ongoing attacks from Gaza are relevant to the peace talks is that Hamas is not deterred—not deterred from continuing to bombard Israel despite having been hit hard in Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009.

True, the shelling has not returned to the level of dozens of projectiles per day that preceded the Israeli operation. Still, six projectiles in five days—one of them almost hitting children in a school—is a lot. Yet Hamas knows that, particularly in the wake of the Goldstone report, Israel faces a welter of political constraints against hitting back and is ultra-careful about doing so.

How much more, then, would that be the case in the event of a pullback from the West Bank that—unlike Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, which was unilateral—would be part of a peace agreement that would be widely celebrated as a near-messianic consummation? Contemplating whether to defend itself, Israel would face the same agonizing hesitations and the same concerns about world condemnation, diplomatic damage, and “lawfare”—except that now the rockets would be falling on Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem.

Hence—leaving aside the unanswered question of how Hamas-run Gaza is supposed to fit into a peace agreement—anyone who still associates a West Bank withdrawal with “peace” needs to explain some things.

One is how—even if certain (highly unlikely) Israeli security arrangements were in place—firings from the West Bank could be stopped if they cannot be stopped from tiny, flat Gaza. Another is how smuggling into the West Bank could be stopped if neither Egypt nor Israel has succeeded to stop smuggling into, again, much smaller Gaza with its very short border.

And another is why, once the projectiles started to fly, Israel—after signing a peace agreement that an American president would regard as his crowning achievement—would have any more leeway to defend itself and why West Bank attackers, of whatever provenance, would be any more deterred than Gaza-based Hamas is at present.

Indeed, it was out of such considerations that, until twenty years ago, both the Likud and Labor mainstreams opposed a Palestinian state in the West Bank as an intolerable security threat. The logic behind that opposition remains as sound as it was then. What has changed is the political climate, and not for the better.