Struggle for survival: Israel responds to rocket attacks

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Imagine if, every day, six or seven rockets landed in the southwestern U.S. launched from northern Mexico. How would the U.S. media report on the destruction caused by these warheads as they plummeted from the sky into California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas?

How would the American people respond to civilian deaths in San Diego, El Paso and Brownsville caused by terrorists operating just across the border?

What impact would seeing our homes, schools and workplaces hit have on our opinion of Mexico?

Could any U.S. president stand aside and let these attacks continue without facing massive public demand for retaliation?

Is there any doubt that we would send our armed forces into Mexico on a ruthless hunt to destroy these terrorists and their weapons?

This scenario is analogous to what is being faced by the Israeli people and their government and explains their recent actions.

For two weeks, Israeli warplanes have pounded the Gaza Strip, targeting the Islamist terrorist group Hamas and the pseudo-state it has controlled since June 2007. On Jan. 3, Israel began a major ground offensive as well. An estimated 500 Palestinians have died during this attack, mostly elements of Hamas and its military wings.

According to Israeli accounts, and even some Palestinian sources, Hamas has suffered tremendous losses of key personnel, infrastructure and weapon storage sites, although sporadic rocket attacks continue on Israel.

Even as it strikes Gaza, Israeli restraint has been amazing. In many cases, Israeli Defense Forces warn civilians in targeted areas, often by calling them directly on their cell phones. Israel has also dropped leaflets and has used loudspeakers and broadcasts in areas where it planned to launch air raids, enabling Palestinians to evacuate before Israeli bombs and missiles destroy stockpiles of weapons.

The Israelis have also allowed hundreds of Palestinians to evacuate Gaza, many coming to Israel for medical care, and have increased humanitarian aid allowed into the Strip. Little of this has received media attention, but it speaks to the differences between the two sides.

In contrast, Hamas often surrounds its offices, rocket launchers and other terrorist facilities with civilians, using them as human shields or trumpeting their deaths as one more example of Israeli barbarism against defenseless victims.

Attacks by Hamas against Israel are not new. Rocket and mortar attacks on Israel, fired from the Gaza Strip, began in April 2001, when the region was still under full Israeli occupation. In September 2005, Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, trading land for what it hoped would be peace with Palestinians. Instead, from 2006 to 2008, these indirect attacks against Israeli cities and towns accelerated.

In the nearly seven years since the first rocket was fired, Israel has been the victim of over 3,500 rocket attacks and just under 4,000 mortar strikes. In 2008 alone, Israel was hit by over 2,500 attacks of this kind. Hamas has chosen rockets as its weapon of choice, primarily because Israel has successfully eliminated other options. Israel has the strongest military in the Middle East, so a conventional attack by infantry would be pointless. Security barriers, including concrete walls, multilayered fencing and electronic monitoring effectively encircle all of Gaza and most of the West Bank, explaining why suicide bombings, once almost daily occurrences in Israel, have dwindled by more than 90 percent over the past three years.

This is not a simple conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, however. On the West Bank, controlled by the Al Fatah group within the Palestine Liberation Organization, peace continues. Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been reasonably successful at limiting attacks launched against Israel from their territory, and they blame Hamas for the current conflict.

Last summer, I visited Israel as an academic fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. With a diverse group of historians, political scientists, sociologists and criminologists, we traveled throughout Israel and the West Bank to learn about terrorism and measures being taken against it.

I met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, inspected Israel's security barrier and observed Israeli military and security units in action. We even visited an Israeli prison to speak with convicted terrorists. I came away convinced that Israel was in a struggle for survival and that the U.S. should continue to support our ally in the Middle East.

Of course, nothing in the region is simple. While Hamas is to blame for the most recent violence, Israel bears some responsibility for these events. During the 1980s and 1990s, it encouraged the rise of Islamist groups such as Hamas as a counterweight to the secular PLO. Other actions have unnecessarily provoked Palestinian opinion. Successive governments have tolerated illegal Jewish settlements on Arab lands and have constructed security barriers across Palestinian homes and farms, so that even the Israeli Supreme Court has forced alterations in the route.

On its own behalf, Israel has also been relatively inept at arguing its case internationally not only through the traditional media, but until recently ignoring opportunities in the new media, such as YouTube and blogs. Even so, Israel has a right to defend its land and people against Hamas, and deserves our support.

Arab states, humanitarian agencies and even Western nations have called for a cease-fire, and protests against Israel have erupted throughout the Middle East and Islamic world.

What should be the response by the U.S. to this most recent violence, including Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli retaliation, which may escalate into a ground assault? I would hope that during the last few days of the Bush administration and the first few of President Obama, we resist the temptation to force a settlement on Israel. The world is littered with the results of uneasy truces, half-hearted armistices and festering conflicts, many caused by incomplete peace agreements forced by the international community.

Of course, we should welcome verifiable commitments by Hamas to end its attacks, so long as these words are accompanied by actions, such as destroying its stockpiles of Qassam rockets, agreeing to recognize Israel or accepting international monitoring of any truce.

A better solution, however, would be to drive Hamas from power and supporting the Palestinian Authority's resumption of control over the Gaza Strip. Such a move, coupled with renewed aid, investment and negotiations for an independent Palestinian state, could undermine the basis for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other extremist organizations.

In the short term, however, the U.S. should accept that the weakening of Hamas is in our interests, as well. If we believe that there is a global war on terrorism, then surely the struggle for Gaza, and hopefully the collapse of Hamas, is one element in that wider conflict.

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen is a professor and chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University.

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