Last Saturday night, in another of the truly bleak developments emanating from the Gaza Strip and western Negev desert, a Qassam rocket fired from northern Gaza hit the town of Sderot, seriously wounding an 8 year-old boy and moderately wounding his 19 year-old brother.
The next day, in a fit of pique, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit of Kadima, a man who aspires to one day become Israel’s Prime Minister, let loose the following reaction at a meeting of the Cabinet:
“Any other country would have already gone in and leveled the area, which is exactly what I think the IDF should do – decide on a neighborhood in Gaza and level it… We should let them know ‘you have to leave, this area will be taken down tomorrow’ and just take it down – that will show them we mean business.”
Although given on occasion to such tempestuous outbursts, Sheetrit, on the whole, has traditionally been one of the more sober politicians to emerge from his alma mater party, the Likud. Clearly the Israeli government’s chronic inability to put an end to the low-intensity warfare in and around the Gaza Strip has many Israeli politicians befuddled, confounded, bedeviled, and groping for answers.
Over the last weeks and months, the Israeli government has employed a variety of means – military, economic and diplomatic – to try and stop the incessant rocket fire. To date, not one of them has lived up to the government’s promises.
Targeted killings have eliminated scores of Hamas operatives, but they’ve taken the lives of innocent civilians as well and haven’t produced any letup. (When Defense Minster Ehud Barak this week referred to the number of Palestinian militants killed by the IDF, Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin offered this pithy rejoinder: “You can’t bask in the glory of terrorist scalps. Numbers killed are not an achievement. The only achievement is the cessation of Qassam rockets, and the government isn’t getting it done.”)
The economic blockade of Gaza – in which the supply of basic necessities has been limited to subsistence level – has backfired, as Hamas has turned the tables by breaching Gaza’s border wall with Egypt, reaping enormous PR gains in the process. Last month’s decision to limit fuel supplies to Gaza produced an international outcry that damaged Israel’s image, and caused Israeli leaders to beat a swiftly policy retreat. Now Israel is trying a more limited cutback on electricity supply to the Gaza Strip, but there is no indication that any of these Israeli-initiated shortages will spur Gaza’s Palestinians to rise up against the Hamas regime.
On the contrary: Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki noted last week that Israel’s recent actions have had just the opposite effect: Hamas, he explained, had steadily been losing popularity among Palestinians since last June, when it took over Gaza by force. But the stepped-up Israeli sanctions against Gaza, coupled with Hamas’ tearing down the Rafah border wall, have boosted Hamas’ popularity again, back to pre-June 2007 levels.
It also needs to be mentioned that, on the day-to-day level, Israeli reprisal actions sometimes even bring about an escalation of rocket fire as part of the tit-for-tat violence that plagues Israel and Palestine. Following last week’s suicide bombing in Dimona, for example, Israel took action in Gaza, killing Hamas operatives. Rather than producing quiet, Israel’s action – not surprisingly – was followed by increased Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. This is not to suggest that indiscriminate Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians are justified; far from it. But one cannot avoid the conclusion that Israeli government policy to date has failed miserably to deliver the goods.
A reader of this newsletter recently inquired what Meretz is suggesting for dealing with this untenable situation. It’s a legitimate question: After all, it’s easy to point to a flawed or failed policy; it’s much harder to fashion a better idea.
But the members of Meretz and its forerunner parties have made a career of producing better ideas, and this time seems to be no exception: For months, Meretz in Israel has been arguing that the only real way to stop the rocket-fire is through a general cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza. Such a cease-fire would also involve the release of Gilad Shalit, and Hamas’ imposition of the cease-fire on all the other armed factions in Gaza. For its part, Israel would suspend its military actions in Gaza, release Palestinian prisoners and lift the economic blockade of the Strip.
It is possible that this approach will not succeed, but Meretz feels it’s necessary to explore it, in light of the signals coming from Hamas that the organization might be amenable to such an arrangement. At present, it also seems the only way to create the level of quiet needed for serious, consistent peace talks to take place between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas and their respective negotiating teams.