In the words of Yogi Berra, the famous New York Yankees baseball player, “It’s like déja-vu all over again”.
I don’t know who comes up with the names for Israeli military operations but this time they seemed to be extra creative. The Hebrew name for the current conflict with Hamas-ruled Gaza is “Mivtza Tzuk Etan”. It can be translated as Operation Firm (or steadfast) Cliff. That has been transformed for the English language news media as “Operation Defensive Edge”, which sounds to me like something from a razor blade commercial.
The other day I found myself with my wife in Tel Aviv at a frozen Yoghurt café when the Color Red sirens went off announcing another rocket attack from Gaza. We were not used to sirens as an alarm because in our village there are loud speakers which call out the words “Color Red” when rockets are detected heading our way. It took us a few seconds to realize what was happening when about a dozen people who had been walking outside came through the doors of the café and were directed by the staff to the safe area of the structure. Safely tucked away next to the bathrooms, we could hear the iron dome rockets exploding high above us and knew that we had to wait a few more minutes in case pieces of rocket fell in our area. Soon it was all over and everyone went on their way. My wife and I, who had been through more than a score of rocket attacks over the years, were pleasantly surprised at how the people who had come in displayed very little nervousness and no panic. In fact they acted as if it was a normal everyday inconvenience and when it was over, continued with their lives as if nothing much had happened.
At about eight that evening, Hamas announced with great fanfare that they had prepared a special attack that would happen at 9:00 PM and would leave Tel Aviv in flames. At the appointed hour Hamas launched a large salvo of rockets at Tel Aviv which were all fended off by the Iron Dome system and no damage was done. Three Hamas rockets came down on the West Bank, one each in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron. At least one Palestinian home was hit and suffered damage but there were no fatalities. Once I determined that the Hamas big surprise was just another big dud, I turned on my computer to see what the world was thinking. I read some pro-Palestinian articles most of which complained about the lopsided score of casualties. There just didn’t seem to be enough dead Israelis to suit the sensibilities of these humanitarians. Most made the false statement that Gaza was the most densely populated place on Earth. In fact, that distinction belongs to Macau, with Monaco, Singapore and Hong Kong listed before we get to Gaza. What is ironic is that the Greater Tel Aviv area, the prime target of Hamas rockets, has a higher population density than Gaza. Of course there was no mention of this in response to the Hamas announcement of their intention to smash Tel Aviv with their rockets.
As it happens I am more than a little familiar with the reason why the Israeli civilian casualties have been so low and it is not that Hamas hasn’t tried very hard to kill us. It all started with the first Gulf War when Israeli cities, for the first time, were subjected to Scud missile attacks from Iraq. After the war, a study was done and it was determined that public bomb shelters were located too far away from most civilians to offer much protection from rocket and missile attacks. So changes were made in the building codes and all new housing units had to have a room constructed so that it could withstand the blast of a rocket warhead. Over the years many older structures were replaced by new ones with the required safe rooms. When the Kassam rockets first made their appearance in Gaza, the people with newer houses were prepared. However those with older homes had no protection. The government launched a building program to attach a secure room for each home. In addition, mass-produced protective structures were placed by all bus stops and other places were the public gathered.
I live in the Eshkol Regional Council which shares a 40 kilometer border with Gaza and another 12 kilometers with the Egyptian Sinai. For several years I served as our village’s representative to the regional council. As a council member I served on different committees including one committee which reviewed and approved public tenders for construction and other projects in our area. So I was well aware of the money that the Israeli government was pouring into the construction of secure rooms for older homes that did not have them. Roughly speaking the cost of these secure rooms was well over $100,000,000. There are several regional councils bordering Gaza and the government spent similar sums on them as well... This figure does not include the supply of mass produced protective structures in public places such as bus stops, sports fields and children’s playgrounds. In addition the government developed the Iron Dome system with the financial backing of the United States. All in all there was probably close to one billion dollars spent by the government to protect the populace from rockets fired from Gaza.
In the end the system of shelters, secure rooms, early warning systems and the Iron Dome defensive system has worked. Israeli numbers of killed and wounded are extremely low especially in comparison to Palestinian killed and wounded. Of course, the Israeli government’s efforts to protect Israeli citizens seems quite immoral to some and has been grist for the Hamas propaganda mill. But I would give up some debating points if it meant less civilian casualties on our side, which leads me to the main point of this essay.
I came home this evening to find an email from an overseas acquaintance in which she asked two thought provoking questions; do I support the Israeli government’s approach and do I see a way forward.
As to the first question I have to admit that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has crafted a set of policies that seem to me to serve Israeli national interests very well. He has announced that his goal is to create a situation where quiet from Hamas will be reciprocated with quiet from Israel. He is not talking about peace with Hamas but at the same time he is pointedly not talking about removing the Hamas government from Gaza. Not only does his limited goal seem reasonable to European and American foreign policy decision makers but it puts the onus on Hamas to reply in kind, something they proved unable to do when they rejected an Egyptian brokered cease fire yesterday.
Netanyahu’s policy combined with the Israeli shelter program for its citizens and the Iron Dome system has resulted in Hamas pressing on with nearly ineffective rocket attacks on Israeli civilian targets. The Israeli response brings death and destruction to Gaza which have an increasing probability as being seen as justified by the significant European and American foreign policy making elites. Moreover, Netanyahu is creating an image of himself as a moderate by using his volatile foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman as a foil. At this point in the conflict, Netanyahu’s policies cannot be faulted.
As for a way forward, that requires something that has so far not appeared on the scene. Usually I refer to it as a Palestinian leadership more interested in creating a Palestinian state than in destroying the Israeli state. But instead I would call attention to something else. For whatever reason the Israeli government values the lives of its citizens enough to expend a billion dollars on their protection. A way forward will appear when a Palestinian government values the lives of its citizens as something more than propaganda cannon fodder. Until then I suppose that we are condemned to having déja-vu all over again.