Two things are ever clearer about the current situation in Sderot. The first is that it is intolerable; the second, that nobody has any clear idea of what to do about it. "There are no good answers, no good options," says Gerald Steinberg, director of Bar Ilan University's Center of Conflict Resolution.
Two weeks ago, under heavy Kassam fire from Gaza, over half of Sderot's 24,000 citizens had fled the city. Three-quarters of the city's children are suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress, and over a dozen Jews have been killed by Kassams. In peak season, residents find themselves scurrying for cover, after the sounding of the Red Dawn alert system, five or more times a day. In short, Sderot has become a place that no one would continue to live in, if they had the slightest alternative.
Sderot could easily become a model for other Israeli towns and cities.
The great fear hovering over Israel's Jews is that this border town, populated mostly by immigrants from Arab lands, who were shunted to the periphery of the country over half a century ago and newer Russian immigrants, could easily become a model for other Israeli towns and cities.
Already Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin warns that terrorists have succeeded in smuggling into Gaza across the Egyptian border missiles that can target Ashkelon, with over 100,000 citizens and strategic oil refineries, and will soon be able to reach even more heavily populated Ashdod just up the Mediterranean coast. In other words, some solution must be found for Sderot lest it become a harbinger for an even more intolerable future.
The suffering of Sderot did not begin with the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Kassams were already a regular fact of life for Sderot's residents before that. But unquestionably the situation has worsened significantly as a result of the Gaza withdrawal, in particular because of massive arms smuggling from Sinai into Gaza via the Philadelphia Corridor. According to the Shin Bet, 20,000 guns, 1,000 anti-tank rockets, and an additional 100 tons of armaments have flooded into the Gaza Strip over the past year. While some of these will doubtless be employed in the internecine fighting that has turned Gaza into a war zone, most are aimed at Israel.
The Philadelphia Corridor was far from hermetically sealed even when patrolled by Israeli forces, but the stream of weapons formerly coming into Gaza has turned into a flood. When the Gaza withdrawal was first proposed, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stated that Israel would maintain control of the Philadelphia Corridor precisely to prevent the massive arms smuggling currently taking place. But the logic of withdrawal always made that unlikely, for as long as Israeli troops remained in Gaza, Israel would still be considered responsible for its residents by the international community.
The Egyptians, who are now responsible for preventing arms smuggling, have almost no incentive for doing so – certainly none that would put Egyptian troops at risk. They do not mind seeing Israel bleed by Kassams.
Prime Minister Sharon promised that after the Gaza withdrawal Israel would respond very harshly to any further rocket fire from Gaza. Similar promises were made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak after the withdrawal from Lebanon. And just as they were not acted upon in Lebanon, they were not acted upon in Gaza, and for the same reason.
In both cases, the withdrawals were designed to win international favor, and a harsh military response to Hizbullah or Palestinian attacks would have immediately cost Israel any diplomatic capital in accrued. In addition, the necessity of any major military action would have exposed the initial withdrawal as poorly conceived.
So the logic of withdrawal itself made it unlikely that Israel would ever make good on its promises to react forcefully against future attacks from the evacuated areas. But the consequence of not acting was that missile attacks on Israel – of a type that no country would tolerate – are now viewed as part of the status quo.
And that status quo is intolerable. But when Israel eventually responds to missile attacks against its cities in the same fashion that any other country in the world would, it will be blamed for breaching the status quo, precisely because of its earlier policy of restraint.
So what are some of Israel's options now? One, of course, would be to admit that the 2005 withdrawal was a huge mistake, and retake the Gaza Strip. That, however, seems to be an option no one wants. The last thing that Israel seeks is to become responsible again for 1.25 million Palestinians just as Gaza breaks down into complete anarchy and returns to the primitive state of nature. Nor does it wish to provide the one thing that might perhaps reunite the feuding Palestinian militias – an Israeli invasion.
Two weeks ago, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin warned the cabinet that Hamas has prepared for an Israeli invasion with a vast network of booby-traps, mines, suicide bombers, and snipers. After the Winograd Commission findings, it would be impossible to deny that Diskin had a duty to present the cabinet with an assessment of the likely costs of an invasion. But the way his warnings were leaked to the media and then reported in scare headlines handed Hamas a huge propaganda victory by making it seem that Israel could not reconquer Gaza.
That is almost certainly not the case. The real question is what it would do once it did so. How could it avoid a low level war of attrition with Jewish soldiers killed every week? For that reason, others, like former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon, argue for a large-scale ground action designed to destroy the terrorist infrastructure currently leveled at Israel, along the lines of the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank to be followed by an Israeli withdrawal.
Unquestionably Operation Defensive Shield, which began just after the Seder night suicide bombing in Netanya, did reverse the terrorist momentum in Judaea and Samaria. But that result has required a continuous military presence in Judea and Samaria, lots of checkpoints, and the building of a huge security fence. In short, for the results to be sustained the IDF must remain in large numbers, and that is what the government wishes to avoid in Gaza, at this time.
To have any lasting impact an operation against the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza would have to be coupled at least with Israel retaking control of the Philadelphia Corridor. Some have even suggested building a sea-water channel along the Philadelphia Corridor to prevent future tunneling under the border by smugglers. Such a step, however, would run the risk of a confrontation with the Egyptians, who are currently responsible for the border.
In addition, the Philadelphia Corridor is too narrow to be defended by itself, and Israeli troops would have to clear a wider swath and knock down hundreds of dwellings in Rafah to do so, with the predictable international outcry to follow.
Others urge Israel to employ a series of strong disincentives to Palestinian missile strikes against Israel. For some that means a forceful artillery or missile response at the place of any missile launch, even if that launch comes from a rooftop in a highly populated area. For others that means threats to cut off Gaza's water and electricity, both of which are supplied by Israel.
A possible option is to declare Gaza an enemy state, seal the border and end the supply of water and electricity.
Former head of the National Security Council, General Giora Eiland, offers as a possible option declaring Gaza an enemy state and sealing the border and ending the supply of water and electricity. He acknowledges that such a step would provoke a strong international response, but it would also force the international community to recognize that Israel cannot allow the current situation to continue and to take some responsibility for the situation.
In 2006, despite Hamas's takeover of the Palestinian Authority, international aid to the Palestinians actually increased by 200 million dollars over the previous year. The Palestinians are by far the largest recipients of international aid in the world – $300 per person as opposed to $44 per person for the even poorer inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa. They have not been forced to pay any price for continued terrorism against Israel. Eiland would like to see that change.
Either cutting off Palestinian water and electricity or heavy strikes against launch sites would unleash an international chorus accusing Israel of practicing collective punishment. And that would be correct. But it is worth noting that the entire doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, which prevented nuclear war during the Cold War, was also predicated on collective punishment. Presumably few citizens of the Soviet Union would have had much input into the Kremlin's decision to launch a nuclear strike. But they would have been the victims of American nuclear retaliation.
The best deterrence against Syrian or Iranian missile attacks on Israeli cities is the fear of the leaders of these countries of an even more powerful Israeli response against their own cities. If those leaders came to believe that Israel would never strike their cities, but would rather strike only military targets, that would be a virtual death-knell for Israel. So at some level, Israel cannot afford to take the possibility of collective punishment completely off the table. And there is a certain logic to collective punishment in the form of cutting water and electricity to places from which terrorists strike. Such action would presumably make the missile launchers unpopular with the local population, and encourage locals to prevent their neighbors from setting up launching pads on their roofs.
In the meantime, the Israeli government has adopted a policy of targeting terrorist groups and the Hamas leadership, coupled with limited ground operations within northern Gaza. That policy has worked in the past to bring about a relative calm, at least for a period to time. But the problem is that a ceasefire only offers a temporary respite. And by providing the Palestinians an opportunity to go on arming, it may only pave the way for a more difficult day of reckoning in the future.
In the meantime, the choice for Israeli policymakers seems to be largely one between least bad alternatives.
This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman.