Israel’s new strategy for dealing with the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets fired from Gaza has many troubling implications. For Palestinians, the fuel cuts mean the severe rationing of electricity, little or no heat during the cold of winter, and very limited mobility. Most alarmingly, the power shortage has threatened hospitals, with half the surgeries that were scheduled for Monday delayed at Gaza’s main hospital. Unfortunately, Palestinian civilians are unlikely to enjoy relief any time soon: Hamas’ leadership remains more committed to exploiting the crisis for propaganda purposes than simply ending the rocket attacks, and its first act in the wake of Israel’s fuel cut was to turn off the lights and hit the airwaves. We can thus expect to see more gas lines and bread lines in the days to come.
But Israelis should also be concerned. The decision to firmly seal Gaza, shut off its fuel supply, and limit the import of food suggests that Israel’s leadership has completely run out of ideas for how it should address Hamas’ continued aggression. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has thrown Israel’s counterterrorism playbook out the window, subjecting 1.5 million Gazans to an existence that is merely better than a “humanitarian crisis”—in Olmert’s own words—rather than narrowly focusing his strategy against the terrorists. Olmert’s lack of creativity has extended to his defense of this approach, which has implied vindictiveness. As he told Kadima officials on Monday, “As far as I am concerned, all of Gaza’s residents can walk.”
The sealing of Gaza has serious strategic consequences for Israeli policy. When acting against aggression, Israel typically faces a limited timeframe in which it can accomplish its goals before international pressure forces it to cease operations. It is for this reason that its greatest military successes—including the 1967 war and 2002 Operation Defensive Shield—have come with remarkable swiftness. Alternatively, its greatest failures—the 1973 war and 2006 Lebanon War—have come when conflict was halted before Israel could realize concrete strategic accomplishments. Particularly when fighting guerrilla warfare—which rarely lends itself to swift victories—Israeli leaders must therefore aim to establish conditions under which the IDF is afforded a maximal timeframe in which it can operate. This increases the likelihood of success.
Yet Olmert’s strategy in Gaza does the opposite. From the moment the fuel was cut, the clock has been ticking rapidly, with the international community deeply concerned that a serious humanitarian crisis looms. Yesterday, Israel retreated under pressure from its ill-conceived policy, delivering a new supply of diesel and cooking-gas a mere 24 hours after Olmert vowed to not do so. Meanwhile, rockets have continued to hit Israel at a steady pace.
If the cuts to Gaza’s energy supply do not stem the flow of rockets in the next few days, Olmert will probably be forced to retreat further. Thereafter, it may be a while before Israel is granted a free hand to deal with terrorism emanating from Gaza. In the worst-case scenario, a spiraling humanitarian situation might increase the pressure on Israel to reach a truce with Hamas. In short, insofar as the current strategy takes too great a toll on Palestinian civilians, it is unsustainable and self-defeating.