It was news in 2006 when Hezbollah was hitting Haifa with rockets from Lebanon: Israel’s third largest city was now suddenly in reach of the Iranian terror proxy. Today, Haifa is being struck by rockets once again. But this time they are not coming from the northern border, but rather from far to Israel’s south in Gaza. Indeed, the warning sirens have even been heard in Nahariya to the north of Haifa. Almost the entirety of Israel is within reach of rockets from the small Gaza enclave.
Prior to Israel’s 2005 evacuation from Gaza, when that move was being debated in the Knesset, several of Israel’s parliamentarians scoffed at the idea that retreat from Gaza would bring further rocket fire or greater insecurity. Rather, they insisted that this move was essential for bringing safety to the communities bordering Gaza. At the time Kadima MK Meir Shitrit scoffed “There is an argument according to which there will be a threat … a threat on the Negev communities, I have never before heard such a ridiculous argument.” Similarly, Meretz’s Ran Cohen declared “The disengagement is good for security. The right-wing people stood here and talked about kassams flying from here to there. I’m telling you … if we don’t get out of the Gaza strip in two or three years, maybe after one year, the range will reach Ashkelon!” How grateful most Israelis would be if Hamas rockets had only gotten as far as Ashkelon. As it is, more than seventy percent of the country is now under Hamas’s rocket barrage.
Yet, as much as disengagement from Gaza has been a security disaster for Israel, it is not at all clear what a feasible strategy for success might look like.
The prospect of permanently redeploying the IDF in the strip and sending Israel’s sons to police the backstreets of Gaza’s slums is virtually unthinkable. Equally, an attempt to overthrow Hamas and reinstate the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority there could also quickly unravel. Another alternative might be to permanently station Israel’s military along Gaza’s Philadelphi Corridor on the Egyptian border, so giving Israel greater ability to prevent the smuggling of weaponry into the strip. That, however, would mean that Israel would become solely responsible for Gaza’s borders, whereas at least as things currently stand the military blockade of Gaza is given added legitimacy by the fact that the Egyptians also help maintain it; not that one would know this from the popular discourse on the subject.
This question of legitimacy is no small matter for Israel in its handling of the threat from Gaza. A permanent Israeli presence in Gaza could easily become the source of much international condemnation. But that has to be contrasted with the existing scenario where, in addition to the necessity a constant military blockade of Gaza, there is a pattern of intensive conflicts breaking out every two or three years. These see a high casualty rate—albeit far lower than the figures for other similar conflicts—and that in turn causes a level of hysterical condemnation from parts of the media, the UN, and the streets of Europe, that greatly undermines Israel’s international standing.
It is with all this in mind that Israelis turn their gaze to low lying Samarian hills of the West Bank that overlook Israel’s densely populated central region, where the country’s international airport and the bulk of its energy infrastructure is situated. If a small-scale disengagement from Gaza can bring almost the entire country within range of Hamas rockets, then what might withdrawal from the West Bank bring? As Prime Minister Netanyahu noted on Friday, the West Bank could quickly become 20 Gazas. Even with the Iron Dome missile defense system, at present Israelis find themselves scurrying in and out of bomb shelters every few hours. How long can people realistically live like that? Besides, with every Iron Dome interception of a cheaply made kassam rocket costing tens of thousands of dollars, a war of attrition could quickly become completely unsustainable for the Israelis.
Preventing infiltration by militants attempting to breach Gaza’s border with Israel has proven a difficult and resource consuming task. The winding West Bank border is far longer and much closer to large population centers than the Gazan border is. And given that Iranian supplied anti-tank missiles have been fired at civilian traffic from Gaza, it is quite conceivable that similar attacks could emanate from a Palestinian controlled West Bank. After all, with the sheer volume of weaponry that has made its way beneath Gaza’s border with Egypt, it is highly likely that far more could cross undetected over the far lengthier Jordanian border with the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s words on Friday about not relinquishing control of territory west of the Jordan River will likely make sense to a growing number of Israelis. A little disengagement from Gaza has put almost the entire country within reach of Hamas rockets; what might a dramatically larger disengagement from the West Bank lead to?