Commentary Magazine


Topic: disengagement

The Price in Palestinian Lives of Israel’s Gaza Pullout

Last week, I noted that Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza has cost the lives of more Israeli soldiers than remaining in Gaza would have. But no less significant is the fact that Israel’s pullout has cost the lives of far more Palestinians than remaining in Gaza would have.

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Last week, I noted that Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza has cost the lives of more Israeli soldiers than remaining in Gaza would have. But no less significant is the fact that Israel’s pullout has cost the lives of far more Palestinians than remaining in Gaza would have.

Here, too, a comparison to the second intifada is instructive. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, 1,727 Palestinians were killed in Gaza between September 2000, when the intifada began, and the August 2005 pullout. Since then, the numbers have soared. Another 1,271 Palestinians were killed between the pullout and December 2008, when the first Israel-Hamas war in Gaza began; 1,391 were killed during that war, and 481 between then and the start of the current war. That’s 3,143 Palestinian fatalities in total, and Palestinians claim another 1,600 or so have been killed during this war. So even if you assume, which I do, that B’Tselem’s numbers are exaggerated (it tends to believe Palestinian reports far too uncritically), the trend is undeniable: Since the pullout, Israeli-Palestinian fighting has produced more than twice as many Palestinian fatalities as the peak years of the second intifada did.

Moreover, as in the case of Israeli fatalities, this increase represents a sharp contrast to the trend in the West Bank, which the Israel Defense Forces still control: There, Palestinian fatalities have fallen from 1,491 between September 2000 and August 2005 to 395 in the nine years since August 2005, meaning annual fatalities have fallen by more than 85 percent (they haven’t dropped to zero because neither has Palestinian terror; terror attacks still kill Israelis every year, but the level is dramatically lower than at the height of the intifada).

The question is why Palestinian fatalities in Gaza have risen so sharply. The anti-Israel crowd will doubtless cite this fact as “proof” that recent Israeli premiers are even more bloodthirsty than “the butcher of Beirut,” as they fondly dubbed Ariel Sharon, the prime minister during the second intifada. But anyone not convinced that Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu are simply monsters who like eating Palestinian children for breakfast will have to consider the obvious alternative: Palestinian casualties have soared because the IDF’s departure from Gaza allowed terrorist organizations to entrench their rockets, tunnels, and explosives among the civilian population in a way that simply wasn’t possible before.

In the current war, Palestinians have stored rockets in schools and launched them from hospitals and from amid civilian houses. They have built cross-border tunnels to attack Israel that pass under civilian houses and emerge straight into a mosque. They have booby-trapped civilian houses and even health clinics. In short, by embedding their war material among the civilian population, Hamas and other terrorist organizations have made it impossible for the IDF to target them without also hitting civilians.

This Hamas strategy increases Palestinian casualties in another way as well: by magnifying the impact of any Israeli strike. Precision bombs can sometimes take out a building without touching the ones next to it. But precision strikes don’t work when the building they hit is booby-trapped or serves as a rocket warehouse; in that case, secondary explosions will create a much broader swathe of destruction. And Israel has no way of knowing when a target has been booby-trapped; Hamas doesn’t provide it with maps.

Problems like this didn’t arise when the IDF still controlled Gaza, because it could take preventive action to keep Hamas from entrenching war material in civilian areas to begin with. And that’s precisely why counterterrorism operations in the IDF-controlled West Bank have produced vastly lower Palestinian casualties.

Hamas certainly isn’t going to abandon its “dead baby strategy” voluntarily; conducting operations from amid a civilian population so as to maximize civilian casualties has proven wildly successful in turning the world against Israel. The conclusion is thus inescapable: Should the IDF ever leave the West Bank, the pullout won’t just result in more dead Israelis. It will certainly result in more dead Palestinians as well.

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IDF Fatalities Destroy Last Remaining Justification for Gaza Pullout

Has anyone noticed that the last remaining justification for Israel’s unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip has just disappeared? Proponents’ claims that the pullout would bring peace, security, and international support have long since been disproven; what it actually brought was 16,500 rockets and mortars fired at Israel from Gaza–including 13,800 before the current war began–and unprecedented international vitriol every time Israel tried to fight back (see the current anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe or the infamous Goldstone Report). Yet disengagement supporters still had one trump card to play: “At least our soldiers aren’t dying in Gaza anymore.” And to many Israelis, that gain was worth the terrible price.

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Has anyone noticed that the last remaining justification for Israel’s unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip has just disappeared? Proponents’ claims that the pullout would bring peace, security, and international support have long since been disproven; what it actually brought was 16,500 rockets and mortars fired at Israel from Gaza–including 13,800 before the current war began–and unprecedented international vitriol every time Israel tried to fight back (see the current anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe or the infamous Goldstone Report). Yet disengagement supporters still had one trump card to play: “At least our soldiers aren’t dying in Gaza anymore.” And to many Israelis, that gain was worth the terrible price.

But now, Israeli soldiers are once again dying in Gaza, at a rate that wipes out all the gains of the previous few years. Here are the figures, compiled from B’Tselem statistics:

Between the start of the second intifada, in September 2000, and the pullout in August 2005, 87 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza. Over the next eight years, it’s not true that no soldiers died in Gaza, but military fatalities did drop significantly: Altogether, 33 soldiers were killed either in Gaza or in southern Israel by fire from Gaza.

Even that “achievement” is actually an indictment of the disengagement, because in the West Bank, which Israel didn’t quit, military fatalities fell far more sharply: from 136 between September 2000 and August 2005 to just 13 in the subsequent nine years. But since Operation Protective Edge began earlier this month, even this meager gain has disappeared: 53 soldiers have so far been killed in or by attacks from Gaza, and the number will likely continue climbing as the operation progresses. In other words, Gaza has now claimed 86 military fatalities from Israel since the pullout–almost identical to the 87 it claimed during the second intifada–even as military fatalities have fallen sharply in the West Bank.

In contrast, had the Israel Defense Forces remained in Gaza, military fatalities would almost certainly have registered a decline similar to that in the West Bank, because Hamas wouldn’t have been able do either of the two things that are now costing so many soldiers their lives: smuggle in vast quantities of sophisticated weaponry or build an extensive network of attack tunnels.

The bottom line, therefore, is that the last remaining “achievement” of the Gaza pullout has proved as chimerical as all its other vaunted achievements: The pullout hasn’t saved soldiers’ lives; it has almost certainly cost them.

To be clear, I never liked the argument that saving soldiers’ lives was worth the cost of incessant rocket fire on the south; soldiers are supposed to put their lives on the line to protect civilians, not the other way around. But I understand why it was so persuasive to many Israelis: Almost every Israeli has a father, husband, brother, or son in the army, while far fewer have relatives and friends in rocket-battered southern communities; thus many Israelis felt they personally benefited from the tradeoff, even if other Israelis were paying the price.

Now, however, even that illusion is gone: By quitting Gaza, not only has Israel gotten 16,500 rockets and mortars on its country, but it hasn’t saved the life of a single soldier. In fact, it has almost certainly lost more soldiers than it would have had it stayed.

Israel may have no choice but to reoccupy Gaza someday. But whether it does or not, one thing is crystal clear: It would be insane to repeat this experiment in the West Bank.

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For Israel, a Little Disengagement Can Go a Very Long Way

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.

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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?

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The Limits of Empathy

Despite having opposed Israel’s pullout from Gaza from the very beginning, I cheered when I read Jonathan’s post on why he supported it. I, too, think Israel’s overseas supporters–on both sides of the political spectrum–ought to accord more respect to Israelis’ democratic decisions than they sometimes do. But this isn’t only because, as he rightly said, Israelis are the ones who ultimately bear the consequences of those decisions. It’s because in making those decisions, Israelis often have knowledge that even the most supportive and best-informed non-Israelis lack.

By this, I don’t just mean knowledge of the facts, though that’s also an issue. During the “quiet” years following Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas in Gaza, for instance, people overseas were often shocked when I mentioned that rockets still fell regularly on southern Israel; that’s information even regular visitors to Israeli news sites could easily have missed. Yet it obviously affected Israelis’ views on territorial withdrawals.

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Despite having opposed Israel’s pullout from Gaza from the very beginning, I cheered when I read Jonathan’s post on why he supported it. I, too, think Israel’s overseas supporters–on both sides of the political spectrum–ought to accord more respect to Israelis’ democratic decisions than they sometimes do. But this isn’t only because, as he rightly said, Israelis are the ones who ultimately bear the consequences of those decisions. It’s because in making those decisions, Israelis often have knowledge that even the most supportive and best-informed non-Israelis lack.

By this, I don’t just mean knowledge of the facts, though that’s also an issue. During the “quiet” years following Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas in Gaza, for instance, people overseas were often shocked when I mentioned that rockets still fell regularly on southern Israel; that’s information even regular visitors to Israeli news sites could easily have missed. Yet it obviously affected Israelis’ views on territorial withdrawals.

Far more important, however, is the knowledge of what it actually means to live with such consequences. Many Westerners, because they have been raised on the value of empathy and genuinely try to practice it, truly believe they have succeeded; as an Israeli, I can’t count how many times I’ve been told, “I understand, I really do.” But the only honest answer is, “No, you don’t.”

If you’ve never lain awake night after night, unable to sleep, because you’re tensely awaiting the siren that tells you a rocket has been launched and you have only seconds to take shelter, you do not understand the physical, mental and emotional devastation of living under constant rocket fire–even if (thanks in part to such precautions) it mercifully causes few casualties. If you’ve never woken up, morning after morning, dreading the moment when you have to turn on the radio and hear how many people have been killed overnight, all while praying nobody you know will be on the list, you don’t how emotionally devastating a suicide bombing campaign can be even to those whose loved ones are mercifully spared. If you’ve never paid a shiva (condolence) call on a family that has been shattered by the loss of their bright, beautiful daughter in a terror attack, or of their soldier son in combat, you don’t know what it’s like to live constantly in the shadow of terror and war.

Reasonable people can obviously draw different conclusions from this knowledge: Author David Grossman still advocates territorial withdrawals even though his soldier son was killed in the war Hezbollah launched from Lebanon six years after Israel withdrew; columnist Rabbi Stewart Weiss opposes territorial withdrawals even though his soldier son was killed serving in the “occupied territories.” But whatever decision an Israeli reaches on these issues, he or she has made it with a bone-deep understanding of the price they will pay if the choice goes sour.

That’s an understanding non-Israelis lack, even when they’re perfectly aware of all the pros and cons on paper. And because of it, they often end up assigning different weight to the variables than Israelis do.

I don’t expect American Jews to agree with every Israeli choice. But I would like them to understand that the choices they disagree with may be driven by knowledge they lack. For without that understanding, bridging the gap between the two communities’ very different experiences will only keep getting harder.

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