An often-overlooked aspect of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is the second stage in what officials expect to be a two-pronged response from the Islamic Republic: the unleashing of thousands of rockets and missiles from Hezbollah’s stronghold in south Lebanon. When Israeli officials speak openly about a looming conflict, it is often to prepare the public for any eventuality, especially unpleasant ones. So it is notable that former Mossad head Danny Yatom spoke frankly today about that second phase.
The Jerusalem Post reports that Yatom was trying to avoid predicting too much doom and gloom, but the reality is not a particularly sunny forecast:
While acknowledging that Iran has a few hundred missiles that can reach Israel, and that the price would be horrible if those missiles were equipped with either nuclear or chemical warheads, Yatom said the central concern are the tens of thousands of rockets in Hezbollah and Hamas storehouses in Lebanon and Gaza.
Those rockets, he said, can “cover all of Israel, and that is the main problem.”
There are, as Yatom suggests, very few places—if any at all—in Israel that are out of range of Israel’s enemies. Some new threats have emerged, such as the arsenal of rockets (which may or may not include Scuds from Syria) currently aimed at Israel from Hezbollahland, an area spitting distance from Israeli villages.
There are also perennial threats, such as the rockets coming from Gaza. And there are old threats re-emerging, as well. Once upon a time, the hot-and-cold standoff between Israel and Egypt along Israel’s southern border made the Negev a relatively dangerous place. Until the Sinai became a true buffer zone, in fact, terrorist infiltration was a common concern and cross-border shootings and skirmishes occurred outside of wartime, too–the so-called war of attrition, during which Egyptian air raids from the south and PLO incursions from the west were common, until Egypt began preparing in earnest for the Yom Kippur War.
In and around Israel, any period of perceived quiet is usually preceding a storm (or following one, but the nature of the cycle means it is probably both). And so it was with the Sinai. While Hamasniks in Gaza were lighting fuses and Hezbollah commandos in Lebanon were rattling sabers, terrorist networks quietly began filling the vacuum in the desert. And now Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, has a modest crisis on his hands. And a crisis on Israel’s border means a crisis for Israel. When the first wave of post-Mubarak terrorism in Israel’s south occurred, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer noted dryly that it “did not come as a surprise to Israel’s senior security officials. They had expected it would occur at some stage or another.”
Israeli leaders are often criticized in the media for having a “siege mentality,” but even a child can see that the threats are real–and in fact the child sees this best, because Israeli children are the preferred target of Hamas rockets as the children attempt to get to school alive each morning. Years ago, I talked to a longtime, fearless Middle East journalist and author who has put himself routinely in danger and has some great stories of survival for his memoirs. But he told me the one thing that would make him pick up his family and leave Israel is the prospect of rockets falling over his children’s heads. That is the reality Danny Yatom is describing for the entire country.
Of course, that threat exists independent of a theoretical attack on Iran. Hezbollah has never acquired a missile it didn’t plan to use, and the same goes for Hamas. This isn’t lost on Israelis; on my last visit there, almost everyone I spoke to in the north admitted they expect war from south Lebanon. The point of Yatom’s warning was not just to prepare the public but to offer his own warning as well. Israel, he said, will have to employ the lessons learned from the summer of 2006, and move to immediately stop the rockets:
To do this, he said, Israel would have to “act with great force against infrastructure in Lebanon and Gaza, and it is possible that the price that Lebanon and Gaza will pay will be horrible. We are liable to destroy, or likely to destroy, parts of Lebanon, and parts of Gaza, so that our citizens will not suffer and be killed.”
There will be predictable howls from the left and the media, but Israel has both a right and a moral imperative to defend itself. Yatom is trying to convince Israelis just how seriously their leaders take that responsibility.