by Mort Zuckerman
Will the world applaud Israel’s just-announced decision to restrict its military forces by imposing even more stringent rules to avoid accidental civilian casualties? Don’t bet on it. The world remained silent as Israel endured hundreds of Palestinian suicide bombers, stabbings, drive-by shootings, and kidnappings. No censure or demands for a cease-fire impeded Hezbollah in the north and Hamas from the south as they rained thousands of missiles on almost 40 percent of the Israeli population.
On the contrary. The common response of a world professedly eager for peace was to criticize Israel’s measures of self-defense in setting up checkpoints and building a security fence along the West Bank. For six years, rockets from Gaza forced a major portion of Israel’s southern population to sleep in bomb shelters. When Israel entered Gaza, after repeatedly warning Hamas to desist, the outcry revealed that the capacity of Israel’s critics for hypocrisy is infinite. Every Israeli effort at self-defense is treated as aggression.
The multiple injustices of these years, compounded by the abysmal performance of the media in separating truth from propaganda, have produced a political transformation in Israel that the administration of President Obama has accelerated. Israelis have lost trust in the possibility of peaceful coexistence. They have observed that every effort to make peace breeds new aggression. They have realized, with understandable bitterness, that every defensive military operation that leaves the aggressor still in control of the attack base results only in the enemy being better prepared the next time.
It is not on the world’s agenda to dream of doing anything, even to make a murmur of protest, when the Hamas leadership in Gaza continues to smuggle in rockets capable of threatening Tel Aviv. Rockets with a range increasing to as much as 60 kilometers can be fired from a mobile launcher fitted on the back of a truck, or from a stationary launcher hidden in a building, as was Hezbollah’s in Lebanon.
How do the Israelis, without absolute control of the territory, prevent Hamas from turning into the Palestinian version of Hezbollah? Iran has supplied Hezbollah with more than 40,000 rockets, many of them long-range, such as Scud and M-600 missiles. The Israelis know that the gun or rocket that is hung on the wall in the first act will be fired in the third. They simply cannot tolerate living alongside an entity owning a terrorist infrastructure and hosting hostile military forces.
When the Israelis consider evacuating their military forces from the West Bank for the sake of a “two-state solution,” they fear leaving another base for terrorism. If Hamas takes over the West Bank from the Palestine Liberation Organization, as it did Gaza, then it and other al Qaeda-type groups may well have access to the overlooks of Jerusalem’s suburbs and Tel Aviv’s beaches. The Israelis cannot forget that the last time Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas received control of an area—namely Gaza in 2005—PLO forces ran away and left it to Hamas. Currently Israel’s military freedom of operation in the West Bank allows the Israel Defense Forces to reach every place where prohibited arms are manufactured or hidden. Thus they have prevented terrorists there from manufacturing and launching them at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, not to mention intercepting innumerable suicide bombers.
The nightmare scenario for Israel is that the West Bank becomes another failed Palestinian state. The West Bank is as near as 8 to 12 miles from the Mediterranean. Any sustained rocket assaults from the West Bank would seriously threaten Israel’s interior. What’s more, there is the critical advantage of the West Bank’s ridge line. From the higher terrain, even a Palestinian teenager with such simple weaponry as a Kassam rocket could hit Israel’s main airport and major cities, making the defense of Israel impossible.
I have stood on that ridge. It is hard to explain to Americans how close everything is. That is why any Middle East settlement would require a fully demilitarized Palestinian entity and a method for Israel to verify that. International forces cannot be relied on for demilitarization. They have historically been unsuccessful where one party is ready to ignore the fulfillment of its international responsibilities. This has been especially so in the Middle East where the peacekeepers have been killed, breaking the political will of states who contribute.
Perhaps it would be different if the Israelis had confidence that the current U.S. administration would make up in security for whatever Israel might cede in territory. They were given that assurance when they took the risk of leaving Gaza in 2005. Then there was a written commitment by President George W. Bush that the United States would not expect Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders and that any future settlement would reflect Israel’s right to secure, recognized, and defensible borders. (So too did President Obama pledge support for this same right, in these same words, in a public speech when he was campaigning for presidency.)
Yet the Obama administration disavowed this commitment—with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that Bush’s pledge “did not become part of the official position of the United States government.” This ignores the fact that recognized boundaries “and defensible borders” were enshrined in the U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 after the 1967 war and that Bush unequivocally provided a presidential guarantee to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in exchange for Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. “The United States,” Bush said, “reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combinations of threats.” The Bush letter was approved by both houses of Congress—and yet it has been repudiated by this administration.
The scene is even more menacing if we consider the regional scenario of a Palestinian state inspired by Iran and Islamic radicalism. Iran is getting close to obtaining nuclear abilities and already has ballistic missiles that can menace Israel as well as its Arab neighbors. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard serves as a strategic umbrella for radical groups that move across the Middle East, including Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank.
The Israeli experience in Lebanon is a case study of the dangers. After the 2006 war, Israel withdrew and 10,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops came into southern Lebanon, authorized by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. With what effect? Hezbollah has rearmed at a rapid pace, accumulating more than 40,000 rockets and missiles that, according to recent reports, have now moved down to the southern part of Lebanon without any Hezbollah operatives being arrested. U.N. forces have simply been ineffective, even when the Lebanese government wanted the U.N. to curb Hezbollah.
A sovereign Palestinian state that refuses to accept an international force is bad enough. Worse yet is that, in practice, organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas can render any international force ineffective. This is what occurred when European monitors were placed at Gaza’s Rafah crossing. The monitors fled their positions as soon as internal fighting between Hamas and Fatah heated up after the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections. The monitors themselves fell victim to local Palestinian kidnappings. When the Palestinian president says he will not accept Israeli forces but might accept an international presence, his statement might seem reasonable or negotiable. In truth, it has about as much value as the “peace in our time” document that Neville Chamberlain waved on his return to London after meeting Adolf Hitler. Bottom line: The only successful security forces that Israel can rely upon are its own. Israelis feel they have read the book in Gaza and don’t want to see the movie in the West Bank.
Paradoxically, the presence of U.N. forces creates an obstacle to Israel’s ability to defend itself, by itself. Look at what happened to the force that was dispatched to Lebanon in August 1982. The U.N. mission was made up of units from Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, but in October 1983 both the French paratrooper barracks and the U.S. Marine headquarters were attacked by Shiite suicide bombers, killing a few hundred French and American service members. Within a year, both forces withdrew from Lebanon, reflecting the reality that foreign forces will quickly leave the theater when attacked. The states that volunteer them soon lose political support for keeping them there.
Let’s not forget the Oslo Accord and its 1995 interim agreement. The PLO failed to honor the agreement. In fact, Yasser Arafat, Abbas’s predecessor as PLO leader, supplied competing security organizations with thousands of weapons that were prohibited in the agreements he had signed. Again contrary to the Oslo agreement, the PLO gave its national security apparatus all the trappings of an army, which it was not permitted to have. Then in 2000, in the second intifada, it launched a terrorist attack on Israeli civilians.
Israel must prepare for the possibility that even after agreements are signed, and a demilitarized Palestinian state is established, groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad would act in contravention and an international force would likely not take action. Iranian-backed rocket assaults against Israel would place its coastal plain in range and make Israel uninhabitable. And if U.N. forces were present on Palestinian territory, the Israeli army couldn’t open fire against the enemy without first verifying the location of the U.N. personnel. It would thus be even more difficult for Israel to act against terrorists.
There is an old saying: “Nobody ever washes a rental car.” Only Israel would have the will to defend itself. When you think about the failure of NATO forces in Afghanistan, you have to wonder about the efficacy of NATO troops in this theater.
Israel knows that a threat will evolve when hostile intentions join with aggressive capabilities. Given that it has been virtually impossible to alter hostile intentions, with the split between Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza—the latter allowing non-state actors to emerge—classic principles of deterrence and punishment are far less effective. There is no unified government to exert control over people, weapons, and terrorist groups.
Israel has prudently maintained its uncompromising policy of disarming the terrorist infrastructure within and along its borders. But Israel’s success in this relies on high-quality, precise military intelligence, along with full freedom of operation to enter Palestinian city centers and villages to locate and destroy bomb-producing factories. This is the only way that Israel can deal with the asymmetrical threat of terrorist groups able to attack Israel at will.
Until this same kind of security is assured, the two-state solution is not a solution at all, but a dramatic escalation of risk.