Thursday, July 17, 2014

Between a rock and a hard place

Much has been made of Israel's need to just "absorb" all the rocket strikes as though they were rain. The argument I hear over and over again is that the rockets do little damage, so what'st the big deal? Why is Israel all in a tizzy and embarking on military action over a few harmless rockets? It isn't as if they are really killing anyone, right?

Wrong. Israelis have been killed by these rockets. It doesn't matter that these rockets are not terribly accurate, that Israel has developed Iron Dome to shoot them down, and so further minimise their effectiveness, the mere existence of the rockets, the constant air raid sirens, millions of people's lives disrupted, nights spend sleeping in bomb shelters, all these make it incumbent on Israel to defend her residents safety, and the state's sovereignty.

Furthermore with each year that passes Hamas improves its rocket capability. From the primitive mortars it started out with, raining them down on the Israeli village of Netzarim in Gaza over a decade ago, back before Israel's pullout from the territory, to the first short range Kassam rockets Hamas attacked Sderot with, right up to the medium range Grads later used to attack Ashdod and Beer Sheva and the long range M-75 and M-302 rockets which have reached the greater Tel Aviv region, all the way up to the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. The longer Israel waits to dismantle Hamas' missile infrastructure the deadlier it becomes and the more Israeli cities and towns are threatened by rocket fire.

No state can allow its citizens to be subjected to such rocket terror, let alone allow its citizens to be terrorised this way for over a decade, with the range of the rockets increasing to threaten more and more of its population.

It is about more than rockets though. Hamas has used millions upon millions of pounds of financial aid, along with "humanitarian" supplies such as building materials and concrete, to create a vast underground network beneath Gaza. These tunnels facilitate Hamas rocket fire by providing extensive rocket storage and manufacturing facilities, as well as safe, secret passage between launch sites. They are also used for infiltration into Israel, such as in the raid that resulted in the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006, and in recent days several attempted assaults on Israeli civilians, Hamas gunmen tunneling below Israeli border villages and kibbutzim with tunnel exits right in the heart of these communities.

Allowed to go unchecked these well constructed tunnels present an existential threat to the Jewish state, allowing Hamas the potential to strike deep into Israeli territory, intent as ever on terrorising Israeli civilians.

By tolerating tunnels and rocket fire on our border areas Israel is de facto ceding that territory, with every Hamas push further into Israel and Israel's "absorption" of that rocket fire Israel is in essence ceding more and more sovereignty and emboldening Hamas that a military solution, a military victory on their part, is possible, if they wait long enough.

Excessive restraint and the steady erosion of Israeli deterrance do not bode well for a possible future peace settlement if Hamas believes that it can simply wage a prolonged war of attrition to wear down Israeli resolve.

Since the 2006 Lebanon War Israel has managed to maintain a mostly successful deterrence policy with regard to missiles fired from Lebanon into Israel. The Hizballah barrages that paralysed and terrified northern Israel have all but disappeared. Occasional rogue Palestinian groups do fire into Israel from Lebanon, but the Lebanese military know that it is not in their interest to allow such attacks on Israel, they fear an Israeli military response and so act themselves to prevent attacks on Israel from their territory.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the "spillover" from Syria, occasional stray shells or rockets that land in Israeli territory, fired by accident or sometimes possibly intentionally, and most recently claiming the life of 13 year-old Israeli Mohammed Karaka. Each time something fired from Syria has landed in Israel, and especially when the result was the killing of a young Israeli, the IDF have responded by returning fire in the direction the Syrian shots were fired from, sometimes causing casualties on the Syrian side, but most importantly, making the point that such "spillover" into Israel will not be tolerated, whether by the Syrian government forces or the rebels. So far despite several incidents this deterrance factor seems to be working, residents of northern Israel can live in peace. It would seem that both Assad's forces and the Al-Nustra Front Jihadists currently controlling the Syrian region adjacent to Israel have taken this message of deterrence to heart.

The message is especially vital as Israelis look around nervously and see the rise of these Jihadi movements and their control of ever increasingly large chunks of Iraq and Syria. Jordan and the Saudis have massed troops on their borders with Iraq. They clearly see the threat. Israel is aware of it too, especially aware that any sign of weakness in the face of Hamas provocations and attack will signal dangerous weakness on Israel's part that serves to embolden the attempts of such Jihadi groups to expand their operations into Israel, either from the Syrian border, via Jordan or elsewhere.

Hamas is another piece in that puzzle. To view the conflict between Israel and Hamas as simply a local issue is to remove it from the broader context of the new Middle East taking shape around us. Hamas is part of the same Jihadi ideology as the recently toppled Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a group which also considers itself the prime opposition to the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. Even more radical Al-Qaeda affiliated and Al-Qaeda inspired groups are active in the Egyptian controlled Sinai peninsula, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Red Sea Africa. Israel today is on the frontlines of this region wide surge in Islamist activity. As such Israel cannot afford to show weakness or hesitation.

It isn't just about the threat to Israel though. Our more stable, Western oriented neighbours like Jordan and Egypt are effectively allied with Israel against the pan-Middle Eastern Jihadi movement trying to establish a new Middle East order. There is little love lost between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, but all three countries realise that they are coming to be a last bulwark against Al-Qaida inspired forces in Syria and Iraq who make no secret of their desire to control all of the Levant and press onwards into North Africa.

A strong Israel capable of defending her own borders against such Islamist threats is an Israel worth allying with in line with the cliche my enemy's enemy is my friend. An Israel which can't or won't even defend her own citizens and territory from a Jihadi assault is not a state worth joining cause with and certainly not one to be relied upon in time of crisis. Israeli deterrance strengthens Israel's strategic cooperation with other states in the region and beyond. Who knows, maybe one day this might even help create a more peaceful future for the Middle East.

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