I have been a ‘real’ Israeli again (one who lives here) for three days, so here are a few impressions of some things that have changed in 26 years and one which hasn’t.
One thing striking me over and over is the way things like government and private services have become so much more efficient. A visit to the Interior Ministry used to be an all-day affair, and sometimes they would give you a number and tell you to come back the next day. The other day, we walked in, waited a few minutes, and came out with the appropriate documents in a few more minutes. The clerk was helpful and friendly. Bezeq (the former telephone monopoly, world-famous then for wait times measured in months) agreed to come this Sunday to hook up our phone and Internet service. We already have working cellphones with new numbers and decent 3G service, for way less than we were paying in the US. Of course, this stands out even more compared with the precipitous decline in every kind of service in the US in the past few years.
But one thing is as bad or worse than ever: what Israelis call hamatzav — the (security) situation.
It is true that we haven’t come under rocket fire yet. Yesterday the most recent ceasefire was broken by a barrage of about 60 rockets, but they didn’t come as far north as Rehovot. For people in the towns and kibbutzim near Gaza, as well as the cities of Ashkelon and Beersheva, it was back to the shelters. In fact, the army told residents that had left some of the locations closer to Gaza who had temporarily left their homes that it was safe to return; but when what should have been predictable happened, they found themselves spending the day (and night) in shelters.
Some of them were interviewed on the TV news last night. One expressed what most of them were feeling: it is impossible to live like this. It has been going on for almost fourteen years! They understand that we can’t allow the fanatics of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to succeed in depopulating the area around Gaza, but come on — how can this be allowed to continue? How long do Jews in the Jewish state have to let racist Islamic fanatics try to murder them on an almost daily basis? I know it is a cliché, but what would any other country do?
Israel agreed to the latest ceasefire, supposed to last for 72 hours, and part of the agreement was that it would remove its forces from Gaza. Numerous sophisticated tunnels which had been dug under the border to allow terrorists to infiltrate Israel and attack soldiers and civilians have been destroyed, but it is generally thought that there are still tunnels that have not been found. It is also certain that a large number of rockets with various ranges, probably including the ones that can threaten Ben-Gurion Airport, remain.
Hamas is demanding that borders be opened and even that it have a seaport. Of course this would permit the importation of even more rockets and other weapons from Iran. At this point Hamas does not represent an existential threat to Israel, but — especially combined with the much larger and more sophisticated arsenal of Hizballah in Lebanon — there would be much more to worry about.
Meanwhile the debate in Israel continues about what to do. Because Hamas’ installations in Gaza are embedded in the civilian population, destroying them from the air would result in a large number of noncombatant deaths. Despite the fact that this is permissible according to the international law of war, it is repugnant to Israelis, and of course would result in international condemnation and pressure on Israel.
The alternative is a ground invasion to root out the Hamas infrastructure, which would be much more costly in casualties to Israel, since Hamas will boobytrap structures and fortifications, lay ambushes, place mines, etc. There would be fewer casualties among Gaza residents, but experience shows that exaggerated figures would be published which would be accepted by world media.
Diplomatic solutions like those of John Kerry simply do not exist, because there is no offer that can be made to Hamas that is better than what they are doing now. Their reason for being — read the charter — is to destroy Israel. They are not interested in a better life for the residents of Gaza.
For various reasons — nobody wants war, there is pressure from the US — the easy way out is to do as little as possible in order to maintain quiet. So far this has been the alternative chosen by the government. As long as Hamas is cut off from resupply, this is tolerable. But the ‘international community’, which is practically (if not in principle) supporting Hamas, is pushing harder and harder to ‘rebuild’ Gaza for ‘humanitarian’ purposes. Can we trust any international guarantees to prevent Hamas from rebuilding its military capabilities if borders are opened?
As I hinted above there is a real danger to the Jewish state from a combined assault from the north and south. Hizballah has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets, including accurate GPS guided ones, and almost certainly chemical weapons from Syria. Their fighters are well-trained (much better than Hamas) and they doubtless have built a system of tunnels under the border like Hamas, tunnels which have yet to be discovered.
Hamas is not going away by itself, Hizballah is not going away by itself, and behind them stands Iran, whose officials have said several times that Israel will be destroyed by local forces. I think we should take their threats seriously.
There is no perfect solution. There isn’t even a good one. There is only a choice between bad and worse.
The moral imperative is to survive, not to commit suicide. Hamas must be destroyed, whatever it takes.